At the GOP primary debate Thursday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) misrepresented the timing of his appointment to a Department of Justice position by claiming to have been a United States Attorney at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
When Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Christie about his criticisms of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who argues that extensive surveillance programs created in the wake of the attacks violate the Bill of Rights, Christie invoked his personal experience with the attacks and ensuing law enforcement activity.
“I was appointed U.S. Attorney by President Bush on September 10th, 2001, and the world changed enormously the next day, and that happened in my state. This is not theoretical to me,” Christie said. In his closing remarks, Christie repeated the claim and date.
Reports from the time suggest that Christie’s nomination to the vacant U.S. Attorney slot in New Jersey was widely anticipated prior to the attacks. The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported that the White House had contacted Christie on September 10 to tell him they had begun the six-week vetting process that would precede his nomination. But Bush didn’t actually nominate him until December 7 of that year, and he did not assume office until early 2002. The “Meet Chris” section on Christie’s campaign website says that he “served as U.S. Attorney from 2002–2008.”
An editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger from September 7, 2001, says “Bush is preparing to name Morris County attorney Chris Christie” to the position. The New York Times article from December marking the official nomination notes that it was “expected for months.” Christie was confirmed the next month, after New Jersey’s two senators agreed to support the nomination despite their concerns that Christie had no prosecutorial experience at the time.
Christie’s misrepresentation of the timeline of his appointment, first reported by Marcy Wheeler, was enough to mislead NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on Thursday night’s post-debate broadcast. “Christie has not reminded people in a long time, he hasn’t had the forum to remind people, that he was a prosecutor on September 10th and September 11th, that he was locking up terrorists,” Mitchell said. Christie was not sworn in as a federal prosecutor until January 17, 2002.
Christie’s claim about the 10th was not a debate flub induced by bright lights and adrenaline. Christie has been claiming to have taken the USA job the day before the attacks for at least five years.
Christie’s direct experience with casework involving the fight against terrorism is no less real for having begun months after the attacks. Whatever he learned by moving from private practice on behalf of corporate clients into public service in the office that prosecuted some of the earliest cases in Bush’s Global War on Terror, he learned regardless of his start date. It’s unclear why he’s adopted this inaccurate description of his start date. But in rhetorical terms, claiming that he was in that job on that bloody morning allows him to more directly connect Americans’ collective emotional memory of that horror to his experience with the bureaucracy that’s supposed to uphold the Fourth Amendment in trying circumstances.
Indeed, Christie directly invokes the fear and shock of the September 11 attacks when he makes the claim on the campaign trail. Christie has repeatedly used the claim to portray civil libertarians like Paul as naïve theoreticians who don’t know anything about getting their hands dirty or seeing loved ones killed by terrorists.
“I think folks like those that are arguing against [dragnet surveillance] have a severe case of amnesia,” Christie said in a May interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I was nominated to be U.S. attorney on September 10, 2001. I have no amnesia about what happened the next day.” The erroneous timeline also featured in his June speech at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual conference: “I was appointed United States attorney for New Jersey by President George W. Bush on September 10, 2001. The next day my wife went to work two blocks from the World Trade Center. And I was on the phone with her when the second plane hit the second building.”
When American soldiers killed Osama Bin Laden back in 2011, Christie was even more explicit about premising his foreign policy and surveillance credentials on the erroneous timeline. “I was nominated to United States Attorney by President Bush on September 10, 2001. And the job that I accepted that day from the President became significantly different about eighteen hours later,” Christie said.
Christie has not been 100 percent consistent about how he presents the timeline, however. In a 2013 statement marking the passage of a law requiring out-of-state law enforcement agencies to notify the New Jersey government if they intend to conduct surveillance in the state, Christie abandoned his claim to have been in office when the planes hit the towers. “As a former U.S. Attorney appointed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, I strongly believe we need to do everything in our power to prevent terrorist attacks on our country and keep our people safe,” the governor said in a statement on September 9, 2013.
This post has been updated to clarify that Christie received word on September 10, 2001, that the White House was beginning background checks because Bush intended to nominate him, and to note the erroneous version of the timeline offered by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell during post-debate coverage.