TRENTON — Bracing for the first of two hurricanes during his tenure, Gov. Christie memorably scolded New Jerseyans: "Get the hell off the beach!"
Now the governor, who once endeared himself to Garden State voters and the Republican Party with no-nonsense talk and a take-charge attitude, is facing a storm of outrage and ridicule over what is certain to be the enduring image of New Jersey's government shutdown: Christie and his family lounging on a beach that was closed to all other New Jerseyans.
Spotted by a Star-Ledger photographer flying over Island Beach State Park Sunday — not long before he would tell reporters at a Trenton news conference that he "didn't get any sun today" — Christie is drawing fierce backlash and worldwide media attention.
After the images were published at NJ.com Sunday night, they started trending as memes on social media, with users Photoshopping Christie in his beach chair into other evocative images: in the Oval Office, amid a crowd flanking President Trump with counselor Kellyanne Conway perched on a sofa nearby; on a beach with a half-buried Statue of Liberty behind him, as depicted in Planet of the Apes. Yet another online meme, evoking the Bridgegate scandal, showed New Jersey's First Couple, in their beach chairs, in the middle of a bridge. The hashtag #beachgate emerged.
The media-political spectacle contributed to the theater of the absurd that has consumed Trenton since the shutdown began early Saturday:
Following a meeting Monday to resolve the budget impasse that led to the shutdown, a key lawmaker said the parties had not come "closer" to a deal but weren't "farther apart";
Christie's spokesman, who contended Sunday that the governor's statement about not getting sun was accurate because "he had a baseball hat on," offered another creative defense of the remark Monday. Christie, who acknowledged staying in the park, "wasn't asked if he was on the beach," spokesman Brian Murray said on CNN. (A reporter had commented that Christie looked like "you got some sun").
Christie dismissed critics, saying he had a right to use the governor's residence at the park. "I'm sorry, they're not the governor," he said on Fox 29's Good Day Philadelphia Monday. "We have a residence in Princeton, and that place is a place where people can go and tour, but they can't if the government is closed. Am I supposed to move out and stay in a hotel?" The governor did not mention that he and his family live at a private home in Mendham.
After early-morning television interviews, Christie hunkered down in Trenton on Monday, tweeting out photos of the Jersey Shore and emphasizing that municipal and county-run beaches were open to the public.
Nonessential services were suspended Saturday, because of the Democratic-controlled Legislature's failure to pass a budget by its constitutional deadline.
Christie noted that he could not reopen government until the Legislature sent him a budget and said that he had been working in Trenton every day since the shutdown began.
But the beach photos left the impression that Christie was off vacationing while residents were inconvenienced and state workers were furloughed.
The episode captured long-brewing public sentiment that Christie has stopped caring about New Jersey since his unsuccessful presidential bid. Six months before leaving office, he is the least popular governor in the history of New Jersey polling. His approval rating was 15 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll last month.
Political analysts and pollsters say Christie's frequent out-of-state travel and backing of Donald Trump's nativist campaign turned the public against him.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is running as the GOP candidate for governor to succeed Christie, distanced herself from her unpopular boss Monday, writing on Facebook: "If I were governor, I sure wouldn't be sitting on the beach if taxpayers didn't have access to state beaches. It's beyond words."
As governor, Christie has often availed himself of the perks of the job, once declaring that "I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can." He has defended his decisions to join Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in his luxury box and take Jones up on his offer to fly Christie and his family on the owner's private plane to a playoff game.
Christie and his family once spent a weekend in Jordan as guests of King Abdullah, whom a Christie spokeswoman described as a "friend."
In 2011, Christie took two rides on a taxpayer-funded state helicopter to his son's baseball games. (He later reimbursed the state for $2,151.50.)
The governor told reporters that he used the state helicopter instead of driving the 59 miles to and from Island Beach State Park this weekend.
On Monday, Christie mocked the photos of his beach stay. "This is an incredible scandal," he said in the Fox 29 interview. "They actually caught a politician being where he said he was going to be with the people he said he was going to be with."
Then at a late-night news conference to discuss the settlement of the shutdown crisis, the governor said this:
"I think I've proven over the last eight years that I don't really care about political optics." He said he chose time with his family.
"I understand it's a holiday weekend and the news channels don't have anything else to cover."
Besides, he added, "If I was sitting next to a 25-year-old blonde … that's a story."
Forty-five states have official residences where the governor can choose to live, according to Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Some states, including New Jersey, North Carolina, and Michigan, have more than one such residence.
Drumthwacket, in Princeton, became New Jersey's official governor's residence in 1981. But no governor has lived there full time since Jim McGreevey in the early 2000s, according to Rutgers. The state has owned the residence at Island Beach State Park in Seaside Heights since the 1950s.
Before the beach photos emerged, Christie told reporters he did not know whether the public would blame him for the shutdown. Lawmakers "are up for election in November, not me," he said Friday.
As for how he'll leave behind his role as governor, Christie has not disclosed his plans for life after office. But there is one change he is looking forward to, he said Saturday.
"It's a five-letter word. I think money will make a lot of it up to me," he said.
Staff writers Rob Tornoe and Emily Babay contributed to this article.