Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey laced into Donald J. Trump on prime-time television on Monday night, casting the former president as an “angry” and “vengeful” man who bears responsibility for thrusting the nation into another extraordinarily divisive moment, after Mr. Trump became the first former president in American history to face federal charges.
During a roughly 90-minute CNN town hall in New York, a high-energy and often-polished Mr. Christie leaned on his background as a former federal prosecutor, saying he believed the indictment was “a very tight, very detailed, evidence-laden indictment, and the conduct in there is awful.” Mr. Christie, who is running for president against Mr. Trump in a Republican primary field the former president dominates, said he believed prosecutors had more evidence than had been put forward so far.
Mr. Trump faces 37 criminal counts related to issues including withholding national defense information and concealing possession of classified documents.
“This is vanity run amok,” Mr. Christie told the moderator, Anderson Cooper. “He is now going to put this country through this, when we didn’t have to go through it.”
“He’s saying, ‘I’m more important than the country,’” Mr. Christie said at another point, as he questioned why Mr. Trump had, according to prosecutors, refused to turn over critical government documents. He suggested the former president missed the “trappings of the presidency.”
“We’re in a situation where there are people in my own party who are blaming D.O.J.,” he said, referring to the Justice Department. “How about, blame him? He did it. He kept — he took documents he wasn’t supposed to take.”
When he was not tearing into the current Republican front-runner, Mr. Christie could sound like a pre-Trump-era politician. He emphasized the importance of finding common ground and played up his credentials as a blue-state executive, even when some in the audience were plainly skeptical of the idea of compromise.
“With all due respect to these governors from red states who have Republican legislatures — man, I’m telling you, I would have given my own right arm to have a Republican legislature for a week,” Mr. Christie said at one point, seeming to draw an implicit contrast with Gov. Ron DeSantis, the powerful and pugnacious Florida Republican and another 2024 candidate who enjoys a supportive legislature in Tallahassee. “But what I learned was that, sometimes, getting 60 percent of what you want isn’t bad.”
In Washington, he continued, “you’re going to want somebody tough, who’s a fighter, but who fights to get to an end, to accomplish something for you. We can all fight to get headlines.”
He also noted that even with a Republican-controlled Congress for part of his tenure, Mr. Trump failed to deliver on a central campaign promise of securing the southern border.
“Not one piece of legislation to change our immigration laws,” he said, bashing Mr. Trump as a “bad executive.” “It is an abject failure, and now he blames Joe Biden for it. But what the heck did you do to make it better?”
For the most part, Mr. Christie, who announced his campaign last week, has tried to reintroduce himself to the nation as the Republican candidate most willing to forcefully confront Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Christie, who ran a short-lived campaign for president in 2016, has gained little traction in available polling this year and has a more unfavorable rating among Republican voters than any other candidate, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. And he occupies a relatively lonely lane. Most of the other 2024 hopefuls have shied away from much direct criticism of Mr. Trump.
“It was like he was Voldemort from ‘Harry Potter’ — nobody wanted to mention his name,” he said of a recent Republican campaign event, adopting a mocking voice. “Like, say his name, man, say his name.”
Mr. Christie was once a key adviser to Mr. Trump, and was a relatively early endorser of his 2016 campaign after his own bid collapsed. But he has since condemned Mr. Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and for his incitement of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
In the town hall, Mr. Christie compared Mr. Trump’s lies about a stolen election to how a child might try to explain away a bad grade, by offering a litany of dubious or false excuses.
“It’s a child’s reaction. And I just — I beg you to think about this,” he told the Republican-leaning audience. “Don’t allow the showmanship to obscure the facts. The facts are, he lost to Joe Biden. And he lost to Joe Biden, in my opinion, because he lost independent voters.”
Mr. Trump lashed out last week in response to Mr. Christie’s earlier criticism, mocking Mr. Christie’s weight and writing on his Truth Social platform, “Hard to watch, boring, but that’s what you get from a failed Governor (New Jersey) who left office with a 7% approval rating and then got run out of New Hampshire.”
Mr. Christie made few waves when questioned on issues unrelated to Mr. Trump, but offered a striking admission when a man whose son was killed in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre asked how he would reduce the enormous number of mass shootings in the United States.
His response was effectively: I don’t know.
“I’m mad because I don’t have a great answer,” he said, after saying that law enforcement needed to be more attentive to warning signs from potential attackers, but that he did not believe restrictions on guns would make a difference — in part because Americans already own hundreds of millions of them. He also said that reducing gun violence was in “tension” with the Second Amendment.
When reminded that early in his political career he supported an assault weapons ban, he called that “naïveté” and said he no longer believed it was appropriate.
On abortion rights, Mr. Christie declined to take a firm position on gestational limits — or whether he would sign a national ban, should he become president and one were to reach his desk — arguing that the matter was better left up to the states for now.
And on Social Security, he reiterated his support for means-testing the program, as he proposed during his 2016 campaign.
Time and again, Mr. Christie reinforced a central argument of his campaign: that he would be more responsible than Mr. Trump, but also more productive.
“Look, I think the single biggest thing I can contribute to unifying this country is to get rid of Joe Biden and get rid of Donald Trump,” he said. “They are past their sell-by dates, OK? It’s done. It’s time.”