On trip to bolster foreign policy credentials, New Jersey's Chris Christie avoids the subject

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's trip this week to the United Kingdom included a soccer match, a trip to the theater and an unexpected detour into the science and politics of vaccines.

What it largely lacked, at times glaringly, was a sense of the Republican's views of world affairs and foreign policy.

On previous trips overseas to Mexico and Canada, the likely 2016 Republican candidate for president discussed easing trade barriers and energy issues. In Britain, Christie delivered no formal speech to a think tank or industry group.

And at times, when given the chance by reporters to talk about high-profile world affairs such as the U.S.-led coalition's battle against the Islamic State, Christie wasn't interested.

"Is there something you don't understand about, 'No questions?'" he snapped at a Washington Post reporter who asked whether Christie had discussed the IS during one of his closed meetings with British dignitaries.

He was equally dismissive when a reporter from MSNBC asked his view of the role NATO should be playing in the world today. "I'm not going to get into that now," he said. "Even as I'm here in the U.K."

While officially billed as a trade mission aimed at boosting jobs in New Jersey, Christie's trip was unquestionably presidential stagecraft — a trip designed to give a politician with little occasion to conduct diplomacy as a governor a chance to be photographed with world leaders and build relationships with American allies.

Christie did some of that, meeting in private with British Prime Minister David Cameron and the country's treasury chief, George Osborne. But those meetings came after Christie visited a pharmaceutical company outside of Cambridge and was asked about a measles outbreak centered in California that's blamed by some on parents who don't vaccinate their children.

Christie, who during his first campaign for governor in 2009 pledged to fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions, said that while he and his wife had vaccinated their own children, "parents need to have some measure of choice." While his office later released a statement that said Christie believes that, "with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated," the initial comments provoked a wave of criticism.

The trip took another hit the next morning, when The New York Times published a front-page story detailing Christie travel habits, which the paper said includes staying at luxury hotels and flying by private jet when others are paying the bill.

Three scheduled opportunities for Christie to talk with reporters that day were all canceled, which then led to stories about Christie avoiding the media.

"Usually the goal of these trips is to beam back images of someone that you're hoping to show as an international leader on an international stage, and a lot of that's been washed out by all the headlines," said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant and top adviser to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's campaign.

Romney's own trip to the United Kingdom during his campaign was panned as a disaster after he suggested that London wasn't prepared for the city's upcoming Olympic games, giving Democrats a way to raise doubts about his diplomatic prowess.

Christie has spent the past several months studying foreign policy issues in private, a necessity for the former U.S. attorney and longtime New Jersey-based politician who doesn't have the experience in international affairs of some of his expected rivals for the GOP nomination, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, or the favorite for the Democratic nomination, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For that reason, Madden and others said the trip was still a valuable one for the Republican governor at this stage in the race.

"It's still the experience factor and the meetings and the relationships," said Lanhee Chen, who served as policy director for Romney's 2012 campaign. "I think that's all important and I think that all will serve him well in the long run."

Christie wasn't completely silent on foreign policy issues during the trip, answering a question about whether President Barack Obama had done enough to negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — a top priority for Cameron.

His answer touched on Obama's efforts to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program and normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. "As I've said before, I think the president has shown over and over again that he's not the most effective negotiator," Christie said.

But even that answer was seen as a possible faux pas, leading to questions for Christie about whether he'd broken from tradition by criticizing the president while on foreign soil.

"No, no, no. I'm not," he said. "No. Listen, what I'm saying is, I was asked a question about trade and I gave my answer on trade. So the fact is that I don't think he's been a very effective negotiator, and that's nothing new. That shouldn't be news to anybody. I've said that many times."


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