The Hill | Coronavirus Report: The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Chris Christie

The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Read excerpts from the interview below.

Clemons: Tell us about the nonprofit you and your wife set up, a revolving fund for small businesses in your community.

Christie: Mary Pat and I were very frustrated watching what’s happening, especially with really small businesses here in New Jersey, because we have been one of the most locked down states in the country. So, we started something called the NJ 30 Day Fund. It was built off the idea that Virginia had come up with, a group of folks in Virginia started something called the Virginia 30 Day Fund. And here’s what it is: Companies between the size of three employees and 30 employees, so very small, we give them a $3,000 forgivable loan. If they get back on their feet and they could pay it back, we will pay it forward to the next business that needs help. And so, we started the fund with a $100,000 contribution from ourselves personally, and we’ve been raising money out there to do it, and we’re really happy to say that we have now helped over 100 businesses. I’ve gotten these loans already. The money is in their hands. We turn these applications around in three days, you get an answer and we just want to try to help people in this time that’s really hard. To let you know, we’ve been open now for about three weeks, and in three weeks we’ve gotten over 3,000 applications. So, it’s a real problem here in New Jersey, and hopefully this will help.

Clemons: Can you share some of the stories of the small businesses you’ve helped.

Christie: No, in fact, we put all these folks up on our website and they do video testimonials for us. If you go to NJ30dayfund.com, you can see who we’ve been giving the money to and what they’re using it for. But, I mean, Steve, we’re talking about everything from, you know, restaurants to small family marketing companies to obviously salons to people who are in the baked goods business, people who are in the other service type businesses. I mean, it’s been everything that you could possibly imagine. We’ve seen those types of businesses come across our transom here, and it’s heartbreaking. With each application, we give them a one-page application to fill out and they need to attach a video showing us their business because we want to see what we are investing in. And it’s been extraordinary to see people. We have one place down in South Jersey called the Red Quilt Company Store, and they make quilts and they help to teach people how to do quilting. They’ve been there for over 25 years, and they’re ready to go out of business. So, it’s been extraordinarily uplifting for us to be able to help these folks, but also let us know just how desperate this problem really is. And it’s not gonna get any better any time soon. 

Clemons: As we sit in the middle of a pandemic, what are your thoughts what we’ve been doing in response to the coronavirus. And two, what are your insights in how we can move from where we are today to something that’s working better than what we’re seeing.

Christie: Well, few things. First, going back to the transition, for those who are watching who don’t know, I was asked in April of 2016 to run Donald Trump‘s transition, and I did that along with a group of 120 other people over the course of April to November of 2016 and thereafter, as I chronicled in my book and has been written in Michael Lewis’s book, and a number of others, I was fired. And the political leadership of the president’s campaign, namely Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, took all the work that we did over that six month period and threw it, literally threw it into the dumpsters and started over with 70 days to go before they’re taking over the administration. … Mick Mulvaney just said this recently that he thinks the president’s biggest weakness was his selection of personnel. That all goes back to throwing all that material out the door. So, for instance, at HHS our number one recommendation for HHS was Alex Azar, instead, congressman Tom Price was selected. And I think that put HHS well behind the eight ball. The president ultimately got back to Alex Azar, and I think the HHS has been run really well since then. And thank goodness we have Alex Azar in that spot during this pandemic because he’s brought real professionalism to that position. But it’s incredibly important and when you look at the pandemic and managing it. One of the things that really good, smart, experienced personnel could bring you is they could do what I used to say in the governor’s office was seeing around corners. You know, everybody could see what’s in front of them. It’s anticipating, based on experience, seeing around the corner. And I think what happened here to the administration early on was it didn’t see around the corner of the pandemic. So, it kind of jumped on them. By the time they started to pay real close attention to it in the middle of March, it was already running out of control and so I think that was an early mistake that’s based, you know, not just upon whatever decision the president was making, but upon all the other people around him, in the White House and in other executive positions. So, it’s incredibly important as we move forward now, I think a lot of things have been done well. You know the ventilator situation. You don’t hear any concerns about ventilators anymore. The president invoked in the Defense Production Act. He got Ford and GM and other major companies to step in and help with the manufacturing. And you don’t hear anybody complaining that they won’t have enough ventilators and those ventilators are being made now. They have done good progress on PPE as well. You don’t hear anything about that anymore, again, invoking help from the outside to be able to manufacture that PPE right here in America so that we can get it and get it to those first-line responders that really need help and need to be protected from the virus themselves while treating those who were suffering from it. I think that we could have been more aggressive in the beginning, with the federal government playing a more aggressive role in telling the states what to do. But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, so we now have to rely on the nation’s governors to be able to do the job in a cohesive, smart way. I think Larry Hogan and Andrew Cuomo provided great leadership of the National Governors Association as chairman and vice chairman, and I think they’re trying as best they can. But remember every governor is elected on their own, and they have their own point of view, and so it just makes it a little more disjointed. But those decisions that were made early on, I think there’s no way you can change those at this point.

Clemons: What’s the right way of assuring the safety of children and their families and getting the reopening of schools right?

Christie: Well, listen, I think that more times than not, when you’re a governor, you need to rely upon the experts to give you good advice. And in this instance, I look at what the American Academy of Pediatrics has said. Now, no one’s ever accused them of having a political bench one way or the other and the American Academy of Pediatrics is saying, we need to have schools open, that it’s more harmful to keep children at home now than the risk is to them from contracting the virus. So, I think we should err on the side of opening. But if we’re gonna do that, there has to be a COVID four package and it has to be done before they go on recess in August. And there has to be aid to states and localities to help them deal with loss of tax revenue that’s happened. And to deal with the added expenses at the school level of having to deal with social distancing and other protections that need to be there. I think, quite frankly, Steve, less for the children than for the teachers, because the teachers tend to be older, can tend to have more of the comorbidities, than the children will have, and children to get the virus and pass it to their teachers, which I think is a much greater risk than the actual risk we’ve seen to young people from this particular disease, so I’m more concerned about the teachers and the administrators than I am at this moment about the children just because of what we’ve seen so far in the disease. So, I think what the federal government should do and the state and locals, they should follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I think they know what’s best for children, those physicians that care for them every day. But I also think you have to provide — only the federal government can provide states and localities with the resources they need under a crisis like this one. And so, I think it’s that combination of those two are what we should be doing as a government, as a people.

Clemons: How do we reestablish trust so that people may have their differences but we’re still pulling together as a nation? How do you get back and begin sending those signals that we’re all in the same boat?

Christie: Well, we’re in the midst of three crises, right now, right Steve? We have a pandemic. We have the economic crisis that was created by the pandemic, and we have a racial crisis which was created by police brutality and the history of that in our country and in certain places, and also exacerbated by the other two issues. Because people are very much on edge now, very much feel threatened because of those other two crises. So, I think what we need to do is to provide substantive relief on those three issues. Give answers. I think we have to reform the way we do policing in this country. I did it as governor in the city of Camden, which at the time in 2013 was rated the most dangerous city in America. 96 percent minority, Steve, and a $13,000 average per capita income. What did we do? We brought in an entirely new police department, 400 police officers for the same price that we had for the failed 250 member police officer group. And the two most important things we did, we talked community policing, which was get them out of the cars, get them on bicycles and on foot so they get to know the community. They’re not just a group of people with a gun sitting behind a smoked window in a car, but they are people who are part of their neighborhoods, who are partners with citizens, to try to make sure that the place stays safe. Second, we required the teaching, the regular teaching of de-escalation techniques. Our watchword on that was first, do no harm and that violence from police officers is an absolute last resort. What’s happened in the seven years since we did that in Camden? The murder rate is down 81 percent, so the city is safer. Two, the complaints by citizens of excessive use of force by police officers is down 95 percent. So, if it can be done in the city of Camden, it can be done all over the country. And I think the way to lessen these racial tensions is by going at the substance of the problem, and we need to teach police to police differently. And if we do that, all police officers will benefit from that and the public will benefit from it. And I think what people are starving for right now is less rhetoric, less red meat from both sides and more substance. And we haven’t had that, especially on the policing issues. We need more of that on that, and we need more of it on the pandemic as well.

Clemons: Any interest in running for president down the road?

Christie: Sure, yeah. I mean, you know, Steve, I’m 57 years old. I’ve had a great career as a U.S. attorney for seven years and eight years as the 55th governor of New Jersey and a job that I absolutely loved. But I was term limited after two terms, so I couldn’t seek reelection. I’m in the private sector now and enjoying that. But once you’ve been a governor, I think you always feel like you’ve got something to contribute. And so, yeah, I would certainly, you know, look at the race in 2024 and I would not back off from that at all. I feel like there are a lot of atmospheric things that happened in the lead up to the ’16 race, especially the Bridgegate matter which now has been dismissed by the United States Supreme Court in a 9-0 vote that there was no crime committed there. And yet the media and others convicted people before they even had a trial, and it materially affected my ability to run for president. Now that we’ve had that cleared away and it’s no longer a controversy, you know, from my perspective, maybe 2024 is time to try to go after that job again. I think I have a lot to contribute, and I think everybody sees that. You know, it’s very, very important to have competent executive leadership as you said in the beginning, at all levels of government and the kind of people that we could pick at the executive level of the federal government has a real impact on people’s day-to-day lives.