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March 01, 2019

Chris Christie opens up about Michael Cohen, impeachment and new Phillie Bryce Harper

The former New Jersey governor heads here Monday for a Center City event

Say what you will about former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – let's be honest, people don't hold back on their feelings whether positive or negative – but nobody can deny he’s also a guy who likes speaking his mind.

That’s why he’s coming to town on Monday night for “A Conversation with Chris Christie,” an event hosted by the World Affairs Council at the DoubleTree by Hilton on South Broad Street.

Christie will speak about his time as a prosecutor and as a Republican running a Democratic state, as well as offer an inside look at "what really happened on the 2016 campaign trail and inside Trump Tower," according to organizers.

Most of those topics are covered in his new memoir, “Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics,” as well.

At every turn – well, at least in sports – he’s proven to be a Philly hater, what with rooting for the loathsome Dallas Cowboys and New York Mets despite being from New Jersey.

On Friday, as the city was still reveling in the Phillies' signing of Bryce Harper, Christie made some time to speak with PhillyVoice about an array of issues that may, or may not, be covered at the Monday event.

What follows is a rapid-fire Q&A conducted via phone as Christie was being driven back to New Jersey from an appearance on Fox and Friends in New York City:

PhillyVoice: As a Mets fan, what’s your reaction to the news of the Harper signing, which should make life a little more difficult for your team?

Chris Christie: If you’re a Phillies fan, you have to be thrilled any time your team adds that kind of talent for the rest of his career, and with the ownership for making it happen. You gotta be happy about that.

Where I think the Phillies have a problem is that they don’t have enough pitching, but that’s a different argument. Phillies fans shouldn’t be anything but thrilled with the Harper signing.

PV: I’d like to get your reaction to Michael Cohen testifying before the House Oversight Committee.

CC: It’s never good to have your personal attorney of 10 years testifying before Congress and talking to the Southern District of New York (SDNY), but I also think Michael Cohen is limited by his own personal situation. 

Michael Cohen is saying things, ultimately against the president, but if I was going to bring a case, I’d need a lot of independent corroboration, not just basing it on Cohen’s words.

"There’s nothing I see right now that rises to the level of impeachment." - Chris Christie

PV: I’d also like to get your reaction to former aide Bill Baroni being sentenced to 18 months in prison for the Bridgegate scandal and saying he was sucked into your “cult and culture.

CC: I’ll tell you this: If that culture is out there, there’s only those three people in it

Secondly, if he thinks he was pleasing me, that it was something I wanted him to do, why did he then lie to me, my chief of staff and chief counsel about it when confronted about it? If he thought he was pleasing me, if that culture exists, why lie to me and try to cover it up? 

Bill, unfortunately, has to take responsibility for what he permitted to happen when he was boss of the Port Authority of New Jersey.

PV: Did you sense people working for you were just trying to impress you, though?

CC: There will always be people trying to impress their boss. That’s why, when I became governor, I brought 29 assistant U.S. attorneys with me. Straight shooters, truth tellers and professionals; they’re not used to that (impress-the-boss idea) at all. That set the tone of what we expected.

PV: Based on the evidence you’ve seen, was there collusion with the Russians in the 2016 election?

CC: So far, I’ve seen no evidence of collusion. At some point, Bob Mueller will have to show all his cards. I have no way of knowing what’s going on in that investigation. But Bob Mueller is a straight shooter. I have great respect for him. He needs to be given space to complete the investigation and we’ll see whatever he comes up with at some point.

PV: Do you think anyone in Trump’s inner circle – Donald Jr., Ivanka and Jared – will face charges before this is all over?

CC: That’s a whole different question. I don’t think they will with regards to Russia, but the SDNY is looking into a whole bunch of other stuff with the inaugural, what happened in their businesses. That could be the problem for them.

PV: Is that fair that the investigation branched out from Russia to those other areas?

CC: Nothing about life in politics is far. 

I said to the president that there’s no way to make these investigations shorter, but a whole lot of ways to make it longer. You can’t talk about it publicly all the time and criticize the investigators. All that does is inspire prosecutors to work harder. 

It’s not fair, but it’s the reality of life in politics.

PV: If you had one mulligan from your time as New Jersey governor, what would it be?

CC: I would have signed a bill that capped sick-leave payouts at $7,500. I wanted $0. I thought it was crazy and wrong and ridiculous for people to get paid out for unused sick time.

PV: On a scale of 1 to 100, and take party affiliation out of it, what’s Trump’s score after two years as president?

CC: 85.

PV: Why?

CC: He’s done good things on the economic front. Low unemployment. New trade deals. A good confrontational stance gets China to the table.

It’s not higher than that because of the unforced errors. Things like the story today about (Jared Kushner’s) security clearance. That, and those sort of things, shouldn’t have happened.

PV: Would political inexperience be to blame?

CC: Some of it is inexperience. Also, some of that is having bad people around you and not filling the gaps. When I was in office, I always tried to find people who were better than me at certain areas and let them handle it.  What’s happened is he’s kind of an impulsive hiring guy who doesn’t really look into the people he’s hiring as deeply as he could.

PV: At what point could you support impeachment proceedings against President Trump - if at all?

CC: There’s nothing I see right now that rises to that level. It’s a very high bar, as it should be. Would I have voted to impeach (former President Richard) Nixon? Yes. But I’ve seen nothing anything near reaching that level yet.

PV: Of the declared or potential candidates, do you see any Democrats who could galvanize enough support to beat Trump in 2020?

CC: (Former vice president and U.S. senator Joe) Biden, because he could appeal – if he stays on the rails – to working-class white voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, the Rust Belt area that Trump won in 2016. 

If Biden’s the candidate, he’d have the opportunity to peel those voters away.

PV: Could the large number of candidates – much like you faced in the 2016 Republican primary season – impact Biden’s ability to even get to that point?

CC: I don’t think it prevents him from getting into the race. There are too many obstacles to go through, but if he gets in and performs well, he’s still the favorite.

PV: Do you think the media is the “enemy of the state”?

CC: No. That’s over the top. I just don’t think it makes any sense to say something like that. 

There are some unfair reporters just like there are some unfair politicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, any walk of life. It’s not useful to brand an entire profession like that.

PV: You've said, and I believe, that Trump entering the 2016 primary stole some of your – and I use this term loosely – schtick. The straightforward talk. Speaking your mind. Do you think that had an impact on your ability to get noticed?

CC: Sure it did. Fighting for attention was something I’d never before done in my political career. He sucked up all the oxygen in the room. The media was obsessed with him. He got more free media time than any candidate I’ve ever seen in my life.

He was doing phoners for the Sunday morning talk shows when we had to run around and be there in person. It was incredibly frustrating. To get on those shows, we had to come into the studios. It’s frustrating that he was in pajamas at Trump Tower calling in to three or four shows while all of us are running all over the place.

PV: How well do you really get along with him personally?

CC: Very well. We’ve been friends for 17 years. Now that he’s the President of the United States, you act different toward him. I have a great respect for the office. But, we began our relationship as peers, though, so you can act a little differently toward each other.

PV: How were you peers?

CC: Well, we met when I was U.S. Attorney and he was in the private sector, but I obviously had respect for what he did, and he had respect for what I did. He was extremely successful in the private sector. I respect that he’s been so accomplished in that area.

PV: You were rumored to be on the short list for potential cabinet positions, but that a lingering grudge from Jared Kushner stopped that from happening. What can you tell me about that?

CC: That’s what I was told so I have to believe it, and, it makes sense. 

The president has offered me a lot of different positions, but the only two I was interested in were vice president and attorney general. I was about as close as you could get without actually getting the jobs.

It’s always disappointing when you don’t get something you want, but it was even more disappointing it was Jared that was doing it.

PV: As governor, you pushed for the Tourism District to help revitalize Atlantic City. Hadn’t Trump failed with properties there, would there have been a need for you to do so?

CC: Probably not, but that wasn’t the case. You take it as you find it, and that was the situation I found. 

Frankly, the tourism district probably wasn’t aggressive enough, but now, you see Atlantic City’s credit rating improving, more private businesses and development coming in. These are all good results. Property taxes have even been reduced in Atlantic City.

I wanted to do all that back in 2010, but there wasn’t the consensus I needed to move forward.

PV: A lot of people talk back to you the way they sense you talk to people, and that can take on a personal-attack tone. Does it bother you when that happens? I can’t imagine it’s easy.

CC: Some of it felt personal, sure, but after a while, you just stop reading them. At first, you jump all over them, but you learn to put it in the place where it belongs. You compartmentalize. 

In public life, you better be ready for abuse at all times. It doesn’t need to be a constant state of warfare.

PV: I appreciate you making the time to talk. Is there anything you want readers to hear before I let you go?

CC: From the perspective of the book being what I learned, why I am the way I am, how it impacted my time as governor, my run for president, my relationship with Donald Trump, everybody who’s read it already says they heard my voice. That makes it a lot more rewarding.

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