On Feb. 14, 2017, the day after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned amid a growing controversy over his contacts with the Russian ambassador, President Donald Trump had lunch at the White House with a longtime confidant: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
At the end of the lunch, Trump brought up then-FBI Director James Comey, who had once been Christie’s boss at the Justice Department. Was Christie still friends with Comey? Trump asked. Yes, the governor replied.
Trump told Christie to call Comey and tell him the president “really like[s] him,” according to the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, released by the Justice Department on Thursday. “Tell him he’s part of the team.”
It was one of several episodes, as described by Mueller, in which Trump confided in or solicited advice from Christie as he sought to navigate the investigation he feared might undermine his presidency.
While their friendship has been well-documented, the report offers a rare glimpse into their private discussions and suggests Trump thought he could use Christie to bring Comey in line.
Investigators for the special counsel interviewed Christie two months ago, on Feb. 13, according to the report, as part of their inquiry into whether Trump had obstructed justice in the Russia investigation. Mueller wrote that while "this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
But if Trump thought he could weaponize Christie, the former two-term governor had no interest in playing the part.
“Christie had no intention of complying with the President's request that he contact Comey,” Mueller wrote, citing an interview with Christie. “He thought the President's request was ‘nonsensical’ and Christie did not want to put Comey in the position of having to receive such a phone call. Christie thought it would have been uncomfortable to pass on that message.”
The report describes a conversation during the same lunch that Christie wrote about in his book, Let Me Finish, which was published earlier this year.
Trump declared to Christie that, with Flynn now out of the picture, “the Russia thing is over.”
“No way,” Christie said, laughing. The governor told Trump “this Russia thing is far from over” and “[w]e’ll be here on Valentine’s Day 2018 talking about this.”
Trump responded: “What do you mean? Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over.”
Paraphrasing Christie, the report says he advised the president not to talk about the investigation and that “there was no way to make an investigation shorter, but a lot of ways to make it longer.”
Christie added that Flynn was “like gum on the bottom of your shoe” — Trump would never be able to get rid of him.
Mueller considered Trump’s remarks to Christie in evaluating whether the president had criminal intent in pressuring Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into Flynn. The evidence showed that “the President connected the Flynn investigation to the FBI’s broader Russia investigation,” the report says.
Months later, after Trump fired Comey in May 2017, the president called Christie and complained that he was getting “killed” in the news media. Trump sought his friend’s advice.
Christie asked if Trump fired Comey because of a memo authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had concluded that the FBI director had violated Justice Department protocol during the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
“Yes,” Trump said, according to the Mueller report.
Then “get Rod out there” to defend the decision, Christie counseled.
“The President told Christie that this was a ‘good idea’ and said he was going to call Rosenstein right away,” Mueller wrote.
Trump called Christie again a few weeks later, around the same time the president directed White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed as special counsel.
McGahn refused to follow the June 17, 2017, order and considered resigning, but ultimately stayed.
Even as Trump was pressuring McGahn to fire Mueller, the president asked Christie what he thought about the idea. “Christie advised against doing so because there was no substantive basis for the President to fire the Special Counsel, and because the President would lose support from Republicans in Congress if he did so,” the report says.