A Tough Question for Chris Christie: Would Hillary Clinton Have Been Better Than Trump?

At a town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, Chris Christie cited a long list of promises that former President Donald J. Trump failed to deliver on while in office. Above all else, however, he expressed disgust at the idea that Republicans would consider renominating Mr. Trump after he “undermined our democracy” by lying about the 2020 election and inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The event took place on the campus of New England College. After several gray-haired attendees asked Mr. Christie about Medicare, prescription drug prices and the like, a 15-year-old audience member named Quinn Mitchell — who had also heard Mr. Christie strike similar themes a month earlier in New Hampshire — spoke up.

“I heard you say that one of the reasons you endorsed Trump is that you really did not want Clinton to be president in 2016. And now, based on recent knowledge that Trump was arrested — Trump was prosecuted on criminal charges — do you think that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would have been the better bet for democracy in 2016?”

Mr. Christie, who is exploring a 2024 Republican presidential bid, has positioned himself as the one G.O.P. hopeful willing to attack Mr. Trump. But a well-crafted question from Mr. Mitchell got to the heart of a contradiction in Mr. Christie’s posture, forcing him to own his support for the man he had just forcefully denounced.

“Hillary Clinton, in many, many ways, was a huge detriment to our democracy too. The American people had in 2016 the biggest hold-your-nose-and-vote choice they ever had. And so, look, philosophically, some of the stuff that Trump did accomplish is more in line with what I believe than what Hillary would have tried to accomplish. So I still would’ve picked Trump.”

Mr. Christie’s answer was revealing. As much of a threat to democracy as he had just declared Mr. Trump to be, Mr. Christie, the former New Jersey governor, could not bring himself to say that Hillary Clinton would have been the better choice to preserve democracy.

Mr. Christie’s unwillingness to declare that he would have voted for a Democrat if he had known what was coming gets to the heart of the dilemma for anti-Trump candidates. It’s why true Never Trumpers don’t trust candidates like Mr. Christie, who endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016 and in 2020 and served as an outside adviser while Mr. Trump was president. At the same time, Mr. Christie is making the straightforward political calculation that a would-be 2024 Republican who acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton would have been the better president would be dead in any G.O.P. primary.

The moment also highlighted the challenge that almost every current or potential Republican primary candidate faces against Mr. Trump: Almost all of them, some of whom served in his administration, have a history of praising or supporting Mr. Trump during his presidency — words that can be expected to come back to haunt them.

Alyce McFadden contributed research.

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