Chris Christie — it’s a name that evokes a larger than life personality. A corruption busting U.S. attorney, he parlayed that into a run for governor in 2009. Since winning that, he has dominated the political scene in New Jersey. Facing the largest natural disaster in state history, he handled it in a way that put him in the national spotlight. A rising star in the Republican Party until it all came crashing down in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, with several of his aides convicted and sentenced. He wanted to be president. Donald Trump had other ideas.
Michael Aron met with Christie at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton on Wednesday. This is his exit interview, the last one that he will give as governor. Of the nine governors I’ve covered, he has been the most colorful, the most quotable and the most forceful. He got more done than most of them and as much as any of them. Love him or hate him, he made an impact and left his impression on the state.
Read the full transcript:
Aron: Governor, thank you for letting us come in for this interview. We appreciate it very much.
Christie: Thank you for coming, Michael.
Aron: Six days left. How do you feel?
Christie: I feel good. I really do. I feel like if you can leave this job after eight years with very few regrets, you feel pretty good at the end of it. I feel like we’ve done what we said we were going to try to do. We’ve accomplished an inordinate amount of things, and I’ve been myself for eight years. I think those are some of the challenges that you face. And I feel good. I feel good. You know, it’s going to be weird. It’s going to be different for me, not to be in the middle of the scrum every day, you know, I enjoy that. But I’m sure there’s going to be new challenges that I’ll find.
Aron: Do you think it’s going to be liberating, in a way, to be out of the public realm?
Christie: Well, in some ways, sure. I mean, you know, the scrutiny is intense for anybody and I think it’s been particularly intense for me. In part, as a Republican in a blue state, and in part, because of my personality and the way I engage, and I do engage. But I will also miss some of that, too, you know. I never felt tortured by this job, Michael. I never felt put upon. I always enjoyed it. And so, liberating to some extent. I think it’ll be more liberating economically, than it necessarily will be liberating personally.
Aron: You haven’t driven in eight years?
Christie: I mean, I’ve done a little bit of driving on the QT…
Aron: Do you remember how to drive?
Christie: I do. I mean, I remember how to park. That’s a bigger problem.
Aron: Particularly a big SUV…
Christie: That’s right. I haven’t parked in eight years.
Aron: In a recent poll, not too many New Jerseyans could name a single accomplishment of yours, so I thought I would list what I think are your top twelve.
Aron: Pension and benefit reform. Two percent property tax cap. Two percent police and fire salary arbitration cap. Transportation Trust Fund renewed for eight years. The leadership you demonstrated after Superstorm Sandy. Higher education restructuring. Higher education bond issue. No increases in the broad base taxes — income, sales and corporate business taxes. In fact, the sales tax you cut by a little bit. Camden revitalization. Atlantic City takeover. Bail reform. And leadership on opioid addiction. How does that list sound to you?
Christie: Pretty good. What I’d say to folks is that’s why, what you just said — both the preface and then the list — is why I don’t pay any attention to polls at this stage of my career. If most people couldn’t name one accomplishment, and those are significant, consequential accomplishments. You’ve been around for a long time. Name another governor that’s got that list of accomplishments, of broad-based, big, consequential things.
Aron: I can name two.
Christie: Byrne and Kean?
Aron: Byrne and Kean, yes.
Christie: Yeah. Right. Well, that’s a long time ago. I mean, Kean left office thirty years ago.
Christie: So that means for thirty years no other governor has done that. And I would challenge you on Kean. Byrne, yes. I think Byrne was clearly a governor of consequence. Some things that I maybe would not have agreed with, but recognize they’re consequential. The same way that Gov. Byrne recognized a lot of stuff that I did, he didn’t agree with, but were consequential. I think Gov. Kean had a consequential first term. I think he had a pretty inconsequential second term. But, we can both agree that in the thirty years since, no one’s come close to that record.
Aron: Whitman had two terms and she had some accomplishments, but I’ll grant you that. Let’s talk about the state economy, which you extol as vibrant right now — 334,000 new private sector jobs since you took office. The unemployment rate going from 9.9 percent when you took office to 5.1 percent today. And yet, the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University studies state fiscal situations and ranks New Jersey fiftieth out of fifty in fiscal health. We’re not as healthy, perhaps, as you make it sound?
Christie: No, it’s two different things, right? So, the private sector economy is doing extraordinarily well, really well now, and we’ve had seven straight years of private sector job growth. The fiscal health goes to two simple topics: pension and health benefits for public sector workers. If we could solve that piece, we’ve solved all the other problems. Two billion dollars less in discretionary spending than ten years ago. Ten thousand fewer state employees today than eight years ago. Thirteen percent revenues that are non-reoccurring in the budget that I inherited — 2.8 percent now. And so, by every other measure of fiscal health, we’re in good shape. But when you have the hole, and I detailed this in my State of the State address, I think directly, and a lot of people commented on how direct I was, about how each one of my predecessors, going back to Gov. Kean, have contributed to digging this hole. That’s what’s causing fifty out of fifty.
Aron: Phil Murphy in his recent campaign painted a gloomier picture of the state economy, needless to say.
Aron: And he kept saying that the middle class has been ravaged and hollowed out. What would you say to that?
Christie: What I’d say to him is that when he gets into office and he actually learns about the budget, what he’ll see is that the middle class pays very little in taxes to the state government. They pay property taxes, significantly, but to the state government they pay very little. We have the most progressive income tax in America. And the top one percent in this state pays 42 percent of the income tax. So, the fact is that he’s just wrong.
Aron: The middle class is doing OK?
Christie: The middle class is doing OK.
Aron: The working class is doing OK?
Christie: Yes, they’re doing OK. Let me tell you, go to any union hall in this state, Michael. Eight years ago, there were men and women sitting in there not working. The Laborers International Union — you go down to the local in Newark — there’s no one in the hall. They’re all working. I went to the Operating Engineers, just two nights ago — 825 — they’re all working. They don’t have anyone unemployed. Eight years ago, they had huge numbers unemployed. And those are working men and women. Working men and women who work with their hands everyday and build things all over New Jersey. And on the debt issue, I laid this out in the State of State as well, in the ten years before I became governor, debt was increasing 10 percent a year. In the eight years of the Christie administration, it’s increased less than 2 percent a year.
Aron: The 2 percent property tax cap and the arbitration cap have held property taxes down. Property taxes have been the number one issue in this state since I’ve been covering it.
Aron: Do you feel as though you’ve tamed the property tax beast?
Christie: No. I’ve slowed it, not tamed it. It’s a little more mellow, Michael, but it’s not tamed and it won’t be tamed until we do civil service reform, and we stop the crazy payouts on sick leave and a lot of the other things that contribute to this. You remember the tool kit, Michael, from 2010.
Aron: The property tax tool kit that you had thirty items in.
Christie: Right, and we got about four of them passed, OK? The big ones — the cap, the interest arb cap. We got some big ones passed, but never got civil service reform done, not letting municipalities and counties manage their entities like a business. So, you’re not going to do anything on reducing property taxes until you’ve finished those reforms and deal with pension and health benefits. Again, Michael, it continues to come back to that.
Aron: Why couldn’t you get a second round of pension reform? You proposed one, two or three years ago, when you did town halls and pushed hard for it. You couldn’t get a second round.
Christie: I think that the abuse that legislators took, and you saw Steve Sweeney get $10 million spent against him this year by the Teachers’ Union because of the positions he took on pension and health benefit reform. I don’t think anybody wanted to put, in the Legislature, wanted to put their head in the mouth of that lion again. And I think that’s simply it. The fact that we got the stuff that we got in 2011, as you know as a student of this, was extraordinary. And, in light of the protests, and the yelling, and the screaming, we got it done. And I just think there was not a political appetite for that again.
Aron: And you have said, in one of these exit interviews you’ve given over the past month, that not being able to cap the retirement checks of police chiefs and fire chiefs and other local officials who walk away with huge, unused sick and vacation time checks, that that’s your greatest unmet goal.
Christie: It wasn’t that. What I said was, they asked me about regrets that I had, and I wanted a zero payment on that. The Legislature offered me a $75,000 cap at one point and I turned it down.
Aron: State workers have a $15,000 cap.
Christie: Correct. Local and county workers have no cap. And they offered me a $75,000 cap and I turned it down.
Aron: In hind sight you should have accepted it.
Christie: I should have taken it. I should have taken it. You know, you’re in a negotiation, you think you might be able to be close to get them to zero. I think we were, but it was a mistake. I should have taken the $75,000 cap.
Aron: Let me ask you some questions about political style.
Aron: Your cabinet officers were not as prominent as cabinet officers were in other administrations. You preferred to speak, more or less, with one voice — your voice. Sometimes it fell from a press point of view, as if the cabinet was being muzzled. Is that part of political discipline to make sure the administration speaks with one voice? Is that part of making it a success, that cabinet officers are diminished?
Christie: They’re not diminished. In fact, they’re enhanced privately, and we speak with one voice publicly. And you’re absolutely right. I think one of the things that you’d recognize over the last eight years is this administration leaked less than any administration in my memory. And the reason we did was because we were all rowing in the same direction. And I made it clear to my cabinet officers that they had the ability to see me anytime they wanted, and tell me anything they wanted to tell me, and argue whatever point of view they wanted to argue. But then I’m the governor. I decide, and then they implement. And if what I’ve asked them to do is something that they’re fundamentally or principally opposed to, then they can leave. I just think that’s a disciplined way to run a government. I think you saw over the eight years that for the most part, this government ran in a really disciplined way, and that’s how you can produce the results that you just listed.
Aron: Another reason it didn’t leak is because you filled it with former assistant U.S. attorneys and they’re trained not to talk about what they’re working on.
Christie: We set an ethic, Michael. We set an ethic. And I think that it’s really important for effective government. You see what’s happening in the White House with all the palace intrigue stories because everybody’s leaking like crazy. You never had, I don’t remember any palace intrigue stories in the Christie administration. And it wasn’t that you guys weren’t digging for it…
Aron: …Until Bridgegate.
Christie: Well, I don’t know if we’d call that palace intrigue. I think that was fraternity and sorority stupidity. But, nonetheless, it wasn’t about leaking inside the administration. Even there, there was not any leaking. There was cooperation with people who were investigating, but no leaking.
Aron: We’ll get to that.
Christie: I’m sure we will.
Aron: One of your political allies marvels at the fact that, according to him, you’re always three steps ahead of whoever you’re dealing with. I want to ask you about two things that sort of fall under that category. One, you only had to be one step ahead. In your first year, after about a year of your governorship, your Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and you got into a public spat over the state’s loss of $400 million in race-to-the-top federal education funds. And at one point he said, you’re lying, the governor’s a liar, which was remarkable in itself that a cabinet officer would say his boss is a liar. The Legislature called him in for a hearing, so that we could hear publicly him declare you a liar. And while I was covering that hearing, we got notice that you were holding a press conference, an unscheduled press conference in half an hour. We went to that, you announced that you were killing the ARC Tunnel. It knocked Schundler calling you a liar completely off of the next day’s front page, and I always wondered, you were going to announce that you were withdrawing from the ARC Tunnel anyway, but you did it that morning to block Schundler for getting any attention.
Christie: Well, it was a two-fer, Michael. It was time to announce that. I needed to announce it. I had, I think, one of the most skilled communications chiefs that any governor in the state has ever seen. Maria Comella had lots of good ideas, and I usually followed her advice.
Aron: Another instance, much more recent, leading up to the state government shutdown this past year, this huge fight broke out about Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. You wanted to tap their surplus to help set up opioid treatment facilities. They were fighting it like mad. The legislature was roiled totally by it. You were attacking Horizon executives right and left declaring what they earned and saying they were overpaid. It was a circus. In the meantime, there was another bill up at the end of June that would dedicate all lottery revenues to the pension system. And, I have it on good authority that you deliberately ginned up the fight up over Horizon so that the bill that you really wanted would go through without much of a fuss. To what extent is that a fact?
Christie: It’s true. Listen, the same thing happened in higher ed restructure. So, if you’re trying to do something that’s been tried before and it’s failed, the only true way to make sure it will fail again is if you do it the same way people did it before. So, higher ed restructuring failed twice under Gov. Kean and under Gov. McGreevey, the Vagelos Commission under McGreevey. So, I said we’re going to merge Rutgers Camden and Rowan. And you know, as you recall, that got all the attention, craziness in South Jersey. People yelling and screaming. That’s when I got in the back and forth with the navy seal at the town hall meeting and all the rest of that. And, what it did was everybody’s attention was on that, which I could’ve cared less about merging Rutgers Camden and Rowan. It didn’t matter to me.
Aron: What did you want?
Christie: I wanted UMDNJ to be gone and to be a part of Rutgers and that was always the part that, you will recall, always tied up this higher ed restructuring.
Aron: Essex County politicians, where the university hospital is, were against that.
Christie: Right. They would block it. And so, with all the attention on Rutgers Camden and Rowan, no one was paying attention to what was going on up north. I continued that fight and ginned it up and acted like it was the most important thing in the world to me was merging Rutgers Camden and Rowan. At the end, I gave in on merging Rutgers Camden and Rowan in order to get 90 percent of what I wanted, in the very same way with Horizon and the lottery enterprise. The latter I can make the Horizon fight, the less people were going to pay attention to what I thought was the much more significant accomplishment which was to get the lottery dedicated to the pension to further stabilize the pension. And as you know, as you well put in your question, we got that done with almost no debate and almost no discussion. Imagine if that was the only thing that was being considered. That would have been the only debate and discussion. You know, Michael, I’m pretty good at this, and I think that what people will learn as the years go on, is that those accomplishments that you listed didn’t happen by accident. The governor is the strategist. The governor is the executor. The governor is the decider. And if you don’t have a plan, and if you don’t have a way to do it, and if you can’t adjust on the fly to working with folks and developing those strategies in this state, inertia will come in.
Aron: Let me ask you about another style point. Your tax on various entities and people, the NJEA, teachers, the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, the police and fire retirees who get those boat checks as you called them, various Democrats, the newspaper industry over legal advertising, Atlantic City officials, Horizon executives, Supreme Court justices. Someone said to me recently, for someone so smart, why would he antagonize so many people and alienate others who just don’t like that way of doing things?
Christie: Let’s go over the list. I think you said teachers’ union, teachers which I would object to. I don’t think I ever antagonized teachers, I went after the union.
Aron: You went after the union, but you said of teachers that they only work 10 months a year.
Christie: True. By the way is that true?
Aron: Yes, that’s true.
Christie: OK, thank you.
Aron: That they have fat pensions that are 10 times bigger than what they pay into the system.
Christie: And by the way that’s true.
Aron: And that the bad ones are protected by the seniority system.
Christie: So sorry for telling three truths to the people of New Jersey.
Aron: So you did attack teachers.
Christie: No, it’s not attacking teachers. That is laying out facts that impact property taxes and the quality of education in the state — two of the most important issues that people complain about all the time. If you’re going to complain about it, you say to me it’s my job to fix them, then let me fix them. And if you’re not going to let me fix them because you’re too squeamish, well then shut up and stop asking me to fix them. But, let’s get back to your point. Teachers’ union, police and fire boat checks, Horizon overpaid executives, what else you got on there?
Aron: Democrats, newspaper industries, Atlantic City, Supreme Court.
Christie: So, are any of those natural allies of conservative Republican governor? Any of them?
Aron: Were you a conservative Republican governor?
Christie: I think I’m right of center and this is a way left of center state and all those institutions are left of center. And the fact is I picked fights with people who were going to fight with me so why shouldn’t I pick the fight first? Listen, Michael, in this business you can either be a perpetrator or a victim.
Aron: I ran across a quote from Dwight Eisenhower, a good Republican…
Christie: He is a good Republican.
Aron: … that I thought was relevant to this discussion. “Now look I happen to know a little about leadership. I’ve had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other and I tell you this: You do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that but it’s usually called assault, not leadership.” What do you think about that?
Christie: Well I think it’s just too general, and the fact is that sometimes you have to hit people over the head to get their attention. In New Jersey, when I became governor, the state was in a what I would call a moribund political situation. I had a predecessor who was not a charismatic leader. For all Gov. Corzine’s good qualities, and there are a number of them, he was not a charismatic leader and people were use to the governorship just being kind of just another person in leadership. I needed to wake the state up. We had huge problems that we were refusing to deal with and I needed to wake them up. But by the way, to say that all I ever did was hit people over the head is just wrong and you know it. The fact is that you don’t get all those things done without also hugging people, and loving them, and charming them and cajoling them, sometimes in public, sometimes behind closed doors. I say this all the time, I got more than one club in the bag. I don’t only have a driver, I have a wedge, too, and I have a putter. And I used them all as governor, and that’s the only way you can accomplish all those things.
Aron: In one of these exit interviews Steve Adubato asked you what leadership lesson did you learn and you said you can’t hold grudges. Is that true?
Aron: You dropped these attacks, they came and went as strategy called for. They weren’t persistent grudges.
Christie: It’s part of the job. I mean, you know the fact is that you don’t hold grudges. You can’t hold grudges. You can’t afford to because the people that you’re fighting with today you may have to work with tomorrow, and that’s most particular about the Legislature. But, you can look at different interest groups that have been on with me and against me over time. Remember, the head of the building trades union in 2009 came out and said we’ve endorsed Gov. Corzine, but not only that, we’re going to kick Chris Christie’s ass from one end of the New Jersey turnpike to the other. And four years later he endorsed me.
Aron: The accomplishments are the things that you want to be remembered for. There are a few other things that you will be remembered for, Bridgegate. I was always a little bit shocked at how much attention we gave it.
Christie: You were.
Aron: Nobody died, nobody pocketed any money, but it was like World War III around here.
Christie: Of course. That’s because you guys did that. You guys did it, exclusively. It was the media, national and local.
Aron: Why do you think that happened?
Christie: Because I was the front runner for the president of the United States. That’s why the national media did it. I remember seeing Jon Stewart on the street in New York City two weeks after all the news broke in January of 2014. And he said governor I have to tell you the truth. He goes, I cannot believe all the attention that stupid thing is getting. He said, I didn’t know you were already president of the United States of New Jersey. So the national media focused on it because a week or two before the news broke, I was in a national poll, a large lead over Hillary Clinton. Local media did it because they were tired of me being so successful and this was their chance. I’m not saying everybody, but a large part of it was their chance to take their shots at a guy they don’t agree with philosophically but couldn’t touch politically for four years and now they had their shot and man, they took it. And you just contrast the kind of coverage that I got surrounding Bridgegate, which I had nothing to do with, no knowledge of, nothing, never charged, never accused of anything, verses Bob Menendez who was indited by a grand jury and tried for corruption. Try to find those stories in terms of the scope, size and number of them compared to Bridgegate.
Aron: It got covered, the Menendez trial. It wasn’t as big as Bridgegate.
Christie: But let me ask you something, why? He’s a sitting United States senator who was indited.
Aron: For the reason you said, you were on a path to the White House.
Christie: Well, you know, Michael, it seems to me that then you all have an obligation to tell the story straight.
Aron: I sat through an eight or nine week trial. I’ve sat through legislative hearings. The story was covered to death. We still don’t really know what happened. Who authorized it? Wildstein?
Christie: What do I believe?
Aron: Yes, what do you believe?
Aron: He authorized it.
Christie: Listen, his own testimony was that it was his idea. That was his own testimony. Bridget Kelly didn’t have the authority to authorize it. And Bill Baroni was David Wildstein’s boss. So whether Bill said it was OK or not, I don’t know. Bill has said he didn’t and that was his testimony. The only person who’s admitted that it was their idea, their plan, has been David Wildstein. And ironically he’s the one that the government cooperated. The mastermind.
Aron: Somebody compared closing the bridge to the cat killing the bird and bringing it home to mama and saying look what I did.
Christie: First of all, let’s talk about a couple things on that, because I’ve heard that same thing. First of all you use the phrase, and this is the inexactitude with which this has been covered, closing the bridge. The bridge was never closed. No lane of the bridge was ever closed. The lanes were realigned. Two more lanes were given to I-95, taken away from Fort Lee. One lane for Fort Lee. Yet, I tell you when I travel the country, because of that kind of coverage, people say I can’t believe that the George Washington Bridge was closed. Never once, not for a second, was the bridge closed.
Aron: Point taken.
Christie: So now, you’ll recall because you sat through the trial, that David Wildstein testified under cross-examination that he’s only had three one-on-one conversations with me in his life, and the first one was in 1977 when he was the statistician for the Livingston High School baseball team and I was the catcher. And that his last one was in 1995. So, if he was the cat in your analogy killing the bird to bring to me he would’ve had to pass the dead bird to four other people to get it to me. That’s how distant David Wildstein was from me. And so the idea that I had any relationship with David Wildstein at all is laughable. His own testimony, the last time he had a one-on-one conversation with me was 1995.
Aron: Well it may not have been fair but people wrote endlessly about the culture that you created that enabled this kind of retribution.
Christie: And I don’t understand what kind of culture you’re talking about. All those accomplishments that you talked about in the beginning of this interview, all bipartisan. If this was an administration that just went to whack its enemies and kill them, why would they ever do business with us? This administration was the most responsive administration to local government. You go talk to mayors around the state, they say they never had an administration that was as responsive to them as ours was. Republican or Democrat. And what we set up was a culture of service to people where when they needed help, the state government was there to help if we could. And so, do I have sharp elbows? You bet. But if you don’t have sharp elbows in this business in this state, you wind up being Jon Corzine.
Aron: Bridget Kelly, the day she was convicted or sentenced, said, “I will not be a scapegoat.” In your view, did she get what she deserved? Bill Baroni, too. Did they deserve this?
Christie: I don’t think either one of them belong in jail, no. Listen, I think what they did was stupid and I think they deserve to be fired. And I think they deserve to not get an opportunity to work in government again. But, I don’t think either one of them belong in jail. I think this wasn’t a crime. If I were U.S. attorney, I would never have indited these cases. It’s an embarrassment that they were even brought. And we’ll see what happens on an appeal, because I’m not confident that either one of those convictions will be upheld at appeal. And then, Michael, what happens? Let’s say Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni went on appeal and then you have David Wildstein who was the mastermind, the divisor, self-admitted mastermind and divisor of the whole thing, who never spends a day in jail. Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly wind up, if an appellate court rules that way, which I think they could, didn’t commit a crime and we had this state turned upside down for the better part of a year because of nothing other than a stupid stunt. And yet, the folks in the media so wanted this to be something, so wanted it to have me or Kevin O’Dowd or Charlie McKenna, one of the top people involved, and it never happened. And you know why?
Christie: Because we weren’t involved.
Aron: How did it affect the public’s perception of you? You’ve said in other interviews that the public thought, OK now this crosses a line. This guy really is a bully.
Christie: Well, you lose the benefit of a doubt. Listen, you know, it’s funny, last night we got back from the State of the State. My kids asked me if they could look at them talking on election night 2013, and we have a DVD of it and it’s of your coverage, the DVD that we have. And they looked at themselves that night, we put it on, but one of the things that we heard as we’re listening to the run up of their talk was you giving commentary that night from Convention Hall in Asbury Park. And you were talking about how does someone accumulate 61 percent of the vote as a Republican, and you said they had to have a credible loyalty from Republicans, huge numbers from independents and a good chunk of Democrats too. That’s how you get to 61 as a Republican. So, what happened was those people who were left leaning independents and Democrats, when this happened, they no longer gave me the benefit of a doubt. They retreated to normal battle stations, which is we oppose Republicans. After four years of me working to bring them together, which culminated in election night 2013 with a 22 point win. And that’s what happened. You lose the benefit of a doubt. In politics when you lose the benefit of a doubt, you lose all but your core supporters.
Aron: Last question about Bridgegate, you were talking to my colleague, David Cruz, about a month ago and he was asking about Donald Trump endorsing Roy Moore, who lost the Alabama Senate election that week and you said endorsements don’t really matter very much. And I thought Bridgegate, that was all about collecting endorsements.
Christie: It wasn’t. I don’t believe that
Aron: Is that a lesson you learned from Bridgegate, that endorsements don’t count for much?
Christie: I knew endorsements didn’t could a long time ago, long before Bridgegate. I don’t believe the premise of your question. I don’t believe Bridgegate was about endorsements. I don’t believe we know what Bridgegate was about. And I can tell you this, Michael, just think about this, and we’ve known each other for 18 or 19 years and I think you’ve been able, over time, to make your own assessment of me. I’m up by 30 points in the fall of 2013. I know there was no doubt in my mind or your mind, whatever game we had to play with you covering me and me answering your questions, we weren’t sitting in September of 2013 saying, “Geez, I wonder if Christie is going to get re-elected.” I am sure you concluded in your own mind that I was going to win and I knew I was going to win. I wouldn’t know the mayor of Fort Lee, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
Aron: The conventional wisdom was you were running up to score to impress the national audience at how many Democrats you could attract to a Republican candidacy.
Christie: Michael, you think you run up the score in Fort Lee?
Aron: If the mayor endorses you it might help.
Christie: Please, Stop. How many people are in Fort Lee? How many voters are there in Fort Lee? You run up the score in places like Union City. You run up the score in places like Jersey City. You run up the score in places like Camden County and Essex County, where the margins were so much different. We ran up the score in Middlesex County, for god’s sake we beat Barbara Buono in her own hometown.
Christie: Yes. We won Metuchen. Listen, I’m going to say again to you guys, present company excluded, you wanted it to be something. The media wanted it to be that, and when it turned out it wasn’t, now you had a bag of garbage you didn’t know what to do with and you would have to admit that you were wrong. You guys don’t do that.
Aron: Let me ask you about the beach photo, another thing you will be remembered for, for better or for worse.
Aron: Was it embarrassing?
Aron: You had a great line at the time, which was, it would have been news if I was sitting with a 25-year-old blonde, but I was sitting with my wife of 31 years, and yet it played into the narrative that you put yourself before others.
Christie: I put my family before anything. My son has asked me a month before, could he invite college friends from all over the country to spend the Fourth of July weekend with us at the beach. I told him yes. Friends made reservations from London, from San Francisco, from Texas all to come.
Aron: Other people’s kids could have invited their college friends as well.
Christie: They well could have, Michael, and they could have gone to any of the beaches, all of which were open in New Jersey. Every beach in New Jersey was open but one. And daily badges available at almost every one of them, except the governor can’t do that. The EPU will not permit the governor…
Aron: You’re right, all the other beaches were open except for Island Beach State Park because that was a state park.
Christie: One beach, every other beach was open. Two miles north of Island Beach State Park, and that’s why the photo was a typical Star-Ledger hit job. Because it’s a big empty beach. That beach looks that way when Island Beach State Park is open. So, the beach stuff I understand. Everybody has lots of fun with it, including the governor-elect. That’s fine. He’ll understand over a period of time.
Aron: He posed with that photo and had a big grin on his face. That must have rubbed you the wrong way.
Christie: What it did was it disappointed me in his judgement.
Aron: Yeah, I thought it was strange to see him dancing on your grave, as they say.
Christie: Well especially because he didn’t beat me. We never ran against each other.
Aron: Briefly, there’s a common refrain in the state that NJ Transit is a disaster and that public transportation during your watch has decayed. How do you respond?
Christie: Again, it is a North Jersey-centric editorial page view of life. My wife took NJ Transit for 25 years, including a number of the years that I was governor. She never liked it. I’ve never met a commuter who says, “I love NJ Transit. I love the train. I love being on the train. I love when I wait outside the tunnel coming into New York City. I love Penn Station, Newark and New York, it’s great.” In all the years Mary Pat, 25 years commuting into New York, she never came home and said, “What a delightful commute today. It was incredible.” Maybe I could call Gov. Florio and thank him so much for NJ Transit. The fact is can NJ Transit be improved? Of course it can, and we’re going to have to make a fundamental decision about whether we want to pay salaries at NJ Transit as high or higher than the MTA because we’re getting robbed all the time by the MTA. But that’s a product of collective bargaining and other negotiations that we’re going to have to make a decision on if they think that’s what’s going to “solve the problem.” I’m not going to sit here and say it can’t be better, Michael, of course it can be better. But a disaster and a national disaster and all that other stuff, this is hyperbole that goes on during a campaign. And it’s hyperbole by editorial pages, that if they don’t have something to complain about they don’t have a reason to exist.
Aron: Let me ask you about running for president and our current president. Other governors have been projected into the national picture early in their careers, actually Tom Kean late in his career. But Jim Florio at the beginning before he raised taxes, Christie Whitman at the beginning when she was a Republican darling, people were saying these people are headed to the White House. None of them did. You did, Bill Bradley from New Jersey did. The public kind of resented that here in New Jersey.
Christie: Of course
Aron: I don’t remember the public in Arkansas resenting Bill Clinton running for president. I don’t remember the public in Texas resenting it when George W. Bush ran. Why did the public resist your running?
Christie: I think part of it is that people in New Jersey, again I think national politics is different than state politics. They’re willing to elect Republicans at the statewide level. We haven’t sent a Republican our electoral vote since 1988, so it’s been 30 years now. So I think when you become a national Republican, again you lose those Democrats who support you, who are unlikely to vote for a Republican for president. And you start to lose those independents as well, left-leaning independents for certain, and that’s a risk you take when you decide to run for president in terms of the effect it will have on your standing in New Jersey. But you remember the 2013 race, Michael, and I was very clear in 2013 that I would not rule out running for president. That’s the test, right? If they were so opposed to it and I wouldn’t rule it out they wouldn’t have voted for me. And then also there’s this sensation among some people that, well we just gave you this job, why are you looking for another one, even though they knew today it was coming. I couldn’t run for a third term as governor. I was going to have to do something else. You know, I was a little mystified by some of the reaction, but some of the reaction I completely understood. Again, the last piece of it is the media started counting every day you’re out of state, as if when you’re out of state you can’t work.
Aron: 261 days in 2015 is what I read in the Ledger.
Christie: That might be right, but they also count every day that I went into New York, too. The point is you guys gin it up, you do. So that’s people’s instinct or gut feeling and then they’re reading you guys in the newspapers counting up everyday as if we live in the age of the Pony Express, that when you’re out of state you can’t possibly be working. I negotiated the takeover of Atlantic City from New Hampshire. You know why? Because I had a phone. So this idea, and I’ve read this stuff, this absenteeism in the second term, look at how many of those things we achieved in the second term, by the way. And secondly, I was working. I was doing both, and you can do both. You don’t have to be sitting in Trenton to accomplish something.
Aron: I was struck by the fact that you put out more and more detailed white papers than any Republican candidate as far as I know on Social Security and raising the age by one month per year, and Medicare and immigration, and you finished sixth in the New Hampshire primary. From what I’ve read that was kind of a crushing experience.
Christie: Losing stinks. But it wasn’t crushing. Within four or five days I recovered. But losing stinks, Michael. I’ve lost and I’ve won, winning’s better. Definitely.
Aron: And you’ve said that what happened to your campaign was that Donald Trump took over the lane you were planning to run in. Tell us about that.
Christie: Well, the campaign slogan, right? Telling it like it is. You know, the idea of being the blunt, plain spoken guy who’s going to deliver the truth that America needed to hear. You know, Donald Trump occupied that space in a way that he didn’t block the lane, he owned the lane. There was no place to move. And as long as he was going to be in the race, I wasn’t going to win.
Aron: It’s been reported recently that earlier, when you were riding high, before Bridgegate, he wanted to be your vice president choice.
Christie: That’s the first I ever heard of that.
Aron: Was that in the book “Fire and Fury”?
Christie: Yes. It’s the first I ever heard of that. We never had any conversation like that.
Aron: It could have been true though.
Christie: I have no idea.
Aron: What do you think of his presidency? So many New Jerseyans are worried that he’s erratic and impulsive and it certainly has been a circus, or appearing chaotic.
Christie: Well there’s certainly been that palace intrigue that I think has been diminished to some extent under Gen. Kelly as the chief of staff. I think he’s brought more order and discipline to it. I think a lot of the people who are doing the leaking in that White House have been dispensed with and I think that’s helped. And I think he’s had some real substantive accomplishments. I think if you talk to business people, the deregulation accomplishments have been significant and I think are helping the economy. The tax plan I think is a significant accomplishment and I think obviously the Supreme Court justice, Justice Gorsuch, and 12 new circuit court judges around the country have all been accomplishments. Now, he is completely different than anything we’ve ever experienced as a president. His style is completely disorienting to anyone like me or you who have studied the presidency over the course of our lives as an advocation. So it can be disruptive, not only to the culture in Washington D.C., but to people’s concept of what the presidency is and should be. But this is what the American people voted for. I mean, I don’t think they should have thought that Donald Trump was going to go to Washington D.C. and all of a sudden become someone different at the age of 71. That is who he is. I’ve been his friend for 15 years, that’s him.
Aron: If Gen. Kelly gets tired of trying to impose discipline on him, would you take your political skills to Washington and be his chief of staff?
Christie: I can’t image that’s going to happen.
Aron: You can’t imagine a chief of staff leaving? They leave all the time.
Christie: No, I can’t imagine me being offered that job.
Christie: I just think that our relationship is different than that. Now it’s possible, I guess he could. But I don’t see it and you know, if I don’t see something I find it hard to be able to do it. So I don’t see it. I’ve said this all along, Michael, that I had no hankering to go to Washington D.C. as anything other than the president of the United States but that I will always listen.
Aron: You’ve said that you’re not going to weigh in from the sidelines. “I’m not going to be the guy waiting for the phone to ring so I can give some quote to some reporter so I can keep my name in the news.” That sounds like a shot at Gov. Kean or maybe Gov. Florio, or I don’t know.
Christie: It’s not a shot at anybody. It’s me advising all of you about what I’m going to be when I leave. It’s not a shot at anybody else. It’s me saying that’s not what I choose to do and I don’t think it helps the next governor for you to do that, and I want the next governor to succeed. I know a lot. I’ve learned a lot. I understand this job, I think very, very well. If I’ve got something to say that I think could be helpful, and if I think that advise would be welcome, I’ll offer it to the governor.
Aron: You told Governor-elect Murphy that you wanted to be a resource for him, but that it was up to him to pick up the phone.
Christie: Right. So if I got something I want to offer, there’s ways to get messages to governors. My predecessors got messages to me all the time. Hey, you know, all of a sudden a lobbyist or a friend of a former governor comes up to you and says, hey you know it might be a good idea if you give Gov. Florio a call. And you pick up the phone and call, Hey, how are you and all of a sudden you get some advice. And sometimes, with some of them, I just pick up the phone and call. I use to call McGreevey a lot and he gave me a lot of good advice over time.
Aron: I get the sense that relations between you and Murphy are distant, if not testy. You had an exchange of letters about the fiscal health of the state. He asked you not to spend any more money. You said I’m leaving this state a hell of a lot better than I found it when Jon Corzine left me a mess. I think whether it was the incident we refered to earlier when he posed with the beach photo of you, I think you may have had some disagreement on the Gateway Tunnel project with him.
Christie: Not really. These transitions are always awkward, right? Just by their nature. This dance plays out over 73 days, in public, with one guy still having authority and the other guy getting ready to take authority so by its very nature it’s going to be a little bit awkward. Who leads? The guy with the power leads until the other guy has the power, so that always makes the guy who is almost there, but not quite there, because I’ve been there. I didn’t like when Gov. Corzine was doing certain things when I was governor-elect eight years ago. But what I realized over time was he’s the governor until he’s not. And so he signed bills, as you recall, at 3 or 4 in the morning, the morning of my inaugural to legalize medical marijuana, to unionize the deputy attorney general, big things. OK, you got to live with it, so I’ve offered to be a resource to Governor-elect Murphy. We’ve met twice in the 73 days and I’ll continue to be a resource for him if he wants me to be. And if he doesn’t, that’s fine too, but I think what I’ve tried to emphasize to him is he didn’t run against me and I have no hard feelings.
Aron: You told Steve Adubato in an interview six weeks ago that you think you’d be bored doing one thing. You need two things…
Christie: …or more.
Aron: Or more. So a million dollar salary at a law firm or investment house and a gig on cable television. Do we have it right?
Christie: Are you my agent? It sounds pretty good. Listen, first of all I don’t know.
Aron: You don’t know yet.
Christie: I don’t know yet. I haven’t made any commitments to anyone yet, so I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. And I’m going to take a little bit of time. I’ve got great advice from a few people, from Jeb Bush, from Karl Rove, who all said to me don’t worry about not having a job on Jan. 17. I know that’s the instinct, that’s our instinct, we jumped at things early that maybe we shouldn’t have and it precluded us from taking advantage of other opportunities that were offered only a little but later, so take your time. So I’m going to take their advice and take my time a little bit and consider the various offers that come in. There have been a lot of expressions of interest and so I’ve just got to decide when interests become offers, and offers become negotiations and what I want to do. For 16 years I’ve been a public servant in the two, I think, best jobs, best public jobs in the state of New Jersey — U.S. attorney and governor. And you understand and appreciate history better than anybody else who I’ve spoken to in the press corps, no one’s ever done that. There’s only been one person who’s either had both jobs — Garrett Wall in the 1830s — but no one’s ever done it back to back. I’ve had a 16 year run at the two best jobs that the public can give you in New Jersey, so of course I’ll be a little bit bored. Nothing could compare to those two jobs, but I think a combination of making some more money and having a variety of different things that I do, I hope will keep me busy, and happy and active.
Aron: Well it’s been a pleasure to cover you. I have to tell you I go to a Christie press conference and I write down 20 sound bites and then I have to pick the best four for the news that night. You’ve been fun to cover and I thank you for this interview very much.
Christie: I thank you. I want to tell you, I remember a conversation you and I had in 2000 in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention at a party. And you were asking me, so you use to be a freeholder, now you’re in private practice, are you doing anything, are you going to get back in politics, what are you going to do? I remember telling you I had no idea, but think about it, Michael. In 2000 I’m sitting there as a private practice lawyer going to the convention as a lawyer for George W. Bush and hoping he’s going to become president. Think about what’s happened in the 18 years since we had that conversation. If I looked at you that night and said, Michael here’s what’s going to happen: George W. Bush is going to win, he’s going to make me U.S. attorney. I’m going to be one of the most successful attorneys in the state’s history and become incredibly politically popular from it. I’m going to beat a Democratic incumbent who outspends me three to one and I’m going to get re-elected with 61 percent of the vote, be considered twice for vice president and run for president myself, that’s what I’m going to do. You would have said to me, let me take you to the bar and get you three more drinks, OK, because you need it.
Aron: I’ve thought about that in recent days. You were like a hanger-on back then. You were a guy I saw at Republican fundraisers.
Christie: Yeah, I wrote checks.
Aron: You’ve come a long way.
Christie: Not bad, baby, right? And here we are, we’re both still standing 18 years later and I really believe that I’ve had an incredible run. And that’s why when people come to you now because you’re at the end of it, how’s everything, are you OK. Am I OK? Would you take my last 16 years, is what I say to most people. Would you take being U.S. attorney and being governor and being considered for vice president?
Aron: Not me.
Christie: Not you, but anybody in my business, right, would they take it? I bet you they would.
Aron: I bet you they would, too.
Christie: And I have, so thank you my friend.
Aron: Thank you so much.