AMHERST, New Hampshire – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie broke from some of his potential Republican presidential rivals Friday morning, saying he disagreed with Thursday’s federal appeals court ruling that the government’s collection of millions of Americans’ phone records is illegal.
The Republican, who has fallen to the back of the pack in the emerging 2016 field, argued after a meet-and-greet at a 1950s style diner in this crucial, early voting state that the program should continue and that it’s not an overreach of government.
“I believe there can be appropriate oversight by Congress and we have people in the Justice Department who can oversee whether the law is being followed or if the law is being violated. I’m not one of these folks who believe that we should bring our guard down, especially during this really dangerous time,” said Christie, who said he’ll make a decision on whether he’ll run for president sometime in May or June.
It’s an issue that has divided Republicans. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky hailed the court decision as “monumental” for “all lovers of liberty” and called on the Supreme Court to “strike down the NSA’s illegal spying program.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the ruling confirmed what many Americans already know – that the NSA “went too far in collecting the phone records.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was more in line with Christie, arguing on the Senate floor that a perception has been created “that the United States government is listening to your phone calls or going through your bills as a matter of course,” said Rubio. “That is absolutely and categorically false.”
On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York said the existing program “exceeds the scope” of what Congress allows under the controversial USA Patriot Act, which gives the government broad power to search private records and detain suspects in the name of fighting terror.
Critics have spent years condemning the Patriot Act – which was instituted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and allows the government to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records without a court order – arguing it tramples on civil liberties and allows the government to spy on innocent people. In 2011, Obama signed a four-year extension of the act, allowing the government to conduct roving wiretaps in an effort to thwart terrorists.
If no action is taken by the end of May, some provisions of the act will expire – including the ability to conduct roving wiretaps, business record searches and gathering information on individuals who are suspected of terrorist activity but aren’t necessarily affiliated with a particular group.
Christie said he would reauthorize the Patriot Act. “I’m not somebody who’s going to back away at all from the Patriot Act. It’s important and should be extended as is,” he said, calling it an “important tool” to prevent terrorism.
The governor has been in the Granite State since Thursday holding meet-and-greets and roundtables, as he tries to revive his 2016 presidential prospects. Christie is struggling in the polls – especially after federal prosecutors recently brought charges against three of his former allies over the scandal known as “Bridgegate.”
At Joey’s Diner on Thursday morning, several patrons said that while they don’t know all that much about the governor’s policies, they associate him with the intense scrutiny he’s received over the 2013 lane closures on the George Washington Bridge—carried out by some of the governor’s staffers and allies, seemingly for political retribution. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot.
Nashua resident Gene Abbott, sitting at the restaurant’s bar waiting for breakfast, said “It’s hard to believe someone with his power wouldn’t know about the lane closures.” But the 44-year-old, self-described independent said the scheme “wasn’t of paramount importance.”
Jack Balcom, a 65-year-old Merrimack resident dining on eggs and English muffins with two friends, said he was a big fan of Christie’s and that the lane closure scandal (which took place more than 250 miles away) did not bother him. “We laugh at what goes on in New York,” he said.
Others during the New Hampshire trip have said the lane closures – especially if more information comes out – could be a deal-breaker for them. During the Cheshire County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner in Keene, where Christie was the keynote speaker, Sarah Rooney, a 21-year-old student and independent from Keene said, “If I find out he is involved, I wouldn’t give him the time of day.”
On Thursday afternoon, Christie – after an event at a drug addiction treatment center in Manchester, emphasized that he cut ties with those he believed were involved and that he was not charged by federal prosecutors. “I have no misgivings about it. And I don’t think fair people looking at it will have misgivings either. They’ll understand that mistakes get made, and they’ll want to know do they have a leader who is strong enough to be able to own up to those mistakes, be accountable and then take the action necessary to fix them. That’s what we did,” he said.