Gov. Christie said Tuesday that he thinks it is improper to criticize the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq who have chided GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump for seeking to keep Muslims out of the United States.
Trump's sharp reaction to the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan has drawn widespread condemnation, including from members of his party.
Calling the sacrifice made by the family of the slain American soldier "unfathomable," Christie said their loss gives them "the right to say whatever they want, right or wrong. . . . You're not going to find me being critical of Mr. Khan."
But Christie, an early backer of Trump, made it clear he still supports his fellow Republican, and took shots instead at the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Speaking last week to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the soldier's father, Khizr, excoriated Trump, pulling a copy of the Constitution from his coat pocket and asking if the candidate had ever read it.
Stung by Khan's remarks, Trump hit back, suggesting something was amiss because Khan's wife, Ghazala, had stood by silently as her husband spoke.
Christie was speaking Tuesday at a news conference in Trenton about state standardized test scores when he was asked about Trump's response to the Khans.
The New Jersey governor did not directly criticize Trump, who has variously called for at least a temporary halt to all or some Muslim immigration and campaigned to build a wall at the Mexican border to keep out undocumented immigrants.
Christie said he would not divulge any confidential advice he may have offered to the candidate amid the controversy. "I'll give my advice to him as I always do, personally and privately, and then he can do whatever he wishes," he said.
People "all need to be responsible for their own comments," the governor added, declining to characterize Trump's remarks.
He said "heated rhetoric" is a hallmark of presidential elections in the United States, pointing to the nasty 1824 race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, which included disparaging remarks about one of their wives.
"Presidential races . . . have the most enormous stakes, and as such, the rhetoric tends to become very heated. You're not going to change that. This is no worse than any we've seen before," he said.
Christie is the latest Republican to distance himself from Trump's remarks on the Khans, but he made it clear Clinton is the candidate he opposes.
Asked if Clinton was "the devil," as Trump called her during a campaign rally Monday in Pennsylvania, Christie said, "No, but she's unqualified to be president of the United States. Not the devil, but unqualified for the office of the president."
Pointing to FBI Director James Comey's findings in the Clinton email controversy, Christie called her "a serial liar" and said "her record as secretary of state is abysmal; her time as a U.S. senator has been fairly unremarkable."
Disowning her former boss' choice, Christie's former communications chief, Maria Comella - who helped shape Christie's presidential campaign - told CNN on Tuesday that she planned to vote for Clinton. She called Trump a "demagogue" who drums up fear and hatred.
At the start of the news conference, Christie announced that overall student scores on New Jersey's two-year-old standardized test exceeded or met expectations this year. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests in math, English, and language arts determine readiness for college or career.
PARCC has been controversial.
"We don't need a costly, controversial high-stakes test to tell us what we already know. New Jersey's schools perform at a very high level, and students living in poverty have greater challenges than their wealthier peers," the state's largest teachers' union said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
But Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said the results showed the effort was worth it. The group "applauds chief education officers, school and community leaders, students and their teachers and parents, board of education members, and district staff, for a job well done," he said.
Christie was noncommittal when asked whether he would sign a bill that would let veterans and others who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) use medical marijuana. "I'll read [the bill] . . . then I'll either sign it or veto it or send it back," he said. Veterans, citing a high suicide rate among those who have experienced anxiety from combat, have been lobbying for the bill. They have testified that medical marijuana has fewer side effects than other drugs and that it helps calm them.
Pennsylvania, Delaware, and several other states allow medical marijuana to be used to treat PTSD.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.