Chris Christie served as the 55th Governor of New Jersey from 2010 to 2018. He was a federal prosecutor in the Bush administration from 2002 to 2008. During his governorship, Christie was nominated by President Donald Trump to chair the Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission in 2017.
Harvard Political Review: As governor, you dealt with a number of high-profile incidents, most notably Hurricane Sandy. How did this impact you as a leader?
Chris Christie: In just about every way you can think of. The first and most important thing it taught me was how emotionally involved the people of your state are with you. One of the things I learned during Sandy was they needed to see me, they needed to hear me, they needed to touch me. They needed to know they were not being forgotten. I always kept in my mind after [Sandy] the need for being out and meeting and talking to people and communicating with them.
The first day after Sandy, I went to Bel Mar, New Jersey. The town was significantly destroyed, and when I got off my helicopter, a woman in her sixties came running toward me, so aggressively that the state police were going to try to stop her. I said to let her through, and she grabbed me and hugged me, crying. She said to me, “Thank God you did not forget us.” To me, that is the biggest lesson: no matter what the ups and downs are of approval ratings in politics, when a crisis happens, the leader needs to be visible. It reinforced how important it is to have competent people everywhere because you never know when you are going to need them. Sandy was all hands on deck.
HPR: Do you feel like any of the actions you took as governor were particularly misconstrued by the media or the public?
CC: We do not have enough time (laughs). Listen, I think it is very difficult when you are a conservative Republican in a blue state. Some of the things [the media] misconstrued were my fault because I did not communicate them particularly well, but some of them were because they did not want to hear what I was saying. They wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.
For my last year, we had a government shutdown. I am sure you recall that one of the state’s newspapers flew a plane over the state park where the governor has a residence and took a picture of me and my family on the beach, and attempted to convey to people that ‘this beach is closed, and that is why it looks so empty, and the governor is on the beach enjoying it himself.’ The truth of it was, yes, that one beach was open, [but] they tried to make it seem like every beach in New Jersey was closed. In fact, every beach in New Jersey was open but only that one was closed. In the end, it had nothing to do with my job, or my business, or what I did, and that was the one hour I spent on the beach that day. The rest of the time, I was at the state house all day trying to resolve the budget crisis. But you do not get any of that coverage.
I think that was a symptom of two things: a media in a blue state that had a point of view, and me being in my eighth year, and they were pretty much tired of me at that point. They did it for a particular purpose, which was just to make me look bad. If I had been in a chair next to a twenty-five year old blonde, that would have been a story. I was in a chair next to my wife of 31 years, so I do not think that is much of a story.
HPR: You ran for president in 2016. The Republican field was notable in that it was so large and the party had a hard time whittling candidates out in a way that they probably wish they had earlier. Do you think that fueled Donald Trump’s win, and what do you think the party did wrong to not get the outliers out?
CC: I think it is hard. If someone decides they are going to run for president, they are going to run. It is such a personal decision; it is hard to get people out. I do not think anyone took Trump seriously in the beginning. I think for my part, it affected me more than it affected anyone else because my reputation was sort of the plainspoken, direct, non-Washington guy. Well, he did not just block my lane. Just think about what happened when I endorsed him ultimately. The reaction was, well, ‘Christie will bring a sense of calm to the campaign.’ When was I ever talked about as someone who brings a sense of calm to anything? That will tell you how out there the Trump campaign was.
I also think it had to do with a bit of fatigue after eight years of President Obama, and there were so many people who wanted to make the case against his eight years on the Republican side that you had an abundance of people who wanted to try to do that as well.
HPR: In your view, what have been the major successes and failures of the Trump administration?
CC: Successes have been Justice Neil Gorsuch, the tax cut and reform, increased deregulation: those would be the three most prominent ones. The travel ban-slash-Muslim ban was a failure, and something I opposed at the time, and still do not think should be done in any form. The staffing at the White House and in some of the Cabinet has been a failure, and I think the president himself is now ultimately admitting that he made some bad choices. I think the whole approach to health care was done in the wrong way at the wrong time, and that is a pretty notable failure.
HPR: Do you think that your prosecution of Jared Kushner’s father irreparably harmed your chances of being in Trump’s Cabinet?
CC: I do not know. You would have to ask Jared Kushner and the president. I have been assured by them that it did not, but, you know, you cannot read anybody’s mind, now, can you?
HPR: On that same note, as a former federal prosecutor, do you think the Mueller investigation has any merit?
CC: Surely it does. He has already convicted some people, right? Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty, Flynn has pleaded guilty, Gates has pleaded guilty, and he has indicted Manafort and 13 Russians. None of them go to the core of what he was asked to look at, which was Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, but there were certainly crimes that were committed that he is now prosecuting people for.
Now, we get to see where it goes from here. I always worry [that] special counsels have to justify their existence by prosecuting people, not just by coming to a conclusion that maybe there was not anything. I think the best example of that is Bill Clinton did not meet Monica Lewinsky until 19 months after the special counsel was appointed.
Certainly, I have admired Mueller’s approach for two reasons: one, because he has produced results, and two, because he has not leaked. That shows a professional prosecutorial operation and not a political operation. By the way, I worked with him when I was an attorney and he was FBI director, and I think he is a real pro.
HPR: During your governorship, you chaired the Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission in 2017, and you gave President Trump a list of 65 policy proposals. What would be the most concrete policy proposals that would make immediate change?
CC: A couple of them he has done already: [for one, opening] up more Medicaid treatment beds across the country by getting rid of the Institutions of Mental Diseases rule, which said if you had a facility that had more than sixteen beds, you could not get a federal match for Medicaid. That is something he has done right away.
The campaign they are about to announce, a national advertising campaign, can make a huge difference in terms of lowering stigma and getting people to admit they have a problem and seek treatment. Making Medicaid-assisted treatment more broadly available to people is important to help stem the tide.
One of the things they have done now, too, is make Narcan available to every law enforcement officer across the country, and to every college and university for free. You cannot rehab someone if they die. Narcan gives us a second, or a third or fourth, chance at trying to turn someone’s life around.
President Trump has said he accepts all sixty-five, and so I am hoping he and Congress will now start to fund and [implement] them, but those [two] are the ones that I think could have some real urgency real quickly.
HPR: In terms of getting rid of the stigma surrounding opioid usage, it is obviously hard to get rid of any sort of stigma besides with a high profile incident, like Magic Johnson and the AIDS epidemic. What else would you do besides just an ad campaign to get rid of the stigma in the United States?
CC: Leaders in every part of our country have to be talking about this problem. I am sure that there are young men and women dying on this campus from opioid overdose. I do not know how many, but why isn’t the president of Harvard out there, speaking loudly, clearly, and boldly, about the fact that we need our students and our faculty to come forward and talk about this issue and encourage people to seek treatment? Why isn’t the head of JPMorgan Chase talking about it? Why isn’t Mark Zuckerberg—well, he has some other problems right now—talking about it? Why isn’t the head of the National Institutes of Health talking about it more? In every corner of our society, leaders have to stand up and say we are not going to judge you if you come forward. We are going to put out our hand and help you.
HPR: Will Trump win re-election in 2020?
CC: You have to tell me who he is running against. I think elections are binary choices, and Donald Trump won in large part because he ran against Hillary Clinton, and she was one of the single worst national candidates I have ever seen. What I would say is the same people who think there is no way he can be re-elected are the same people who thought he would never be elected in the first place, like [former FBI director] Jim Comey.
HPR: Favorite Bruce Springsteen song?
CC: Thunder Road.
HPR: Lastly, a New Jersey-specific question: Taylor ham or pork roll?
CC: Oh, it is Taylor ham, come on. I’m from North Jersey: pork roll for those people south of 195.
Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.