The legend of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in national Republican politics was forged at the Jersey Shore, where he shrewdly spun headlines that were cotton candy for the GOPâs base â and for reporters.
âGet the hell off the beach!â Christie barked in 2011, as Hurricane Irene fast approached the coast. A year later, while holding an ice cream cone, he clashed with a heckler on the Seaside Heights boardwalk in the wake of enacting conservative fiscal policies that thrilled activists and donors.
But those electric days now seem like ancient times to longtime Christie observers. His prominent profile has all but drifted away following years of defeats and humiliations â punctuated this week by aerial images of him sitting on an isolated strip of sand that ran on a cable-news loop.
Sporting floppy sandals and a baseball cap, Christie unapologetically lounged in the sun with his family at a state-owned beach house amid a statewide government shutdown that closed such beaches to the public. The scene â captured via airplane photographs snapped by the stateâs largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger â once again revealed the indifferent defiance that has both lifted and hobbled Christieâs political career. That attitude thrust him into stardom and then out â and into President Trumpâs inner circle and then to its edge.
For those who know Christie â who is the most unpopular governor in the country, according to polls â the pictures of him among the dunes at Island Beach State Park were a reflection of who he has always been: a flawed brawler who relishes the limelight and who deliberately ignores decorum.
âIt tells me nothing that I havenât known for a very long time. Heâs petulant, a bully and his nature is to fight, fight, fight,â New Jersey state Sen. Richard J. Codey, a Democrat who served as acting governor from 2004 to 2006, said in an interview Monday. âI get along with every former governor, but not with him.â
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Christie was âTrump before Trump.â
âFrom the moment I met him in our first meeting in 2009, to Mondayâs press conference, he has been someone who is inÂcredÂibly comfortable in his skin. He does what he wants to do and his success can be traced to that,â Steele said. âBut there are consequences, of course, when you work that way.â
Similar stories of his swagger are legion. Christie used to take a 55-foot-long State Police helicopter to his sonâs baseball games. He was asked to give the keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention but uttered only a few words about the partyâs standard-bearer, Mitt Romney. Christieâs taste for luxury travel has been funded by foreign leaders and a casino magnate. And his time in the ownerâs box cheering on his beloved Dallas Cowboys sparked a flurry of ethics questions.
Yet Christie has not been humbled by his waning support or inclined to keep a lower profile as he serves out his final months. Instead, he has been as dismissive and as unflinching as ever.
âThe 15 percent approval rating has gotten to him, to the point that heâs giving a giant middle finger to the people of New Jersey by sitting on that beach,â Bob Ingle, a Christie biographer, said in reference to recent polling. âHe is so stubborn, so thin-skinned, and blames everyone but himself for what has happened.â
Even New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, his deputy since 2010 and the GOPâs nominee to succeed him, has criticized Christie for his sojourn on state land as the budget impasse in Trenton continues.
âItâs beyond words. If I were governor, I sure wouldnât be sitting on the beach if taxpayers didnât have access to state beaches,â Guadagno said in a statement.
Christie, in his typical style, has swatted away the controversy. âThatâs the way it goes,â Christie said Saturday when asked about his stay. âRun for governor, and you can have the residence.â
Uproar over the photos â dubbed âBeachgateâ online â continued Monday as some of the stateâs ânonessential servicesâ remained shuttered. Among those affected were a Cub Scout group forced to leave a state park campsite and drivers unable to obtain documents from the state Motor Vehicle Commission, the Associated Press reported.
On Monday, Christie tweeted his own photo from above the Jersey Shore, noting that âbeaches are open in 119 of our .â.â. 130 miles of coastlineâ â the implication being that residents had alternatives to the closed stretch of beach that Christie and his family had occupied by themselves. The tweet spurred another round of shaming on social media.
Christieâs spokesman, meanwhile, punched back at the Star-Ledger.
âThe governor announced Monday on âAsk the Governorâ and at subsequent news conferences that he would be joining his family at the beach this weekend,â Brian Murray told The Washington Post. âWe are gratified the Star-Ledger has confirmed what he said on three occasions.â
In an interview with a New York-based Fox affiliate, Christie also mocked the paper. âI am sure they will get a Pulitzer for this one,â he said.
The insouciant remarks were the latest in a string. When asked late last month about the recent Quinnipiac University poll that showed him with 15 percent support, Christie shrugged.
âThat fact is, who cares?â Christie told reporters. âYou guys care much more about that stuff than I do. Iâve said to you over and over and over again: Poll numbers matter when youâre running for something. When youâre not running for something, they donât matter a bit, and I donât care.â
Christie rose to prominence nearly a decade ago because he embodied the combative ethos that many GOP voters found Âlacking in the partyâs national leadership. He tangled with Âpublic-sector unions in a deep-blue state, so much so that his town halls became YouTube sensations. When he ran for reelection in 2013, he won a crushing 60.4Â percent of the vote.
But soon after that victory, scandal erupted. A handful of his aides were implicated, and later given prison sentences, for orchestrating traffic jams on lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as part of an effort to punish a small-city Democratic mayor.
Christie still mounted a bid for the presidency ahead of 2016 and there were flashes of the Christie of old, especially when he took on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a debate with the brutal flair he had mastered as a federal prosecutor. But his ambitions had been badly damaged by the bridge-closing incident, and he dropped out after the New Hampshire primary.
His struggles at home have only grown since. Driven by his pledge to get the stateâs biggest health insurers to fund programs for opioid addiction â which has become a core cause for him â Christie has attempted to pressure state lawmakers to work with him on the issue. They have refused, and the government has shut down.
âWith Christie, the tragedy is that heâs always had to work with a left wing, Democratic legislature. Except for the first year, when he had shock value as a new governor, he hasnât been able to get things through,â said Larry Kudlow, a CNBC commentator who advised Trumpâs presidential campaign. âHe has not been able to implement his promises and his hopes for growth.â
Christieâs experience with Trump has also been defined by fits and starts. They bonded after Christie endorsed Trump last year, but Christie found himself ridiculed in March 2016 when he grimly stood behind Trump at an event. The pictures from that episode went as viral as those from the beach.
âNo, I wasnât being held hostage. No, I wasnât sitting up there thinking, âOh, my God, what have I done?âââ Christie later said.
Then, in May of last year, Trump poked fun at Christieâs appetite. At a rally, he asked Christie, âYouâre not eating Oreos anymore, are you?â
âNo more Oreos for either of us, Chris. Donât feel bad,â Trump said.
The indignities went on throughout the summer. Christie was in play to be Trumpâs running mate and at one point thought he had all but clinched it, according to several people close to the campaign. But Trump ended up tapping then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
During several debate prep sessions, Trump veered between enjoying Christieâs company and being annoyed by what Trump saw as an eagerness to be seen as a central and influential campaign adviser, according to two people involved in the sessions who were not authorized to discuss them.
Soon after Trump won, Christie â who had been managing the transition team â was unceremoniously let go and the son of a man Christie previously prosecuted â Trumpâs son-in-law Jared Kushner â largely took over.
Ever since, Christie has occasionally visited the White House and remained friendly with Trump, who has appointed him to lead a task force on opioid addiction.
At one meal together, Trump ordered for Christie. ââThis is what itâs like to be with Trump,ââ Christie told a radio show . ââHe says, âThereâs the menu, you guys order whatever you want.â And then he says, âChris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.ââââ
Steele said that regardless of Christieâs stumbles, he retains stature in parts of the Republican Party as a survivor.
âI know people want to write his political epitaph, people want him to go away,â Steele said. âBut this is someone who doesnât go away. When they say âdamaged goods,â it doesnât matter to him. A Senate run, a presidential run, an administration job â anything like that â could be whatâs next.â
Amy B Wang contributed to this report.