Chris Christie; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)

Chris Christie says Trump needs to compromise: "Every negotiation can't be a test of manhood"

Chris Christie talks to Salon about nearly being Trump's vice president — and which Democrat he thinks can beat him


Matthew Rozsa
February 2, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)

It feels like at the end of Chris Christie's long premiere week on his book tour he's spent his time primarily evoking one question: Would Donald Trump be a better president if he had a different vice president?

An outspoken Trump supporter, and sometimes trusted adviser, Christie's new book "Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics," is a straightforward look into the mind of the man preoccupied with the memory that he was almost at the right hand of power, and that, if fate had turned against Trump, he would have achieved ultimate power himself.

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It was Christie's bad luck that Trump's son-in-law is Jared Kushner, whose father was prosecuted by Christie when the latter was U. S. attorney. Along with campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Kushner intervened to push Trump in the direction of a different Republican governor, soft-spoken Bible Belter Mike Pence.

That wasn't the only time that Christie was nearly one of the people shaping Trump world, but it is the most intriguing one. The vice president is the one person that Trump can't fire. Unless the commander-in-chief breaks the law, is incapacitated or dies, the vice president gets to remain in office through the remainder of the president's term. A second-term president will be stuck with that person until the bitter end; a first-term president may be able to dump their unwanted number two, but the last time that came close to happening was 40 years ago (when Gerald Ford swapped Nelson Rockefeller for Bob Dole in the 1976 election). This endows the vice president with considerable real power through the duration of the president's term, in addition to the even greater potential power implicit in the fact of being literally one heartbeat away from ultimate power.

How would Christie have been different than Pence? You can read his answers below, both in terms of the vice presidency and other positions he nearly held for Trump. My sense is that, assuming the Bridgegate scandal didn't sink Trump's candidacy (and Pence has his own sketchy past), a Trump-Christie ticket could have won. In terms of policy, Christie probably would have played the same role as Pence: Keeping the president on good terms with mainstream conservatives and doing his best to not let anyone think that he's the power behind the throne.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I would like to start by telling you a bit of a personal story. My father was a lifelong Democrat and began his conversion to Republicanism as a result of your governorship. The way he put it to me is that, and this is a quote, “He may have been the only educator in New Jersey, and certainly the only superintendent of schools in New Jersey, who felt that you were an excellent governor.” This actually is a personal story for me in the sense that, in an indirect way, you helped me learn to be more open-minded to political views that differ from my own.

I would like to take that lesson and extended it a little bit. America is right now driven by hyper-partisanship. I was wondering what you as somebody who got a lot done in New Jersey because you were able to work with Democrats, what message would you have for both parties in terms of dealing with hyper-partisanship?

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That it doesn’t work. And that elections have consequences, and that people are sending a message with their vote.

This past fall, when the American people established the Democratic majority in the House, they were sending a message. That message was that they wanted the two parties to work together and to make sure that they listened to each other, and consider each other's ideas and proposals. As you noted, I worked for eight years, every day for eight years, with a Democratic legislature. And not a slim majority, a substantial majority in both Houses.

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What it taught me was that I had to always have the other person walk away, from any negotiation, feeling as if they got something of what they wanted. Every negotiation can't be a test of manhood. Every negotiation can't be a beat down. Because if it is, in politics, those folks lay in the weeds and wait for you, and then you're not going to be able to get things done.

What I say to all the folks in Congress now and the White House is, you've got to figure out a way to sit down with each other and listen to each other. Really listen to each other and have a mindset of how to get to yes, to get to a deal. I did that for eight years in New Jersey. I think it served New Jersey really well. It's the same thing now. Our country needs that type of approach.

How do you balance that with what you described as the "in-your-face" style of politics? Because some might say that there is a contradiction between those two approaches. How do you strike that balance?

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Well, the "in-your-face" style of politics has to be used to try to engage in negotiation. Listen, folks are not necessarily always going to come to the table purely because they're acting in good faith. Sometimes you need to push them to the table. Sometimes you need to move public opinion to push people to the table. And that style of politics, one, is authentic and candid with people so they know exactly what your priorities are and where you stand. But also, it's really important because sometimes you need to motivate people to get them to the table, but you use that style to motivate negotiation, not capitulation. That's what I always did was, to try to move people so that they would feel like, "okay, wow, we really do need to sit down and try to resolve this." That's the way they use that type of political style, in order to bring consensus in a divided government.

Do you feel that Donald Trump has been using that style for that way or do you think that he has been less effective?

The proof is in the shutdown, you know, he was less effective. Now he’s got three weeks to figure out how to devise an approach that's more effective because people rightfully believe that when government is closed down, government has failed. So you try to do everything you can to avoid that, while still being able to achieve your objectives through other leverage you can get for yourself.

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Now, I'd like to segue from this to the fact that Donald Trump nearly picked you instead of Mike Pence to be his vice presidential running mate and, ergo, his vice president. If a future historian were to look back at this period and ask himself or herself, how would things be different if Chris Christie had been Trump's vice president instead of Mike Pence, what do you think the answer to that question would be?

Immediately historians would go through the easy analysis, which is that Mike and I are very different personalities. Mike is a reserved, quiet, Midwesterner. I'm a brash and loud Northeasterner, and so my advice to the president might not be in some respect substantively different than the advice Mike gives to the president, because we are both Republicans and believe generally in the orthodoxy of our party. Certainly, the way the advice is delivered would be different and much sharper if I were the vice president just because of the nature of my personality and you don't know until you actually go through it how the president, would react to that whether that would be positive or negative. But it would certainly be different.

One thing is he couldn't fire you. He can fire anyone else in his cabinet, any other advisor. He can't just fire his vice president.

Very true, Matthew, very true.

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Do you think that might've changed your approach because you would be in the position where you could tell him things that he doesn't want to hear and he can't just get rid of you?

That's the obligation of the vice presidents to do, for that very reason. That you need to be completely candid with your president because, unfortunately, many times there's no one else who can be. The vice president really does have a special obligation to do that. Certainly, if I were vice president, that's the way I would conduct myself.

I'm thinking about Gerald Ford's vice presidency and I read a biography of him which discussed how because there were so many scandals surrounding Richard Nixon, Ford was concerned that if he was too critical of Nixon (either in private or in person, it would look like he was bucking for the throne), so to speak.

Right, yes.

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I guess this is a two-part question. Do you think Pence has done a good job of providing criticism where it needs to be without seeming like he's angling for Trump's job, but at the same time has he also been able to say what needs to be said even while he avoids seeming like he's going too far?

Listen, the vice president has a subtle quiet personality. It doesn't mean that he's not aggressive. He is in my experience quite aggressive in pushing for the things that he believes in. It's hard for me to tell from the outside because I'm not privy to their own personal conversations, but I can tell you publicly he has done the job of vice president in a way that it's been loyal to the president and good for the country. It's impossible for me to gauge whether or not he's filling some of those other roles as vice president because the nature of the relationship itself is so private.

Fair enough. Now, I'd like to ask how you would've handled the Justice Department differently if you'd been Trump's choice for attorney general instead of Jeff Sessions. Specifically, I'm thinking about the Mueller investigation, drug policy, criminal justice reform and issues like that.

Well, I don't think there would have been a Mueller investigation if I was attorney general because I wouldn't have recused myself and I would have overseen it.

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That's first, the most stark difference in the Justice Department. Secondly, I was a Justice Department veteran of relatively recent vintage. You know, Jeff was back in the early 1980’s. I’d been George W Bush's U.S. attorney in New Jersey from 2002 to 2009. I was very familiar with the modern Justice Department, it's structure, a lot of the people there that are permanent, who you bring in new people to replace. There were a lot of folks on that team who weren’t treated in the way they should have been.

All right and that brings me to the transition process, and how you went through a very detailed process, and then that was abruptly stopped and replaced with a different type of process. What do you think would have been different in terms of the Trump administration's policies and the implementation of those policies had you been able to complete what you started?

First off, personnel implement policy. I can tell you that the personnel that we had lined up and vetted for the president's consideration, in my view, in most instances was significantly better than what he ultimately considered.

There were plenty of people to consider so that there wouldn't be nearly as empty desks as there were in the beginning. We had drafted all kinds of draft executive orders for the things the president talked about during the campaign. Instead, that was all thrown out and they are whipping up their own executive orders, which as you know turned out to be deficient, defective in court.

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Many of the organizational process-like activities of the White House are really important, and you need good, competent, experienced people to do that. The difference would have been we would have had those people, and we had white papers drawn up for every policy, the president talks about on the road with a roadmap for how to do it. We had a 1-day plan, we had a 100-day plan and we had a 200-day plan, and we had each week of the transition planned out for the president emphasizing different themes of the week and announcing cabinet members related to those themes, at those events. All of that work just led to a much greater calm among the people about, someone's in charge and everything's going to be okay. That's one of your jobs as president is to just give people that sense that you're there, you’re on the watch, you're vigilant. That's one of the jobs that you can't accomplish if you don't have a good staff around you.

That makes a great deal of sense. I want to return to the subject to have "in-your-face" politics for a moment. You talk about how really it's more of a style than it is an ideology. In theory, a Democrat could harness that same style and be effective and achieve what Trump achieved on the national level and what you achieved in New Jersey. Are there any Democrats who you think have mastered that style? One name that comes to mind is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Right, although not constitutionally qualified to run for president [Ocasio-Cortez won’t be old enough in 2020; she’d need to be 35 and she’ll only be 31]. She’s not going to be a candidate. I do think that on the Democratic side Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has the capacity to do that given her prosecutorial background and the nature of people who were in that business. She’s one of the people who obviously should be considered for that role, if she decides to pursue it.

Joe Biden is like that too. Joe, when he's angry and really involved with something, really emotionally involved, he gets himself all worked up, and that's helpful in getting to a place where you're doing "in-your-face" politics.

In terms of the current developments in the Trump-Mueller investigation, you recently said that the indictment against Roger Stone was damning. You described how you laughed when the Trump administration told you early on in its presidency that this was just going to blow over. Regardless of how it would have been handled differently if you'd been in a position of power, where do you think this is heading? I guess the real question is, should Donald Trump be worried that this poses an existential threat to his presidency?

The great thing about Bob Mueller's investigation is that he follows an old phrase that I used to use and I certainly stole it from somebody, which was as US attorney, the greatest thing about my job was only I knew what I knew. Greatest thing about Bob Mueller's job right now is only he knows what he knows, and he didn't give me any indication when I spoke to him that that's going to change, right? We really think that we need an opportunity in this country to do things a little bit differently.

Okay. Do you think that's healthy for democracy, that the President of the United States can face this existential crisis to his administration, and the whole country is watching with bated breath, and no one really knows except for one person what's going on?

I think it is healthy because people have to have faith in the justice system.

If we don't have an operational, what's perceived as a fair justice system, we lose a large part of our democracy. To me, the idea of Bob Mueller keeping these things quiet until he's got charges to bring or not is essential because people's reputations should not be ruined based upon an allegation or just one thread of evidence in an investigation. That's why you hire professionals like Bob Mueller, to be able to decide when the case is ready, if it's ready, if conduct is criminal, if so, can it be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

All those things are things that are within Mueller’s bandwidth, his capacity as a former prosecutor himself, as a former FBI director, and so I don't know where it's going to head and when it's going to end, but that's great that I don't. Because he shouldn't be leaking, he should be doing this in quiet, and then ultimately present to the Congress and to the attorney general his report on what he thinks of the charges of Russian collusion.

You're talking about the importance of the rule of law, and I agree with that. On the converse, do you think that Donald Trump should be criticized for how he's been attacking and trying to discredit this investigation? Because that does undermine the idea that no one is above the law.

One of the things that I've said to the president right from the beginning is that there was no way for him to make this investigation shorter, but there were lots of ways for him to make it longer. By continuing to speak out publicly about it, criticize it, tweet about it, they just make it longer. He’s giving people more things to run down, more comments to explore and more connections to try to draw, and I think it's not a positive for him. It’s not a positive for the country.

My question specifically though was about whether it undermines the rule of law. I agree that this is not good for Trump politically, but the concern is does this send the message that it's okay for the president to try to undermine a legitimate law enforcement officer as he pursues his duties, even if those duties might threaten the president himself legally?

It only undermines the rule of law if prosecutors and investigators respond to it. If in fact the Justice Department through Bob Mueller and the FBI are unfazed by him and just continue to do their job, then people can continue to have faith in the justice system and understand that politicians, at times, are going to say things that are in their own personal interest and not the national interest.

What matters for the sanctity of our justice system is that people who are running it, the attorney general of the United States, deputy attorney general, the FBI director, that those people absolutely not be affected by any type of political statements or back and forth that are engaged in by our folks in public office in the country.

My final question for you, on a more humorous note, have you seen “Blinded by the Light” yet?

I have not.

I feel like that movie was made for you.

You think? I’m going to have to see it now. Now, you've piqued my interest.

It's about a teenager whose life is transformed by listening to Bruce Springsteen.

It could be an autobiography, for goodness sake!

Yes, I was born in New Jersey, but I will confess, and you may lose all respect for me, I also like Billy Joel.

I know. You know what? I love Billy Joel and I'm really excited that Sirius [radio] has a Billy Joel channel again.

Now you're in trouble. You're a Jersey boy. You just said you like Billy Joel.

I do. I'm sorry. I plead guilty. I plead guilty to liking Billy Joel. I love Bruce and I love Bon Jovi also, but you can't say anything bad about Billy Joel. For our generation, he is one of the absolute defining musicians of the second half of the 20th century, no doubt.

I completely agree. I was born in 1985 and I listened to Billy Joel more than I listen to most contemporary artists.

laughing

All. All right, now Matt this interview is over! Because you now have officially made me feel old. I graduated from college in 1984. I was in law school in 1985. Now, you've made me feel as old as I truly am. That's it. I'm out of here.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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