Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who recently drew a sharp rebuke from President Obama after declaring the U.S. shouldn’t allow any Syrian refugees into the country – not even orphans under the age of five – argued on Tuesday that Muslim-Americans share the same security fears as he does.
During a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, the New Jersey governor pointed to FBI director James Comey, who has acknowledged challenges of vetting Syrian refugees. Christie then argued, “Muslim-Americans are not nearly as sensitive as some people in opinion places here in Washington or at the White House think they are.”
“They are Muslim-Americans, and they understand that the safety and security of their families are at risk, just as the safety and security of Catholics are at risk, Protestants are at risk, Buddhists are at risk when the American homeland is not safe and not secure,” added Christie, who noted he hails from a state with a large Muslim-American population.
Several Muslim-American groups, however, have criticized the slew of predominantly Republican governors seeking to ban refugees in their states in the wake of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris. They call the effort fear-mongering and point out that the flood of refugees who have been fleeing to Europe and other regions are by in large doing so to escape civil war and ISIS-related violence.Christie used the speech as an opportunity to tout his days as a federal prosecutor in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 in a clear attempt to paint himself as a tough national security expert.
Since the attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and injured over 300, Christie has argued President Obama has underestimated the terrorist group known as ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the violence. It was a theme he hit on during his speech on Tuesday as he defended he stance on the refugee crisis.
Christie said that despite the Paris attacks, “the president and his administration continue to minimize ISIS.” Later, he added, “A real leader does not stand on foreign soil and belittle the leaders of states all across the country that he pretends to lead. I don’t care any less about the widows and orphans of the Syrian war than the president does … My focus is on the widows and orphans of Sept. 11 [in the United States]”
Christie, who is polling in the single digits and has struggled to gain much 2016 momentum, has tried to differentiate himself from the rest of the GOP field by arguing that fighting terrorism “isn’t theoretical to me.” On Tuesday, he re-told personal stories of waiting five hours on Sept. 11, 2001 to hear from his wife, Mary Pat, who was working in lower Manhattan. He re-told another anecdote about a member of their church named Frank whom his wife helped get a job at the World Trade Center but was killed in the attack.
As a matter of political strategy, Christie has largely focused on attacking President Obama and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, instead of his Republican rivals. When Donald Trump raised eyebrows over the weekend for saying he saw “thousands and thousands” of Arab-Americans cheering in Jersey City when the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, Christie’s response was milder than that of other critics, with the governor saying he simply didn’t “recall” Trump’s version.
“I do not remember that. And so it’s not something that was part of my recollection,” Christie said in New Hampshire on Sunday. “I think if it had happened, I would remember it. But, you know, there could be things I forget too. But I don’t remember that.”
Whether or not Christie sees an uptick in his poll numbers after the Paris attacks—especially as the national conversation turns to security—remains to be seen. But there are signs of life. While many other GOP candidates remain ahead of Christie in terms of popularity, Christie’s image among Republicans does seem to be improving, according to Gallup.