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How Chris Christie's 2016 "lock her up" speech fueled Trump's rise — and brought us here

Salon
Salon
 2022-08-13

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ in slightly different form, and has been updated by the author. Used by permission.

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Of course, in the midst of the late Friday afternoon media feeding frenzy over the release of the Justice Department search warrant and inventory of what was taken by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump issued a statement claiming "it was all declassified."

According to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the classified treasure trove removed from Trump's Florida manse on Monday included 11 sets of documents, "some marked as 'classified/TD/SCI' documents — shorthand for 'top/secretive/sensitive compartmentalized information."

As soon as the news broke about the FBI raid, Republican partisans declared it was a political witch hunt. With no confirmed information of what the agents were looking for, they began imputing the most corrupt motives possible to these public servants. Just as in the lead up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump and the right-wing media whipped the infantry up to a lather, with predictable results. On Thursday morning, a man later identified as 42-year-old Ricky W. Shiffer turned up at the Cincinnati FBI field office with a nail gun and as AR-15 style rifle. After firing off the nail gun in an attempt to breach the FBI office he drove off, and a police chase ensued followed by a six hour standoff, which ended with police shooting Shiffer dead after less lethal strategies failed.

Shifter reportedly was part of the mob at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was locked and loaded. Even now, more than 18 months after Trump kneecapped the Biden transition and carried out a multi-pronged attack on the peaceful transition of power, his partisans are casting the former president as a victim. They are also going to great lengths to encourage America's distrust of institutions, including the Justice Department, the FBI and the IRS.

"The FBI raid on President Trump's personal residence is unprecedented and raises a number of concerns about the power of the ruling party to investigate its political opponents," wrote Bob Hugin, chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee. "Just this week, Democrats here in New Jersey voted to fund another 87,000 new IRS agents. Make no mistake about it: this new robust agency will harass small business owners, political adversaries, and law-abiding Americans. It is more essential than ever to elect a Republican Congress this November to put an end to one-party rule."

How did we come to this nadir, where the DOJ must go to a judge to sign a warrant so the FBI can search the residence of a former president? I flash back to that hot July night in Cleveland, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, when then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered an ad hominem attack on Hillary Clinton, during which delegates devolved into a mob yelling, "Lock her up! Lock her up!"

I was on the floor of the convention, at the lip of the stage, as Christie threw the red meat out to the vengeful crowd. I knew in that instant that America would never be the same because the Republican Party's glue, what now held it together, was an anger and a sense of grievance that Christie channeled as he played judge, jury and executioner, with the howling mob as his Greek chorus.

He relished it. In all my years of covering political conventions, I had never heard a more incendiary speech.

Since then Christie has attempted to pirouette away from his persona as Trump's hatchet man. But he told America that night in Cleveland that Trump was "not only a strong leader but a caring, genuine and decent person."

"I am here tonight not only as the governor of New Jersey, but also as Donald Trump's friend for the last 14 years," he said. Christie was an early booster of Trump's candidacy and as former chairman of the Republican Governors' Association lent Trump some legitimacy to compensate for his thin political résumé.

Christie suggested that since the Department of Justice under Barack Obama had refused to prosecute Clinton, he would use his speech to allow the American people to be "a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in living rooms around our nation," in order to "hold her accountable for her performance and her character."

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He took policy choices of the Obama administration, executed by Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, tossed in the supposed issue of how she handled her work emails and then hit the juicer button on his rhetorical blender.

He went on to blame Clinton for the status of every global hotspot. Just as Trump would do with his attack on the integrity of election officials, Christie, himself a former Justice Department employee, sought to undermine the DOJ's legitimacy for not prosecuting Clinton.

It was Strongman 101: Your institutions are rotten — only the junta will manifest your will!

"Since the Justice Department refuses to allow you to render a verdict, let's present the case now, on the facts, against Hillary Clinton," Christie said. "She was America's chief diplomat. Look around at the violence and danger in our world today. Every region of the world has been infected with her flawed judgment."

Rereading this speech offers some real ironies, in light of how Trump actually governed as president. Christie took Clinton to task for going easy on Vladimir Putin by "going to the Kremlin on her very first visit" and giving him "the symbolic reset button. The button should have read 'delete.' She is very good at that, because she deleted in four years what it took 40 years to build."

In the years since Christie recommended him, Trump pitted blue states against red states, dividing a nation as it faced a once-in-a-century mass death event and badly needed cohesion. And when weary voters overwhelmingly rejected him, he obstructed the orderly transition of power and plotted a multi-faceted insurrection to derail the peaceful transition of power.

And as we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, this particular strain of self-righteous Republican politics, which Christie's 2016 speech helped spawn, is capable of seizing the U.S. Capitol and building a gallows. Now, as the justice system finally attempts to hold Trump accountable, Republican members of Congress openly call for "defunding the FBI."

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