Republican candidate Chris Christie: ‘Trump wants to be Putin in America’

I arrive a quarter of an hour early at the Tick Tock Diner to discover that Chris Christie is already there. “You can find him at the back,” says a waitress. It is hard to think of a more atmospheric setting to meet the former governor of New Jersey, who is running for the second time to be the Republican presidential nominee.

Something of a legend since it opened in 1948, the neon-signed, silver-panelled roadside joint is hard to miss amid the drab strip malls on this busy highway several miles north of Newark. A few years ago, Tick Tock’s then manager was jailed for arranging a failed hit job on his uncle, a Greek-American who co-owns the eatery. This is the Bada Bing of diners. On this stifling summer afternoon, it is teeming with customers.

Christie’s generous frame is instantly visible against a back window, where he is seated at a small vinyl table cluttered with bottles of ketchup and mustard.

“They were complaining that I haven’t visited for a while,” says Christie, whose home is about 30 miles east of here. We are meeting just two weeks after Christie launched his campaign, which is explicitly based on the case that Donald Trump must be taken down directly. This stands out in an increasingly crowded Republican field where most of the candidates, including Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, are tiptoeing around the subject of Trump. A few days earlier, Trump had been indicted for concealing highly classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Christie, a former public prosecutor, was alone in the field in saying the charge sheet was “devastating”.

As a result, Trump is targeting Christie. Earlier this month he released a doctored video that showed Christie speaking at a town hall event while holding aloft a plate heavily laden with fries and burgers. Christie responded by calling Trump a “baby”.

That fake plate looked like just the sort of thing we might order today. “I’m going to go for a Mick Jagger,” Christie tells the waiter. This is a Taylor ham (a local form of processed pork) and cheese roll with two fried eggs and a side of disco fries — the latter a New Jersey speciality drowned in gravy and melted mozzarella. It was named after the Rolling Stones star who liked the order when he ate here a few years ago.

“A Jagger might be a little much for you,” says Christie, when I ask for his advice. “I’ll go for the same,” I tell the waiter, who looks disapproving.

Is that a bad choice, I ask. “You know, I just figured you maybe wanted to try something a little different,” says the waiter in the broadest New Jersey accent, with a hint of reproach. Since the diner’s motto is “eat heavy”, I stick to my guns. Whaddya gonna do? I tell Christie that Tick Tock makes a fun contrast to the upscale venues in which most Lunches with the FT take place. “There’s no branzino on the menu here, for sure,” says Christie.

I ask Christie if he is girded for the coming onslaught from Trump, assuming he clears the low threshold — 1 per cent in three national polls and 40,000 separate donors — to appear on the Republican debate stage in August. Christie is already running at 9 per cent in New Hampshire, which hosts the first primary.

“I’ve known Trump for 22 years, so none of it would surprise me,” he says. “Most of his stuff is pretty juvenile. As long as you’re prepared for those childish attacks, it’s fine. If that stuff bothers you, you’re probably not up to being president of the United States.”

We are interrupted by a lady who wants Christie to pose for a picture with her daughter. That is followed by another well-wisher, who tells Christie that he loved his gubernatorial slogan: “I’m going to do it my way”. (Wasn’t that Frank Sinatra?) A third comes up and says something inaudible. Christie replies: “If you think I’m better looking in real life, then I want to keep you around.” He apologises for the interruptions. “I paid these people,” he jokes.

While he was US attorney for New Jersey, Christie secured 130 political convictions or guilty pleas — not a single case lost. “Look,” he says, “there’s a case that needs to be prosecuted against Trump and his record, and I think the same thing as to Joe Biden.” I observe that he and Biden have the same alma mater, the University of Delaware, where Christie did his undergraduate degree — the only four years that he has not lived in New Jersey.

Though Biden is 20 years Christie’s senior, they got to know each other four decades ago. “I’ve known Biden longer than I’ve known Trump,” says Christie. “He would come to football games. It’s a very small state, Delaware. So everyone who is prominent, you wind up seeing them. In his younger years, he was a very natural, gregarious retail politician and I think he’s a very nice person. I never had any interactions with Joe Biden that would make me feel any differently about him.” He makes sure to add: “But age has definitely changed him. It is an infirmity.”

Our crowded plates of Jaggers have landed. We each set to the task before us — Christie’s as it came, mine I spray-paint with ketchup. He is drinking iced water. I have a heavily iced glass of diet cola.

I confess to Christie that I’m looking forward to seeing him debate Trump. Watching Christie in 2016 eviscerate Marco Rubio, one of the campaign’s also-rans, was a highlight. Trump has said he will not debate this time. Christie thinks that is a bluff. “Knowing Trump as I do, I think he would have a hard time resisting, and it would be politically very risky for him, because people who are generally supportive of Trump like him in part because he’s a tough guy, a fighter — that’s the image. So I don’t think there’s a scenario in which he doesn’t debate. In the end he needs it.”

Since your case is that Trump has disqualified himself from being president, will you take the loyalty pledge to support whoever the nominee will be, I ask. Christie laughs: “I told them, ‘I’ll take the pledge every bit as seriously as Trump did in 2016,’ when we all signed a pledge and we all reaffirmed it on the stage — except for him.”

I suggest that each of them would go straight for the other’s jugular. Christie shrugs. “Last week he sent out some video mocking me for my weight,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me about me, it bothers me about him. If that’s what you’ve got to say, then fine. He’s some Adonis himself. Nevertheless, if one of your children had sent out a TikTok about a classmate that did that, and you were a parent, you’d punish them. You’d send them to their room, not to the White House.”

Tick Tock Diner
281 Allwood Rd at Route 3 West, Clifton, New Jersey 07012

The Mick Jagger (Taylor ham, cheese, two fried eggs on a roll and disco fries) x2 $29.90
Diet cola $3.95
Coffee $3.25
Total inc tax and service $54.70 

I say to Christie that a lot of people think his candidacy is about revenge. In 2016, he dropped out of his campaign and endorsed Trump with the expectation that he would at least be Trump’s attorney-general, and probably his running mate. He was offered neither, and was also fired as the head of Trump’s transition team. The rumour was that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, blocked Christie’s path as payback for the fact that Christie had jailed Kushner’s father Charles Kushner, a New Jersey real estate investor, for a tawdry episode involving sex and tax evasion.

“First off, it’s not true that I wasn’t offered a number of different jobs by Trump,” says Christie. “He offered me secretary of labour and secretary of homeland security twice. He offered me to be White House chief of staff in 2018. Jared himself called me to encourage me to do it. I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to work for Trump because he’s impossible to work for. I don’t have a vendetta on that.”

Would he have accepted the vice-presidency? “It was down to me or Mike Pence for vice-president and Trump picked Pence. He told me exactly on the phone why he did. He said, ‘Mike looks more like a vice-president — he’s out of central casting.’ That’s how Trump thinks. We look the way we look. I have a good relationship with Pence. People who haven’t been through it don’t understand. You never expect to be given one of these jobs. And I never thought I had a vice-presidential personality. It would be kind of gutsy to pick me. They know I’ll be outspoken and not be a wallflower.”

I say that Christie may have dodged a bullet on that one. “Certainly there are a lot of people who say, ‘You’re a lot better off not having been in that job now.’ I certainly would have conducted myself differently than Mike did.”

To my disquiet, I notice I have conquered a lot more of my Jagger than Christie, who has abandoned his halfway. “Neither of us will need to eat again today,” he says.

Christie’s real hunger is evidently directed at Trump, who he says cannot get over the fact that he lost “fair and square” to Biden in 2020. But what does that say about the rest of the field?

“A lot of people were saying I don’t know if you can win or not, but you’re the only one who can take on Trump directly. If you do what the other folks in this race are doing, which is essentially to barely even say his name, nothing critical, how do you expect people to move from him to you? You have to go out and make the case. I think what other people are doing is bound for failure. Now, I don’t know whether what I’m doing is bound for success but we’re going to find out.” I point out that most Republicans I know in Washington DC share Christie’s dark view of Trump but very few — with Utah senator Mitt Romney being a notable exception — are prepared to say so in public.

“The majority of Republicans know two things,” says Christie. “One that Trump has proved himself too self-consumed to be an effective president, and two that he has been a failure politically. We keep losing. What I’m saying to them [fellow Republicans] is ‘stop whispering’. To me they’re literally whispering, even when it’s just the two of us talking. My point to all of them is, ‘It’s OK, he doesn’t have an army of his own, he’s not somebody to be afraid of.’”

Do you think Trump would be different as president a second time round, I interrupt. “Oh, he’d be much worse,” says Christie. “When he first got in, he was scared. He would bluster a lot, he didn’t know what government was like and didn’t know how to manoeuvre it. He would be a lot more of a problem as president this time. He’s about increasing his own power and lashing out at those people and institutions that he’s felt wronged by.”

Our waiter asks if we want anything else. Christie asks for more water. I request a strong coffee. “It’s good coffee but not like Starbucks-strong, you know?” says the waiter. Whatever you can do, I say.

I remember that Christie — who voted for Trump in 2020 but abandoned him the night he said the election was stolen — claims he caught Covid-19 from the then president. “He gave me Covid. He did,” says Christie. “He gave it to five of the six people in the room. I was in the ICU for seven days. He called me, when he was in Walter Reed [when he was also sick with Covid], to see how I was doing, but why he really called was to check I wasn’t going to tell the press he gave it to me. I said to him, ‘I don’t know that you gave it to me,’ because at that point I didn’t know. Then two years later, [former chief of staff] Mark Meadows’ book came out that Trump had tested positive that morning when he had started the last sessions of debate prep, and I check with the other folks who were in the room, and he didn’t tell any of them either. Later on, when we went back on the campaign trail, he told reporters that I gave him Covid.”

That must still rankle, I say. “I think that incident shows Trump’s character as starkly as any I could name. If you think about it: you have at the time an untreatable, incurable virus and you expose your campaign manager, your speechwriter, your communications director and your spokesperson and me to it. You knowingly got them sick.”

Christie has a campaign to prosecute and I have a train to catch. It strikes me that he might well be on a kamikaze mission. If he brings Trump down, he may not be the beneficiary. If he fails to bring Trump down, there would be revenge. I mention Liz Cheney, the former Republican lawmaker, who voted for Trump’s impeachment and was ejected from Congress in a landslide Republican primary against her. Was it all worth the risk? “The worst thing to happen to me is I lose,” Christie says. “I’ve done that before and the sun came up the next day. The thing that would keep me up at night is that I let [Trump’s return] happen without trying to stop it.”

Does he think Trump means it when he says he would end the Ukraine war within 24 hours? “He’d give Ukraine to the Russians. He wouldn’t care less,” says Christie. “Trump is someone who believes: fill the moat, pull up the drawbridge.” Is that because Putin has some kind of a hold over him? “No, he just admires strongmen,” Christie replies. “I think we see a pretty consistent pattern of him wishing he was a dictator, wishing he could be Putin in America. That’s what’s dark to me about it. That’s what he really wants. He wants to be a dictator.”

As I am settling the bill, another fan approaches. “I’m right behind you,” says the late middle-aged man. “We need somebody tough in the White House.” That must be good for your ego, I say. “I’m grabbing the flag and running up the hill,” says Christie, as we are shaking hands. “You’re more likely to get shot that way but that’s OK.”

Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor

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