Christie Tough on Crime? Sure. Tough On Terror? Fuggedaboutit

When Chris Christie ran for governor, he was the ultimate crime fighter. Now that he’s running for president, and ISIS looms large, he’s the terrorist-hunter extraordinaire.

12.17.15 6:00 AM ET

To hear Chris Christie the Presidential Candidate tell it, he’s Captain America: He was named the United States Attorney from New Jersey on Sept. 10, 2001. The following day, the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists, and the country changed forever. Christie spent the next chapter of his life at the center of the anti-terrorism effort, thwarting plots with his meaty fist from the prosecutor’s office in Newark, which overlooks downtown Manhattan, where the towers once stood.

Six years ago, Christie the Gubernatorial Candidate was telling a different story about his time as the U.S. Attorney: that he had fought public corruption and protected New Jersey’s residents from crooked politicians. The swamp had seemed beyond repair before he got in, but he’d managed to lock up 130 public officials, more than one per month, during his tenure.

He never said much—or anything, really—about terror.

But the terrorism narrative plays better now as he’s grasping for the White House, most recently from a lectern in Las Vegas during Tuesday night’s Republican debate. To the majority of Republican primary voters watching, terrorism is the biggest issue our country has to face—whatever Christie did to put smallball Jersey politicians in jail doesn’t matter to them at all. Tuesday night, the governor brought up the 9/11 attacks three separate times without prompting.

Unlike those candidates not from the Northeast, he knew people—lots of them—who died in the attacks, he said. He spent days attending funerals. He thought, for a few hours that day, that he was going to have to attend the funerals of his wife, Mary Pat, and brother, Todd, since they worked near the towers and he couldn’t get ahold of them.

He repeatedly said that he’s a former federal prosecutor with first-hand experience making “consequential decisions” that lawmakers in Washington know nothing about. Those do-nothings in the Senate in particular had never made a tough choice. Never done a thing that could make the difference between life or death.

He used his closing remarks to make that crystal clear.

“Terrorism, radical jihadist terror, is not theoretical to me. It’s real. And for seven years, I spent my life protecting our country against another one of those attacks,” he said.

“You won’t have to worry when I’m president of the United States whether that can be done, because I’ve already done it. I want the chance to do it again to protect you, your children, and your families. If you give me the chance and give me your vote, I will protect America from the wars that are being brought to our doorstep.”

At 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2001, according to Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise To Power (which was written with his cooperation), Alberto Gonzales, counsel to President George W. Bush, picked up the phone and called Christie to inform him that he was the president’s choice for U.S. Attorney.

Bush publicly announced his choice Dec. 7, and Christie was confirmed by the Senate on Dec. 20. He took office in January 2002. Despite this, Christie has repeatedly suggested—in every debate so far—that he became the U.S. Attorney the day before the terror attacks occurred.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told me, “From Day One, the U.S. Attorney’s office under Chris Christie was all about anti-corruption—which actually surprised a lot of us in New Jersey, considering what had just happened in Lower Manhattan right before he became U.S. Attorney.”

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Murray, like a lot of people in Jersey politics, said he could tell you from memory Christie’s biggest corruption cases, as well as that magic number—130—but, “I can’t tell you off the top of my head how many terrorism cases there were.”

“It’s definitely a rebranding,” he said. “There’s nobody on the ground here in New Jersey who remembers any emphasis on his anti-terrorism efforts in terms of what he was trying to do as U.S. Attorney.”

Rick Shaftan, a Republican consultant from New Jersey and frequent critic of the governor’s, said, “I don’t know what he did on terrorism.”

Shaftan admitted it was smart politics for Christie to repackage his tenure as an anti-terror sprint, but he said Christie doesn’t have much else to run on.

“Christie’s just like, whatever’s gonna work this week,” Shaftan said. “Terrorism wasn’t an issue when he was running [for governor], now it’s an issue, so he’s pivoting.”

Christie had worked hard to become known for cleaning up the swamp of corruption. He’d courted the press like his last name was Schumer, taking meetings with newspaper editorial boards, leaking news of indictments and perp walks, and holding triumphant pressers to announce his latest scalps—all to make sure that everyone knew it was Chris Christie who was personally terrifying officeholders in every corner of the state, from Hudson to Camden.

The authors of Inside Story of His Rise to Power, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons, wrote that, “On a single day in 2002, a contractor was sentenced for paying a $9,000 bribe, a municipal authority employee pleaded guilty to bribing contractors, a housing authority executive was indicted, and a federal prosecutor revealed that three county workers were likely to plead to corruption charges in advance of a major trial.”

With that reputation came murmurs that maybe he should run for governor, and then his eventual decision to give it a try.

On Feb. 4, 2009, Christie announced his candidacy in Newark. He said that fixing New Jersey wouldn’t be easy, but that if anyone was up for the task, it was him. “In my seven years as United States Attorney I never shied away from the tough decisions,” he said. “Whether the criminals were rich or poor, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, we were equal opportunity prosecutors. As governor, I won’t shy away from the tough decisions either. Believe me, I know how to hold people accountable.”

A 30-second campaign ad touting his record as U.S. Attorney focused only on the corruption cases he’d brought, boasting that Christie had “led the war” on crooked public officials. In another commercial, Christie bragged about how he “put corrupt politicians in jail” and “took on polluters” as the U.S. Attorney. He never mentioned terrorism.

At an event in Ocean County during that campaign, he described himself as a “former federal corruption prosecutor.”

In contrast with his corruption record, Christie’s antiterror résumé is rather short.

His campaign provided The Daily Beast with a list of his accomplishments: he set up a terrorism unit with eight assistant U.S. Attorneys, he approved the tracking of suspects’ locations through their cellphones without a warrant, and he reorganized the prosecutor’s office so it would work more efficiently.

As for actual terrorism cases, there are only two: Hemant Lakhani in 2005, a 71-year-old (now-deceased) British citizen who had been recorded saying he “was willing to broker the sale of shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down American passenger jets” and the “Fort Dix Six” in 2007, when five Islamic men and their gun dealer were arrested for allegedly plotting to kill U.S. soldiers “at various installations, including the Fort Dix Army a base in New Jersey.”

In both cases, FBI informants played central roles in nailing the suspects, leading some critics to suggest the charges were the results of entrapment.

The Lakhani case was the subject of a 2009 This American Life installment, which painted the portrait of Lakhani as a hapless charlatan who had stumbled into the FBI’s trap despite possessing no ability to broker missiles of any kind. The Fort Dix case was torn apart and dissected by The Intercept in 2015, where reporters Murtaza Hussain and Razan Ghalayini made the case that the FBI worked overtime to convince the accused men to agree to commit terrorist attacks that Christie and his office then “thwarted.”

But Tuesday night, Christie the Presidential Candidate called Lakhani and Fort Dix “two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world.”

That doesn’t seem quite right, but Christie is hoping Republican primary voters will want Batman more than than they want facts.