It seemed likely that after Donald Trump lied about the residents of Jersey City’s behavior on Sept. 11, 2001—claiming they cheered the attacks across the river in New York City—Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, would be first in line to repudiate him.
That was a naïve assumption. It turns out a Republican presidential candidate would sooner slow-dance with Hillary Clinton than criticize the party’s frontrunner in defense of American Muslims.
At a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on Saturday, Trump said, “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down, and I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering!”
This is, of course, incorrect. The New York Times reported that rumors of Muslims cheering in New Jersey were “discounted by police officials at the time.”
Trump then claimed on Sunday on ABC’s This Week that he had seen footage of the thousands of people cheering on TV—but no such footage seems to exist.
A request for comment from Christie, sent at around 10:30 Sunday morning, went ignored all day by his campaign. Which was curious, since the governor’s tough talk against “crazies” fear-mongering about Muslims—never mind his constant talk about the 9/11 attacks throughout the course of his presidential campaign—has been a defining aspect of his governorship.
In 2011, Christie nominated Sohail Mohammed as a Superior Court judge. When rumors began to circulate on the Internet that Mohammed was tied to terrorism and sympathetic to Sharia, Christie came to his aid.
“This Sharia law business is crap,” he said. “It’s just crazy and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.” (In 2014, he responded to a question about his record on Islam with an even more passionate defense of Mohammed. “Sohail Mohammed knows about as much about jihad as I do, being an Italian-Irish kid from Newark, New Jersey,” he said. “Sohail Mohammed knows about as much about Sharia law as I do.”)
That did not go over particularly well with the far right. In 2012, the conservative National Review wrote about “Christie’s Islam Problem,” attacking him for, in addition to Mohammed’s nomination, having publicly “embraced and kissed” an imam.
In 2013, when the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, put Christie on its list of public figures who “deserve recognition for their outstanding contributions to pushing back against Islamophobic trends in 2011 and 2012,” things only got worse. The Clarion Project, a group “challenging Islamic extremism,” reported on Christie’s honor by claiming that CAIR is “a Muslim Brotherhood front.”
Christie was a lot stronger politically in 2013—having been begged so often to run for president in 2012 that he finally had to threaten to commit suicide—than he is now, in 2015. Scandal made him weak, and the rise of Trump, it seemed, made him weaker. But even so, as of this September, he wasn’t pandering to the Islamophobic faction of his party.
After Trump allowed a man at a town hall to characterize President Obama as a Muslim, Christie said, “I wouldn’t have permitted that… If someone brought that up at a town hall of mine, I would have said, ‘Before we answer, let’s clear some things up for the rest of the audience,’ and I think you have an obligation as a leader to do that.”
It’s hard to say what changed after that.
This week, as WNYC’s Matt Katz points out, when Christie was asked about his 2011 appointment of Mohammed last week, he distanced himself from the idea that he was an ally to moderate Muslims.
When he complained about “crazies” being obsessed with Sharia, he said he was just talking about it in the context of “a specific appointee of mine.” He added, “there is no one in this race who has been tougher on radical Islamic terrorism than I’ve been.”
When Christie was finally asked by a reporter about Trump’s 9/11 attacks claim while campaigning in New Hampshire on Sunday evening, he responded, “I don’t recall that. I don’t. I mean, listen, I can’t say, Matt, I can’t say that I have—it was a pretty emotional time for me because, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s family involved, there’s friends involved, and so it was a pretty harrowing time. I do not remember that. And so, it’s not something that was part of my recollection. I think if it had happened, I would remember it. But, you know, there could be things I forget, too. I don’t remember that. No.”
Christie often tells of how he was called by President Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, and told that he had been chosen to serve as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey. (He was confirmed by the Senate in December 2001 and took office in 2002).
Surely, had thousands of Muslims taken to the streets of Jersey City (a place with fewer than 300,000 total inhabitants!) the following day to cheer a terror attack, such an event would have seared itself into the future U.S. attorney’s mind.
Christie’s campaign slogan, by the way, is “Telling It Like It Is.”