A Conversation With Governor Chris Christie

Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Courtesy: Kaveh Sardari
Chris Christie

Governor, State of New Jersey

Jerry Seib

Washington Bureau Chief, Wall Street Journal

Governor Chris Christie joins the Wall Street Journal's Jerry Seib to discuss U.S. foreign policy and national security. Christie outlines a range of threats to U.S. national security around the world. He expands on his decision to oppose the settlement of Syrian refugees in the United States amid concerns that the existing U.S. government vetting procedures are inadequate. Christie argues that legislative moves by Congress and the White House to restrict the activities of the U.S. National Security Agency were a mistake. He additionally emphasizes the need to adequately equip police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States.

HAASS: Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Richard Haass and I’d like to welcome all of you to the Council on Foreign Relations.

For those of you who may not know us, we are an independent, nonpartisan membership organization. We’re also a think tank and we’re also a publisher. And we are dedicated to being a resource for our nearly 5,000 members, for government officials, for business executives, for journalists, educators, and students, civil and religious leaders, and others to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing this and other countries.

Consistent with that mission, we’re making ourselves a resource for presidential candidates and their staffs as well as for the American people in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. I have written to the Democratic and Republican candidates offering briefings from our experts here as well as the opportunity for them to come to the Council and speak and take questions from our members. So far we have hosted Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida; Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia; and mostly recently Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.

Today we are pleased and honored to host the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Governor Christie was elected governor of New Jersey in 2009 and before that served as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 through 2008. And today’s conversation will be conducted by Jerry Seib, the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. He has held that job since 2002. And he is the author of the weekly column in the Wall Street Journal, “Capital Journal.”

The scenario is, first we’ll hear prepared remarks from Governor Christie, after which he will take some questions from Mr. Seib, after which he will take questions from members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

So with that, let me just welcome the governor to the podium. Governor Christie. (Applause.)

CHRISTIE: Richard, thank you. And thank you, all of you, for being here today. I appreciate it very much—appreciate the forum and appreciate the input from a number of the members of the Council that I was fortunate enough to receive both as my time as governor and in this campaign thus far.

The United States faces problems today all around the world. We could catalogue them. And they’re worse now than they’ve been almost everywhere since 2008. I think our biggest problem, America’s largest problem, we face a fundamental and a crippling lack of leadership. The American people feel it. And their anger, while I believe comes from many different causes, the root of their anger is the crippling sense they feel of a lack of leadership here in Washington, D.C.

It reminds me very much of the late 1970s, right here in 2015. If you look back then, Americans were angry and unhappy as well—failure in Vietnam, a weak economy, hostages in Iran, and a president who told us at the time that we had to settle for what we had and that to aspire to something greater was unrealistic. We were, I think at that time, a depressed and a fearful nation, fearful that things would not get better not only around the world but here at home as well.

And I think we need today what we got back then. We had a president who finally put American interests firmly first—firmly first—in a dangerous world, no further apologies for American history or for our goals around the world; a president who fought for the American people first, for their protection and their interests first, not for the U.N. crowd, not for the New York Times editorial page, but for the admiration and respect of the American people.

Those very same people, those crowds he was not playing to, did what those crowds normally do when they’re not played to. They ridiculed him. They ridiculed him as a cowboy. They blatantly said that he would start a nuclear war. They said he would leave the world, if he became president, less safe, less stable, or for some of them a world that wouldn’t even be here because of nuclear annihilation.

Of course, what happened because of his leadership was the longest sustained period of economic growth in our recent history, and peace and stability in the world, and the end of the Cold War. That’s what strong, principled leadership can do. That’s what it did under Ronald Reagan and that’s what it can do again now.

The fact is I had a political science professor at the University of Delaware who gave me two great lessons about politics, and two phrases that he gave me. I’ll talk about the first one. He talked about how essential listening was to leadership. He used to tell me all the time that great leaders listen much more than they speak. And I said to him, why do you think that makes the most effective leaders? And he said, because without listening, he said, you won’t have any followers. He said, remember something, Chris: A leader without followers is just a guy out for a walk.

And it is true today as well that we have a president who I believe no longer listens. He listens to a very small, insular group of people around him. And I’ve said this publicly before and I’ll say it again, that when I look back on this presidency I think it will be marked by one phrase more than anything else: often wrong but never in doubt. That’s a dangerous thing to have in a president of the United States.

Reagan won over the American people by listening, by listening to what their concerns were, what their interests were, what their fears were, and what their aspirations were. And he protected American interests first and foremost, and unapologetically, to anyone else around the world or here at home.

This most recently has come up with the Syrian refugee issue. Now, let me be clear about this. Any policy, if it’s meant to be successful in the United States, must have the broad support of the American people. And if that policy is not seen as being in the American interest, it is unlikely to have the broad support of the American people. The president’s huge blunder, in my view, is going overseas and criticizing folks here at home who have raised genuine concerns about the safety and security of America under this policy.

For me I’ll be quite clear: When the FBI director stands up and says that he cannot assure the American people that Syrian refugees can be effectively vetted, that ends the conversation for the moment. We cannot allow ourselves, at a time of great peril, to put ourselves voluntarily at even greater risk just because there are some folks who believe that it will make our country look better here around the world.

I have a large Muslim American population in my state. I think it’s the second-largest Muslim American population of any state in the nation behind Michigan. And what I’ll tell you is that Muslim Americans are not nearly that sensitive, not nearly as sensitive as some of the people in opinion, places here in Washington or in the White House, believe they are. They’re Muslim Americans and they understand that the safety and security of their family is at risk just the way the safety and security of Catholics are at risk, Protestants are at risk, Buddhists are at risk when the American homeland is not safe and not secure. This is common sense.

I know the FBI director. I worked with him as U.S. attorney in New Jersey when he was U.S. attorney in Manhattan. That’s what passes for foreign policy when you’re U.S. attorney dealing with the Southern District of New York. (Laughter.) I knew him as my boss, as the deputy attorney general and I now know him as the FBI director. He’s one of the fairest, most competent, capable, and honest people I’ve ever known in public service. And when he stands up and says that he cannot assure the American people, the president should be a leader that listens, and listens to the professionals he’s placed around him. When the FBI director says it’s capable to vet folks, then we can revisit a policy that the American people could support. But instead what the president decides to do, what he decides to do is to try to belittle those who have a differing opinion. It’s not good enough just to disagree. You’re smaller. You’re lesser.

That’s not what a real leader does. A real leader attempts to persuade. A real leader attempts to cajole. A real leader attempts to bring people who have differing opinions in to find common ground. A real leader does not stand on foreign soil and belittle the leaders of states all across the country that he pretends to lead.

I don’t care any less about the widows and orphans of the Syrian war than the president does—not one bit less. But my focus is different than his is. My focus is on the widows and orphans in the United States. My focus is on the widows and orphans of September 11th. See, they live with me every day. They live around me every day in my state. It’s 14 years later for everyone in this country, but for me it is a daily occurrence to look into the eyes of the people who lost their husbands and wives, their fathers and mothers, their sisters and brothers, their sons and daughters, on September 11th.

Their pain is no less today than it was 14 years ago. Their loss is no less today than it was 14 years ago. And the goal and the intent of the American president has to be, first and foremost, to prevent another generation of those widows and orphans on American soil. That must be your top priority and your first priority as president of the United States.

And so the president, I believe, has lost his focus in an attempt to justify a failed policy, maybe an attempt to curry favor with those he’s hoping to curry favor with around the world. But he’s lost focus, and that’s why he’s lost support. And that’s why the American people don’t support this policy, not only because it doesn’t make common sense, but because the president has lost focus on what his first priority should be.

We can keep Syrians safer in Syria as well. And the president has been unwilling to keep his word that he gave over four years ago in this regard. We should have a no-fly zone in Syria. We should try to set up safe zones in Syria to keep Syrians safe inside Syria.

Our leaders can’t assure our safety, and they want us to follow them into the abyss. It doesn’t make sense to the American people. There are other options to follow. The president is unwilling to follow them. It does not mean that those of us who have a differing opinion need to sit down and keep quiet. I think it more important that we stand up and be heard. And as much as that bothers the president, he’s going to continue to have to hear us, even if he won’t listen.

And on the topic of not listening, let’s get to ISIS. Despite everything we’ve seen in the last 12 or 13 days, the president and his administration continues to minimize the threat of ISIS. The president called them a group of killers who are good at social media. The secretary of state just yesterday said they’re not 10 feet tall. This is eerily reminiscent of the president’s characterization of them as the JV not quite long ago.

I would be fascinated to see the president go to Paris and speak to the families who lost their loved ones 12, 13 days ago and tell them that ISIS is just a group of killers who are good at social media. It’d be fascinating to see the secretary of state go to those Parisian families and tell them that ISIS is not 10 feet tall.

This is just a transparent attempt to justify a failed policy. The president should just admit he underestimated these folks. He underestimated the nature of the threat, the severity of the threat, and did not come up with a strategy to be able to confront the greater threat—often wrong, never in doubt.

You can see through his comments, not just on Syria but on ISIS, that this is a continuing theme with this administration in its foreign policy; continue to deny reality. It reminds me, you know, of the old country song, right? You going to believe me or your lying eyes? There’s only so many times you can say that to the American people and have them believe it. There’s only so many times you can say that as president of the United States and not continue to lose credibility, and as a result support.

Listen, Mr. President. Listen to the American people and their common sense. The threat is not minimal, and the actions and the words that try to characterize it as minimal are not only naïve, but they are gravely dangerous.

This is a cult of evil, everyone. And we can never allow this cult of evil ever to take hold in our country, and we can never be willing to allow it to live among us. It’s the antithesis of what it means to be an American to willingly participate in this. It’s visited too many places in addition to Paris. We could all go through the list of cities where ISIS has already struck.

I don’t know if they’re 10 feet tall, but they’re looking pretty tall in those cities. And I don’t want them to look that tall or anywhere near that tall in cities like New York or Washington, Chicago or Los Angeles, San Francisco or Minneapolis.

I’m a former prosecutor. I’m a former prosecutor in the post-September 11th era. I was nominated by President Bush. I was named to that job by the White House on September 10th, 2001. The next day my wife did what she had done for 20 years—got up in the morning, left the house by 6:00 a.m., drove to the train station, took the train to the PATH station, took the PATH to the World Trade Center and walked to her office two blocks from the World Trade Center.

That morning I took the day off. I’d been named to a new job the day before and decided to spend the day at home and take my children back and forth to school. We had three at the time—eight, five, and one; took them to school, came home, and when I got home the first building was on fire.

I called my wife to ask how she was. She said, oh, it’s no big deal. She said some commuter plane flew into the building. They told us not to worry about it. We’re working. We’re not paying any attention to it. Here’s the fire engines outside. They’re taking care of it.

While we were on the phone, the second plane hit the second building. And she said to me they’re evacuating us to the basement. I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Five and a half hours later, I still hadn’t heard from her. Both buildings had come down; all types of stories that turned out to be inaccurate, but we didn’t know at the time, about pipe bombs and other explosions in Lower Manhattan, the inability of people to evacuate.

I sat at home over and over again trying to call her and not finding her. And as it got near the time I had to go pick up my children at school, our children at school, I started to think about these things. If I don’t hear from her, what am I going to tell the kids when they ask about mom, because so many of the children at their school had parents who worked in Lower Manhattan that the school had called and told us that they had informed the children of the attack. So they were going to ask about their mom as soon as they got to the car.

I started thinking about what kind of life I was going to have without my best friend and what kind of single father was I going to be to three young children. Those thoughts were replicated over and over and over again, tens of thousands of times, where I live.

Five minutes before I left to go pick up the kids, the phone rang and it was Mary Pat. And she was caked with dust and dirt but safe in a bar further uptown, where she found an operating pay phone to finally get in touch with me.

We came home that night and the first call we received was from a woman in our neighborhood, who Mary Pat had helped her husband find a job after he had lost his job some months earlier. The job she’d helped him to find was at a place called Euro Brokers, on the 44th floor of World Trade Center Tower Two. She asked Mary Pat, have you seen Frank? Did you see him at all today? Did you hear from him? Did you commute in with him? Mary Pat hadn’t. And she said, well, I’m sure he’s just in a hospital somewhere and hasn’t been able to get in touch with me yet. We knew then in our hearts, and we know how, that there were no hospitals and there were almost no survivors. We see her at church still every Sunday. And the gym in that church is now named after her late husband. We were at that funeral. Our oldest son’s best friend, his father worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. We know the results of that. And now for 14 years since, we’ve watched that young man grow up spending a lot of time at our house. Every year since Facebook on his Facebook page on his father’s birthday he puts his father’s picture with just one simple sentence underneath it: Dad, we’ll never forget you.

I fear that this administration and many parts of this country have forgotten. I can’t forget, because terrorism is not theoretical to me. It’s not theoretical. It’s real. I see it in the eyes of people in my state every day. The loss is significant and never goes away. I would love to govern in a world as I wish it was. I don’t. Real leaders have to govern in the world as it really is. And I wish the president would enter with us into that world. That’s the world I’ve been trained to see, not only through my personal experience, but through the next seven years I spent as a prosecutor prosecuting planned acts of terror in my state that, because we took the steps we needed to, and because we had a president and an attorney general who kept our eye on the ball, we prevented future attacks from happening, future deaths from occurring, future families from suffering the loss and the pain that I see right in my hometown. My sacred obligation as president would be to protect the American interests first and foremost. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one else will.

We don’t need a global order that will protect the interest of global business and academia. We need a strong America that will protect the interest of the American people, and strong nation-states around the world that will assure world stability. This nation is our home. It’s where our children are born. It’s where our grandparents are buried. Our homes and our neighborhoods have to be safe and secure. They have to be a place where families believe that we can reach our fullest potential. And despite whatever the president says, do we feel that way today? Do we feel that we’re as safe as we can or should be? And do we feel that our government is acting in our interests to provide that safety or security, or do they have another agenda that they’ve placed unfortunately in front of it? This government is paid to be on our side—our side—not working for other interests, but to work in our interests. And today, I don’t believe that’s the case, not on this issue.

Ronald Reagan used to say we’re the drivers of this government, not the other way around. National security is not a privilege. It’s not an option. It’s a fundamental right of the people of this country. And we must never forget that. People forget that in all different kinds of aspects too today, I think. Some people think any trade deal that’s negotiated by global interests is something we have to sign onto. I say the proof is in the pudding. It has to be in the interests of the American people. Some people believe that borders have become outdated, they don’t believe in nation-states, they believe in a post- American world, even an anti-American mindset. Most of us just utterly reject that. We don’t believe in our core that that’s true. We recoil from it. But we have to speak out against it, even when it becomes politically incorrect to do so.

This means we have to stand up against those type of statements and feelings, no matter how often they’re expressed, and no matter what publications they’re expressed in. We have to put the interests of the average American on the front burner and their interests and concerns there. I’m not one of these pessimists, though, that believe that Washington is beyond repair. If it’s properly led and run, it’ll serve the interests of the American people. It has before. And I would tolerate nothing less, if I ever got the privilege of being president. And you’re always going to have critics, that’s fine. I’ve been through that fire over and over again. I manage what I call lovingly an unruly state. There’s nothing that’s ever easy in New Jersey. But you can walk through that fire and come out on the other side if you stick by your principles.

Always in political campaigns there’s this emphasis on new, right? New can be exciting. It really can. New can be exciting, it can be attractive. New can be wonderful. It’s shiny. It’s perfect. It’s untouched. New is untarnished. But new is untested. New is not necessarily reliable. New seems fabulous, until the moment comes when you need experience. Experience in taming the bureaucracy, experience at facing down one’s adversaries, experience in staring down unfair attacks from the media, experience in formulating policies that will actually work, that can serve people.

This president was new in 2008, boy was he ever. He was new. And let’s look at what that legacy of newness and inexperience has brought us—a record number of people out of the workforce, record number of people on disability, Obamacare, a more than doubling of the national debt, increased not decreased racial tensions in our country, and a foreign policy that at best has been inconsistent and ineffective. Just think of some of the things the president has told us just in the past few years. He claimed our borders are more secure than they’ve ever been. He claimed that after Gadhafi and Mubarak were gone that the Middle East would be a safer place. He said that al-Qaida was on the run. He said that ISIS was the JV. And just hours before the attacks in Paris, he told George Stephanopoulos that his strategy was succeeding and that ISIS was contained. Now, all of these statements—every one of them—has turned out to be wrong.

This is the problem. Newness and inexperience allows you to see the world as you want to see it, as a fantasy, not the way the world really is. We can’t afford to have another person behind the desk in the Oval Office who sees America as he sees it. We can’t afford to elect another president without the requisite experience and values that our founders enshrined in the Declaration and in the Constitution. Less than one term in the United States Senate has proven to be woeful training—woeful training—for the Oval Office, especially when most of that term was spent running away from big issues and running towards the presidency. You can’t abandon protecting America’s borders because the political heat gets too great. And you cannot cast a vote that subverts Americans national security and intelligence capability because it’s fashionable to do so at a time of seeming safety. That’s not the type of leadership America needs in a dark and a dangerous world.

I stood up last spring against the restrictions that were proposed for the NSA for one very simple reason, because I know that the policy worked. It’s easy to theorize and debate in some subcommittee in the basement of the Capitol when you’ve never been responsible for implementing those policies or making those decisions. But when you’ve been given that responsibility, it becomes a lot harder to give in to the fashion of the day, to the political movement of the moment, to side with the presumed political adversary you think you may have in the future. I made these decisions. I’ve used the Patriot Act. I’ve seen the indispensable role that intelligence plays in preventing attacks on the American homeland.

The Congress and the president made a grave mistake not only in restricting the NSA’s ability to do their work, but also at the same time at demoralizing the spirit and degrading the conduct of America’s intelligence officers and law enforcement officers. This has led to a diminution of the effectiveness of our intelligence community, and it’s led to a loss of spirit in our law enforcement community. And once again I refer to the FBI director, who has said repeatedly that there is a chill wind blowing through law enforcement in this country.

That not only affects what happens on the streets of Ferguson or New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. It affects their ability to interdict plots and plans, in conjunction with federal agents, being put out by terrorist groups. Morale is not divisible, in law enforcement or in the intelligence community. And the actions of the last year by this administration and some collaborators in Congress of both parties has made our world less safe.

When I had this argument with Senator Paul on the stage in August, folks maybe understood the argument less. Eleven days after Paris, it’s significantly more acute.

A leader has to have the will—has to have the will to be capable of standing up to criticism, criticism that will come from all fronts. There’s no doubt that many, many of the policymakers here in Washington, along with many thought leaders in the press, have gotten into the lazy habit of assuming that any policy that’s popular with the American people must not have been totally thought through. If you ask for a pause on the entry of Syrian refugees to make sure that the FBI and intelligence communities can effectively vet them, you’re accused of xenophobia. If you express skepticism towards any type of trade agreement, you’re accused of wanting to shut down trade around the world. If you insist that we enforce the immigration laws, you’re accused of nativism. An effective leader can’t be intimidated by the labels, if what you believe in your heart you let come out of your mouth and you stand for it. You can’t constantly lead by having your finger up in the air and seeing which way the wind’s blowing, whether that wind’s blowing inside the United States or across either ocean towards the United States.

So let me be clear: No one—no one, and I am not—is advocating a return to isolationism and the protectionism of the 1930s. No significant group of Americans wants a policy like that, and I don’t either. But what they do want, and what they’re entitled to, is thoughtful, experienced, prudent leadership that recognizes that this country is our home, and that we deserve leaders who constantly and carefully look out for our interests in a dangerous world—even if that means taking actions that aren’t popular with certain portions of the opinion-making society in this country.

See, I think that in times like this, those are the truths that should be self-evident. Those are the truths that should form the basis and the foundation of how we lead in this country. Those are the self-evident truths of the American people, and they must be again to our government and to its leaders.

There are some that seem confused by the current political season. They don’t know what to make of it. They say they can’t figure out why the American people are expressing some of the concerns they’re expressing. We need to listen and not try to rationalize—listen to their frustration and their anger. It is based on the ineffectiveness of the policies they see, the ineffectiveness of the government they see, the ineffectiveness of the government they’re paying for, and the sense of drift that they feel from a country and a government whose leaders are unwilling to make the difficult decisions and take the stands that need to be taken, whether they’re popular for the moment or not.

I understand what’s happening here. I understand anger and frustration. I’m from New Jersey. Of course I understand anger and frustration. (Laughter.) We live for anger and frustration in New Jersey. (Laughter.) And maybe that’s why we understand the American people’s complete detachment from what happens here. They don’t think anyone here is listening anymore.

And there are two ways to react when people—you think people aren’t listening to you: to keep quiet and go away, or to yell even louder. Unfortunately, we have both going on right now—both at the same time. We have scores of people who are detaching themselves from the political process in this country because they feel like their voice will never be heard, no matter how loud they yell. And then we have a group of people who believe, to hell with that, I’m going to yell louder and louder and louder. If we don’t respond to this dynamic, our way of life will be buried by it. We need to listen and lead, and not be polling every question that confronts us, but to ask in our hearts, who do we really stand for.

The answer, I believe, has to be that we start putting forward policies both here and abroad that put the American people and their interests as they see it first. And if we do, then we have a real possibility of uniting our country again, regardless of the ideological differences, regardless of religious and ethnic differences. We can reunite our country, but it will not be reunited by someone who purely talks. It has to be reunited by someone who listens first and then gives voice to the people that he’s honored enough to represent. That’s the type of leadership I propose for our country, not only because it’s good politics, but much more importantly because it’s the only way to bring a dispirited country back to a sense that the tomorrow will be much better than our yesterday. If we do that, then we have an opportunity to bring our country back together again.

So thanks for giving me some time. I’m happy to answer your questions. I appreciate it. (Applause.)

SEIB: Thank you. Thank you, Governor Christie. And thank you, Council members here and also those who are participating by teleconference in the country and around the world. We’ll hear from some of them later in the question-and-answer, provided I can get my iPad to work—50/50 chance.

Here’s how we’re going to do this. I’m going to take advantage of my prerogative as moderator to ask you a couple of questions that follow up on your remarks just now, then I’ll open it up to questions from you all and some from people who are listening in.

Let me—let me start with, you talked for a while about the battle against ISIS, obviously. Down the street this morning, President Hollande from France was here visiting the president, presumably asking about ways to increase U.S.-French efforts against ISIS and to create a better international effort against ISIS. In a Christie administration right now, what form would the American participation in that effort take?

CHRISTIE: Well, you know, first off, we’re inheriting a situation which has been allowed to get so far out of control that it limits our options, and that’s the first concern. But your question is about what you do now, not how to look back in retrospect and what you might have done differently.

I would tell you this, that I would hope that France invokes Article 5. This is an attack on one that’s an attack on all. We need to be really clear about this. It seems like that Mrs. Clinton won’t use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” because she thinks somehow that this will be insulting to the rest of the Muslim world. I think it’s clarifying. See, if you say that you’re going to war with radical Islamic terrorism, then by definition you’re not going to war with the rest of Islam.

In my state, as I said, we have the second-largest Muslim American community in the country, and I’ve appointed Muslim Americans to high-ranking positions in my administration, to the judiciary. These are good, faithful Americans. Confusion is only created by the use of euphemisms.

So let’s talk about, first, what we need to go to war with. It is a uniting thing for the Western world, because let’s remember something: They’re trying to limit our freedoms. And so, you know, a Christie administration would work with the NATO alliance to bring the full effect that we could have both diplomatically but also militarily and from an intelligence perspective to be able to do what we need to do to bring ISIS to a conclusion.

But we also need to be honest with the American people that because of the situation we’ve inherited, that this is going to take a very long time. This is not going to be something that’s going to happen overnight. It just isn’t. And I’ve heard some people say this is our world war and this is the way it’s going to look. That may be true, but I think certainly in terms of length of effort we need to—and any leader would need to appropriately prepare the American people for the fact that this is not something, whether it’s handled diplomatically, militarily, or just through intelligence effort, or a combination of the three, that’s going to end anytime soon. This is going to go on for a long time.

SEIB: And does that mean Western troops on the ground under a NATO umbrella? And is there some concern that that’s what ISIS wants, that to draw in a Western response is to validate their narrative that this is the crusaders versus the true believers, and that it’s a trap, essentially?

CHRISTIE: Well, listen, the trap is only set to the extent that you walk in. A trap is only a problem to the extent you walk into it, Jerry, right? I mean, I think the fact is that this has to be done really carefully. And that’s why I think working with NATO is not the only thing we need to do. I think we need to work with our Arab allies in the Middle East as well.

And, quite frankly, those Arab allies right now are suspicious of what American interests really are in the Middle East, and what our motives truly are, and whether they can count on us for friendship. They look at what’s happened with the Iranian deal. They look at what’s happened in our public interaction with Israel. And in some of those capitals I think they’re wondering whether they can count on the American resolve any longer.

So I don’t think this is only a NATO operation. I think you have to work hard to bring our Arab allies into it as well to avoid the very trap that ISIS is looking to set.

SEIB: And President Putin, what’s his role? I mean, Donald Trump says he would have a great relationship with him.

CHRISTIE: Yeah, well—(laughter).

SEIB: What does Chris Christie say?

CHRISTIE: You know, I think we could get there eventually, but he’d have to understand the limits of our patience. And he’s reaching the limits of our patience with his adventurism, and so I don’t think we’d be fast friends. (Laughter.)

SEIB: OK, but would you be partners in Syria specifically?

CHRISTIE: Not as long as he wanted to continue to prop up Assad, no. His priorities are different. And this is where some other candidates I think have a naïve thought about this. I don’t believe President Putin has any real interest in combating ISIS. His role in Syria is to prop up Assad and to keep him there and to work with the Iranians to do that. And I don’t think he has any other real interest in it, even after ISIS attacks on his own people. I don’t think that’s his priority. He has limited capability and he is focusing that limited capability on his top priority, which is, in that instance, you know, propping up Assad.

SEIB: So last question from me before I turn it over to them, but to follow up on that answer, I take it from what you just said that you don’t buy the theory that what the U.S. and France and our allies ought to do right now is grit our teeth, accept the fact that President Assad will have to stay in office for a while longer so that everybody can focus on the fight against ISIS.

CHRISTIE: No, because I think the premise is faulty. Not everyone will focus on ISIS. Others, like the Iranians, like the Russians, will focus on solidifying Assad’s position not just for the next few months but for the long term. And so you can’t have an agreement with someone whose goals and objectives in the agreement are completely different than yours, and I don’t believe we’re at a point at the moment—now, maybe Russia will come around to a different point of view but I don’t see that happening any time soon, and certainly not with the Iranians either.

So, no, I think the premise of the question is faulty so, yeah, no, I don’t agree with that.

SEIB: Let me ask—Barbara, I’ll start with you. So here’s the deal: You’ve got to stand up. You’ve got to wait for the microphone. And then you’ve got to tell us who you are and where you’re from. And you’ve got to ask a question, not make a statement. (Laughter.) But although—

CHRISTIE: Sounds good.

SEIB: —you can cut in if you want. It’s like you’re—

CHRISTIE: Listen, I’m—

SEIB: You’re shy and retiring, I know, so—

CHRISTIE: I am. I’m a wallflower, so that will be hard for me—(laughter)—but we’ll see what we can do.

Q: All right. Governor Christie, my name is Barbara Slavin. I lived in Livingston, New Jersey at one point, so—

CHRISTIE: Oh, there you go, as did I.

Q: On Syria, who would you support in terms of an opposition to Assad? How would you make a coherent opposition to him that would be able to fight ISIS? And what do you make of the fact that our Arab allies—Saudi Arabia and others—have been concentrating most of their time in the last few months in bombing Yemen—


Q: —not bombing ISIS? Thank you.

CHRISTIE: Well, a few things. First off—I’ll start at the end and then work back up.

I think that they’re spending their time on that for two reasons, one because they see it at the moment as a greater threat to them. And secondly, they don’t think they can count on us. And I think they have good reason to think they can’t count on us. Our policies at best have been erratic. Our actions seem to differ with our words in terms of our interaction with those allies.

And I think if you spoke to the Jordanians, in addition to the Saudis and the Emirates and the Egyptians, that they would say the same thing. They don’t really know what American policy is. They’re afraid we’re playing footsie with Iran. They don’t what that’s going to mean for their long-term interests in the region. And I think they believe that American resolve is only as good as the next poll that comes out from Quinnipiac or Marist. And as long as that’s the case, then why would they want to get in league with us on this when they also feel like they have competing priorities and interests like Yemen?

On the Syrian part, that’s the part that makes what’s happened over the last two years or more—makes this even more complicated because I don’t think that there is a coherent opposition at the moment. And, you know, the problem, though, is that Assad himself is, I think, one of the great causes of ISIS and one of the great irritants through the way he’s conducted his policy towards his own people.

And so the president has now left us in a really difficult situation. And the president’s solution is what it always is, which is don’t do anything. Don’t do anything. Let other people do stuff and let’s see what happens. Let’s see how it shakes out. But meantime ISIS is getting stronger and they’re not contained. Their scope is not contained. Their range is not contained. And it’s only going to get greater to the extent that they’re not being pressured there.

So it is—I don’t have an answer to who is the group that you would put in charge of Syria. The problem is that, given how badly it’s deteriorated and how long the president has ignored this festering problem, he has left us with a situation that is, at best, on your best day, too complex and too problematic for a, you know, two-minute answer, and one that’s going to take a lot more time to figure out. But, long term, Assad staying doesn’t help the ISIS problem and creates other problems in the Middle East as well.

SEIB: Right here, and then we’ll go back there.

Q: Thank you. Nelson Cunningham of McLarty Associates.

You spoke quite a bit about President Reagan. You didn’t speak about his vice president, George H.W. Bush, nor did you speak about the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush. I think many of us could easily imagine the remarks that you made today having been stated by President George W. Bush. It seems to come out of the same ideology. Would you be a strong president in the mold of George W. Bush? Would that give us the same foreign policy—(clears throat)—excuse me—would that give us the same foreign policy that he gave us?

CHRISTIE: No, I don’t think that’s the case. Now, listen, on—concerning the fight on terrorism, there are a lot of similarities, yes. I think that all the tools that we need to have should be made available to us and that we have to make sure that we police those who use the tools.

See, the argument that we had this past spring and summer was, you know, that somehow the tools were inherently faulty. They’re not. The tools are effective and proven to be effective. There are always going to be folks operating in every sphere of life who are going to color outside the lines. We see it every day. There are bad doctors, there are bad lawyers, there are bad accountants, there are bad athletes, right, in every walk of life, yet what we decided to do this summer was to throw tested and proven effective tools out because of allegations—not even proof, but allegations—that somehow those tools could be used in a way that was unconstitutional. I still haven’t seen the case made that anything that was done was unconstitutional.

And it’s usually, when that case is made, it’s made by people who don’t have the first damn idea what they’re talking about, not the first idea of how to use these tools. You know, you hear about the metadata collection operation at the NSA and you hear people talk about that. And they extrapolate it to, you know, someone was reading your emails with the grandmother and, you know, listening in on your phone calls with your wife. But of course, none of that was going on. And none of that had anything to do with the metadata program. But, you know, this administration had an agenda. Their agenda was to ratchet that down. And they waited for a political opportunity to do that where they could haul other people into it.

So on the terrorism issue, I would say that I think President George W. Bush in combatting terrorism and stopping attacks on American soil, I think that record’s pretty good. And as one of those people who participated as a United States attorney in the law enforcement side of that, there’s not one thing that happened on my watch that not only I’m—that I’d be ashamed of, there’s nothing that happened on my watch that I’m not proud of. We interdicted at least two serious and significant plots of terrorism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 using the tools that were available to us, one regarding a shoulder-fired missile purchase and one regarding a plotted attack on Fort Dix—either of which, if had occurred, would have cost a significant number of American lives. We need a president who understand this and understands how to use these tools.

On foreign policy more broadly, there’s a number of ways that I would be different than President George W. Bush. But on the fight on terror, which is specific, I think the language that might be most like Governor—or President George W. Bush’s, I’m proud to have been a member of that administration. And I’m proud of the work that we did.

SEIB: Let me just follow up on one point quickly. So there was a federal judge about two weeks ago that ruled the metadata collection program was probably unconstitutional, and he shut it down at that point. So how do you—how do you avoid that problem, if you resurrect it?

CHRISTIE: Well, first off, that’s one federal trial court judge. You know, he or she is welcome to their opinion. That will be appealed and go most likely all the way up to the United States Supreme Court to make that determination. And there can be potentially, depending upon what the ultimate decision turns out to be, small tweaks or changes that can be made that may be able to address some of those concerns. This was a wholesale abandonment of it. This was saying, we’re going to put this in the private sector’s hands. We’re going to count on the phone companies and the data companies to keep this information and to make it accessible to use immediately.

Now, listen, I’m a former federal prosecutor that had subpoena authority. And when subpoenaed—grand jury subpoenaed materials from Verizon or AT&T it wasn’t immediate, nor will this be. And it’s a fantasy to think that the metadata program will be nearly as effective, if effective at all, under the way it’s been amended. And let’s face it, that Paris is going to prove out to be, in my opinion, in the long run, an intelligence failure. You have people from multiple countries, a synchronized attack. They didn’t get together at the Taco Bell 15 minutes before and put this thing together. And so that means it was an intelligence failure. An intelligence failure on the part of French intelligence, other European intelligence, and American intelligence.

And it’s not a coincidence to me that this happened in the aftermath of restricting those programs and, remember, also demoralizing the intelligence community. That awful report that came out from the Senate Democrats at the end of last year was a complete political instrument that did nothing more than demoralize American intelligence officers all around the world. And you cannot continue to do that and expect those people are going to put themselves in harm’s way and do the dangerous, dirty work that needs to be done to get this information if you continue to demoralize them, and put them at risk, and take tools away from them at the same time.

SEIB: Right there.

Q: Mark Kennedy, George Washington University.

In addition to talking about terrorism, you also alluded to some concerns about trade. Just wondering if you had any specific concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and whether you see it as a significant geopolitical step to keep China from pushing us out of influence in the Pacific.

CHRISTIE: My specific concern is that it was negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration. That’s my specific concern. And I haven’t seen an agreement yet that this president’s negotiated that has been in the American interest. And so I have great skepticism about this 5(,000) or 6,000-page agreement. Do I have skepticism about trade overall? No. I want trade agreements that are fair and I want trade agreements that the American people can support. And I do think the goal of having expanded trade throughout the Pacific, especially vis-à-vis our competition with China, is an important thing. But I wouldn’t let this president negotiate to buy me a car because if he went into the car dealership to buy me a car, his first words the salesman would be: This is my friend Chris, he’s not leaving the showroom today without a car. (Laughter.) So let’s negotiate price. (Laughter.) That’s my concern. (Laughter.)

SEIB: Let me—let me turn to a question that came in from—

CHRISTIE: (About ?) cars? (Inaudible.)

SEIB: Well, actually, close. (Laughter.) But it’s from New York, so you should appreciate it. It’s from Mark Edgerson (sp).

CHRISTIE: (Laughs.) Depends. Is it from Mayor de Blasio? (Laughter.)

SEIB: One of his constituents. Is education an alternative to jihad and barbarism for the next generation of occupants in the territory under Islamic State’s control? And if so, what would you do to ensure they have access to it?

CHRISTIE: Not really. Not really. I mean, again, that kind of sounds to me like the world I wish it were, rather than the world the way it is. I don’t think they’re interested in that at the moment. Are there elements of that population that would be interested in it? Sure. But it’s not accessible to them. And if I’m asking would I use American power and authority to make it accessible to them? No. No, I wouldn’t.

SEIB: Right here, and then right back there. There you go, yes, sir.

Q: Allan Wendt, formerly with the Department of State.

Governor, as president what changes would you seek to make on our current immigration policies?

CHRISTIE: A number. First, it goes back to what I was saying in my remarks, is that any change to policy of that kind in the United States has to have the broad support of the American people. And the reason that—in my view—that immigration reform has failed up to this point, even the efforts that were made a summer or two ago, are because the American people don’t trust the government to actually do what they say they’re going to do. And they have pretty good reason not to.

So I think the first thing we need to do is to regain the trust of the American people. And the way to do that is to enforce the laws that we have now effectively and fairly. So we need to secure our border. That’s only part of the issue. And I could go through—I’m not, so that we can get this part out of the way—I’m not a 2,000-mile wall guy, OK? (Laughter.) I don’t think that makes sense. And having had the privilege of meeting a couple of time in the last 18 months with President Pena Nieto, I don’t think no matter who asks him and how they ask him he’s paying for it. (Laughter.) Even if it’s really beautiful, I don’t think he’s paying for it. (Laughter.)

But I do think that walling and fencing along the border in certain of the most heavily populated areas, you know, has some efficacy to it. Secondly, I think on the border we need to use much more of our technology—drones and stationary cameras and such—so that it doesn’t become ungodly expensive to be able to do it, but you have a way of monitoring the activity. I would be embedding a lot more FBI, ATF, and DEA agents with our border patrol folks to try to interdict drugs and guns that are coming across the border. That’s a public safety issue.

But we got to remember too that our visa program is one of the biggest problems that the American people are upset about, that we invite people here for a period of time and then we don’t keep track of them, and then they stay. And listen, we’re all going to Thanksgiving this week, right? Many of us are going to be inviting—I am. I’m inviting people to my house for Thanksgiving. This would be like if I woke up, you know, on Saturday morning and I went upstairs to one of the guest rooms and they’re still there. (Laughter.) I mean, hey, invited them for Thanksgiving. I didn’t invite them for the weekend, you know? (Laughter.) And we’ve got to find a way to make sure they don’t stay.

I got in a lot of trouble over this with some (measurements needed ?) because I used what—because I thought everybody in the media, like I, used English as a first language. (Laughter.) And so I said, you know, if Federal Express can figure out how to track a package from the minute it leaves my doorstep till the minute it arrives at the doorstep I want it to go to and every step in between, we should be able to do something better with the visa program. Now, of course, then this led the wonderful folks in the media to say Christie wants to track immigrants like packages. You know, I went on CNN and they said: Are you talking about putting bar codes and chips in people when they come in the border? (Laughter.) You know, really? And then the media complains about the level of intelligence in the debate. You know, it’s really fascinating for me as a candidate.

But we need to go to a biometric system on visas. And by the way, I don’t need to put barcodes on any people, because you already have them. They’re right there. Your fingerprints are your barcodes, and every one is an individual one. And every person who comes in here on a visa should have to give—should have to give their fingerprint, and they should have a database. And when they access services in this country, they should have to give that.

And if you’re over your visa stay time, that’s the moment when we tap you on the shoulder and say time to go home, because whether it’s 10 (million) or 11 (million) or 12 million people, however you calculate it, whatever study you look at, most of them say that 40 percent or more of those folks are visa overstays, not people coming over the southern border. So if you just deal with the southern border and you don’t deal with the visa-overstay issue with a biometric system, you’re not going to be able to control that flow.

Lastly, you know, you’ve got to use E-Verify as well, because you’ve got to acknowledge that, unlike what some people think, people actually come here to work. That’s what they’re coming here for. And so if you make everyone use E-Verify and you have significant fines for hiring people illegally, do those things first. Show people you’re willing to enforce the law.

I think one of the things that people are most upset about with this president is the sense of lawlessness in this country. You don’t like the immigration laws? Don’t enforce them. Have sanctuary cities? Don’t enforce them, because I don’t like them, so don’t enforce them. You don’t like the marijuana laws in the country? Let states have marijuana for recreational use. I don’t like the law anyway. I don’t think it’s all that good. So don’t enforce it.

The law we don’t enforce today that you like will be the law we don’t enforce tomorrow that you don’t like, right? And then, all of a sudden, we’ve got a real problem on our hands, because justice then only becomes a word, not a way of life. So I think that if you want to move towards fixing this problem, the first thing you have to do is convince the American people that you can actually do the job they’ve given you already. Before you then they give you greater latitude to do other things, some of which may be laudable, but none of which they’ll support right now because they don’t believe that the government is even competent at doing what it’s going to do. We have some things to prove first.

SEIB: So I think we have time for one last question. I just want to remind everybody, before we do that, that this conversation has been on the record. And I want to go further to the back this time, so way back there.

CHRISTIE: Oh, now you tell me.

SEIB: Yeah, I know. (Laughter.)

CHRISTIE: What are all those cameras doing back there?

SEIB: (Laughs.) That was your first clue that this was on the record, I believe.

Q: Hi. Thank you for the thoughtful conversation. My name is Raha Wala. I’m with Human Rights First.

I wanted to follow up on the Syrian refugee question. Former DHS Secretary Chertoff said that, you know, talking about biometrics, in fact, biometrics are run on Syrian refugees, and it’s the most rigorous vetting process that we have.

Are you open to reconsidering the possibility of letting in more Syrian refugees if you can be convinced that it can be done so safely? I know Condi Rice, former secretary of state, said that we’re sending a bad signal, one that could play into ISIS propaganda, by blocking all Syrian refugees. And General Jack Keane said a similar thing, that, you know, we’re—

CHRISTIE: I’ve heard all of it.

Q: Yeah.

CHRISTIE: I’ve heard it. You don’t have to review all the different people who want to do it. I know. None of them, by the way, you’ll notice, have any responsibility today for ensuring the safety of the American people. So it’s easy to theorize and be an academic about this. That’s not being critical of academics. They have a role. But they don’t have any responsibility.

So, you know, when the FBI director tells me he can do it, then I’ll reconsider, but not until then. Mike Chertoff used to have my job. He used to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey, my old job. And he was DHS secretary. And he’s a really bright, smart guy. But he has no responsibility today for doing what needs to be done.

And it’s easy to say those things. And people on television want you to say them, because it’s the politically correct thing to say today. That’s the politically correct thing to say. Believe me, I’ve seen the e-mails I’ve gotten since I said what I said and the Facebook posts and all the rest of that stuff. I’m not, you know, deaf, dumb, and blind. The politically correct thing to say would be that. I’m not saying it, because I have a responsibility.

And, by the way, the federal government has a responsibility to let me know what’s going on in my state as governor. And this administration doesn’t inform governors when they place refugees in their state. Now, most people don’t—I was on some program last week, and I said that. They said that’s impossible. I said, no, actually, it’s happening. And, you know, the president, when we were all on the phone with him last week, told the governors, when that issue was raised to the president, he said, well, we’ll try to do better. That’s wonderfully assuring if you’re a governor of a state.

The fact is, the person who has the responsibility today—the primary responsibility for telling us what law enforcement’s capability is at the federal level—is the director of the FBI. The attorney general, I think, has been relatively quiet about this. The director of the FBI has spoken out and he’s spoken out before Congress that it cannot happen. They don’t have the wherewithal in their databases at the moment to be able to effectively to this.

So, you know, that, to me, is determinative. It’s only not determinative if your priorities are different. Like, if your priority is to win a Nobel Peace Prize, then say, OK, that’s your priority. What you want is to get a pack on the—pat on the back from the, you know, world opinion-shapers, then say otherwise. But if your responsibility is to protect the lives of the people that you represent, and you have the top law enforcement official in the country saying I can’t vet them, it doesn’t seem to me to be a hard decision.

It only becomes hard when we decide to get all politically correct with each other—we’re sending signals. Well, what happens if one of these folks come in and winds up participating in an attack that kills Americans? What kind of signals are we sending then? Because I can guarantee you there will be all kinds of people in this town who had the opinion to let folks in who will run for the hills or will all of a sudden have qualifiers—say, whoa, wait a second, I said if this and that, and this and that.

And when you’re in charge, when you have to be responsible, you don’t get to run, and you don’t get to hide. And you shouldn’t run and hide now. This is my view, because I have the responsibility. And I’ve had the responsibility as a law enforcement officer, too.

So, you know, when the FBI director tells me that he can do this better and more effectively, then that changes the equation. But up to this moment, we don’t have that. We have a bunch of used-to-bes who are saying it. That’s fine; they have a role to play. Their—they—their role is to write and go on television and say things. And then, when something goes the other way, they go on television and say the other way because they don’t have the responsibility to do it.

So, you know, I have a great deal of respect for all the people that you named and the ones that you were going to continue to name before I interrupted you. (Laughter.) I’m sure I have great respect for them, too. (Laughter.) But—but, man, they’re not the ones who are responsible.

And I’m telling you that that’s one of my biggest problems with the president. He is responsible. He should know better. And he should listen to the people he put in charge. I can’t imagine he knows more than Jim Comey about this issue. I can’t imagine a scenario under which he understands and knows this more than Jim Comey. And so, you know, sometimes, like I said in the speech, leadership’s about listening. Even if it’s contrary to exactly what you want, you need to listen.

And I will tell you that if something does happen where American lives are lost, the American public both will and should be relentlessly unforgiving of those who are responsible for having done the politically correct thing and not listened to the people who knew more than they did.

SEIB: Governor Christie, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to have you at the Council. Thanks for your time. (Applause.)

CHRISTIE: Thanks, Jerry. (Applause.)

SEIB: Thanks. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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