In case you were wondering, if you are president of the United States — or a Senator, for that matter — you are not allowed to let foreign governments pay for your travel. In fact, you’re not allowed to take gifts — above a nominal value — from foreign agents at all.
The reasons seem fairly obvious. The idea that an elected leader might tilt policy to favor countries that bestowed gifts or paid for foreign travel is not an alien one — and accepting ostentatious offerings would certainly look mighty bad, regardless of any directly discernable quid pro quo.
That’s the case for presidents, but it’s not the case for those who just want to be president. At least not in New Jersey.
Chris Christie, the Garden State governor and all-but-announced candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, has champagne wishes and caviar dreams that date back to his days as a U.S. attorney, when he was infamous for regularly exceeding his travel budgets. And when Christie took over as New Jersey’s chief executive, he wasn’t about to let perception, ethics, or personal ambition — nor the law, it seems — get in the way of a posh ride on a private jet.
In 2010, Christie signed an executive order that allows New Jersey governors to have travel and related expenses paid for by foreign governments. And, as reported Tuesday by the New York Times, Christie has taken full advantage of his self-regulated privilege.
When Chris Christie traveled, with a security detail and multiple members of his family, to Israel and Jordan in 2012, he wrapped up his “trade mission” with three parties in Jordan — two at the king’s residence, one in the desert, all, apparently, with U2 lead singer Bono. And while there, the Christie entourage stayed in rooms at luxurious Kempinski hotels (you apparently can’t write “Kempinski” without also writing “luxurious”) that cost about $30,000, all told.
But who’s counting when your bill is forwarded to King Abdullah of Jordan? Which is exactly what happened.
The flight over was paid for by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who, while not a country, does have interests in some of them ... and some states, too. Like New Jersey, where, back in 2012, an online gambling bill was before the governor.
The Times explains theories on why that particular bit of politicking did not come out exactly to Adelson’s liking, but that wasn’t the only highlight in the Adelson-Christie relationship ... and will likely not be the last, as Adelson is a very-much-courted cashbox for conservative presidential hopefuls.
It also isn’t the only dodgy travel deal for Christie. The Times reports an ethics investigation is underway after a favorable contract was awarded by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to a company owned by Jerry Jones, who is also the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. The New Jersey governor is an unabashed Dallas fan — go figure — and flew to at least three Cowboys games on a private jet that was, yes, also owned by Jerry Jones.
When a direct payment looks suspect (or at least too suspect, even for Christie) or violates state pay-to-play restrictions, Christie turns to Choose N.J., a group the governor set up to, the Times reports, attract foreign business to New Jersey.
Choose N.J. paid for Christie’s trip to London, where the governor is today. Now, according to the New York Times, the U.K. doesn’t have a lot of interest in investing in New Jersey (that is found in Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland), but London is a hub for fundraising among American ex-pats. President Obama and Mitt Romney “raised more money in Britain than in any other foreign country,” said the Times.
Christie, is, of course, not the first politician to favor private jets and first-rate accommodations (the Times story mentions Hillary Clinton’s “dependence” — their word — on exclusive flights paid for by others), but the gaudy governor’s garish travel preferences runs counter to the “regular guy” ethos that Christie tries so hard to trade on at every turn.
Christie, the Times writes, “shot to national prominence as a cheese-steak-on-the-boardwalk Everyman who bluntly preached transparency and austerity as the antidote to bloated state budgets.”
But perhaps the governor’s “austerity for thee but not for me” lifestyle, complete with celebrity birthday parties and endless buffets at the world’s great hotels, is not really as alien to the country’s ethos as the story seems at first blush. The contrast may be offensive, Christie may be flouting the laws and the less-codified rules of good taste, and he may be trading good governance for personal gain, but he is also living the American dream.
Of course, the dream is just that — wholly unattainable for all but a fraction of a fraction of the public Christie hopes to woo — but it is not entirely unimaginable. It is the stuff of fantasy, but Christie’s fantasies, at least his public ones, are in some way “identifiable.” Who wouldn’t like to party in the owner’s box at a football game or sing on stage with Bruce Springsteen (or some other demographically appropriate equivalent) if given the chance?
As Christie told a New York Times reporter last year, “I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can.”