Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie denounced former President Donald Trump in a speech Thursday night and said the GOP must rid itself of him and his cult of personality.
Christie, in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., did not mention Trump’s name. But there was no question about who he was referring to as he described the Republican Party being dragged into a moment of “peril.”
He also directly confronted Trump’s insistence that he somehow won the 2020 election — a baseless conspiracy theory the former president and his allies have been promulgating since he lost to Joe Biden in November.
“Pretending we won when we lost is a waste of time, energy and credibility,” Christie said.
“We have to clear out the brush, on our own side and on theirs, before the fresh planting can begin,” he added.
The former governor, who ran for president in 2016, is thought to be mulling another run in 2024. And his Thursday speech was his first major attack on Trump and the former president’s influence on the GOP, which he described as pernicious and detrimental to conservative goals.
The speech was also noteworthy in that Christie is the first possible 2024 contender to lay down a firm marker against Trump, who remains broadly popular among the Republican base.
Other possible 2024 candidates, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have studiously avoided knocking Trump, who is thought to be seriously considering another run for the presidency himself. Nikki Haley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and is mulling her own White House bid, denounced Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol earlier this year but quickly walked back those comments amid criticism from pro-Trump conservatives.
While denouncing Trump in his speech, Christie also tied himself to a very conventional set of GOP positions, implying that Republicans can win on policies pushed by the former president so long as they reject him and the fanaticism he inspires.
“We do not have to change our policies to win again,” he said. He talked at length about the “radical” agenda of Biden and the need to confront China, rein in spending, stand up for law and order, control migration across the southern border, fight back against liberal bias in the mainstream media and reduce the size of government.
But again and again in his speech, Christie returned to the themes of truth-telling and lies, implying that under Trump, the Republican Party had lost its way.
“All this lying has done harm to our nation, to our party and to ourselves,” he said.
Christie also took dead aim at Trump’s divisive rhetoric and habitual lying, which he said had warped the GOP.
“If the requirement in today’s politics for getting your support is to say a bunch of things that aren’t true — no, thank you. If it requires bending to the will of any one person rather than advocating ideas for the good of all people, then count me out. No man, no woman, no matter what office they’ve held or wealth they’ve acquired, are worthy of blind faith or obedience. That’s not who I am, and that’s not who we are as Republicans, no matter who is demanding that we tie our futures to a pile of lies. We deserve much better than to be misled by those trying to acquire or hold on to power,” he said.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Christie labeled Trumpism — again by inference and not directly — as an authoritarian movement, and rejected conservatives who have embraced foreign right-wing leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as role models.
“We have to reject those who try to lure us down rabbit holes, into alliances with bad actors, and over to the grip of authoritarianism. Authoritarian dictators are not strong leaders to be admired. They are bullies hoping to fool the crowd just one more time,” he said.
Christie also harked back to the Republican Party’s struggle with the John Birch Society, a far-right movement in the 1950s that pushed conspiracy theories and labeled President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a communist sympathizer. Mainstream Republicans fought back against the John Birch Society and other radicals and successfully purged them from the GOP, which helped pave the way for more palatable conservatives like Ronald Reagan to win the presidency.
Christie said this is another time when Republicans must “combat extremism” in their ranks.
“We need to discredit the extremists in our midst the way we have done before,” he said. “We need to renounce the conspiracy theorists and truth deniers, the ones who know better and the ones who are just plain nuts.”
That is a step that most in the GOP have avoided since Trump captured the party. And Christie, although a sometimes critic of Trump when he was president, also played a significant role in Trump’s winning the nomination.
In 2016, Christie was blamed by some in the party for helping Trump by effectively knocking Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida out of the Republican nominating contest during the New Hampshire primary. As Rubio gained in the polls and gathered momentum, Christie went after him directly on the campaign trail, and then humiliated him in a televised debate three days before the Granite State voters went to the polls. Rubio’s campaign never recovered.
And Christie never turned his considerable prosecutorial skills — honed for six years as a U.S. attorney in New Jersey — against Trump, a decision that many in the GOP found puzzling and disturbing at the time. But the disappointment of Trump opponents in the GOP paled in comparison to their horror when Christie shocked the political world by endorsing Trump a few weeks after the New Hampshire primary. He was arguably the first truly influential establishment Republican to back him, giving the reality TV personality and businessman some much-needed credibility.
Christie was briefly in Trump’s inner circle during the campaign and was thought to be a contender for a Cabinet post but was effectively exiled by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to Christie’s account. Christie had prosecuted Kushner’s father, the real estate baron Charles Kushner, for crimes that included a bizarre scheme to blackmail his own brother-in-law by sending him a prostitute, videotaping their sexual encounter and then using that tape against him.
Yet Christie remained an outside adviser to Trump for much of his presidency, and didn’t fully break with him until after the Jan. 6 insurrection, which was sparked by Trump’s avalanche of lies about the voting results. Trump’s supporters, Christie told ABC News, launched their assault on the Capitol because they had been “lied to consistently by the president about a fraudulent election.”
He said Trump had “violated his oath and betrayed the American people” by inciting the violent insurrection and then doing nothing for hours to quell the attack.
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