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NBC's Lauer: Romney Questioned 'The Very Legitimacy of the President of the United States's Citizenship'

In an interview with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Tuesday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer was aghast at an off-the-cuff joke by Mitt Romney on Friday: "...he said, 'No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate,' an obvious reference to the birther debate. Is it – he says it was a joke. Is it funny to kind of pay attention to a fringe group and question the very legitimacy of the President of the United States's citizenship?" [Listen to the audio]

Christie replied: "Yeah, but he hasn't. I mean, he has been the clearest, the most affirmative of all the Republican candidates who are running for this nomination, in saying that he didn't think that was an issue." Lauer ignored the fact that President Obama himself has joked about his birth certificate on more than one occasion and that the Obama campaign actually raised money off the issue, selling mugs and t-shirts mocking the conspiracy theory.

Christie also appeared on ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning on Tuesday, no one asked him about the comment.

On Friday's Nightly News, fill-in anchor David Gregory hyped the remark by wondering if it really was a joke and declaring how it had "immediately erupted in controversy."

Earlier in the Today interview, Lauer asked Christie about his upcoming keynote address to the Republican National Convention Tuesday night and urged moderation: "Will you also, in this speech, say that the only way out of that trouble is the Republican way, solely the Republican way, or will you strike one of your common themes of compromise?"

Christie explained: "I'll use New Jersey as an illustrative experience about what can happen if you stick by your principles and look for ways to solve problems." Lauer shot back: "Except your locked in a pretty tough battle with Democrats in your own state right now, there's gridlock over your tax plan. So is that the absolute right message to be sending now?"

Unwilling to let the issue go, Lauer worried:

On the subject of compromise, the delegates who are attending here have been vocal, they've come right out and said they want a convention that takes a hard line against the Democrats. If they win the White House and they continue to control the House and perhaps even control the Senate, if your party does, do you think that people in this party are going to be in the mood for compromise?

Lauer then moved on to the favorite Democratic talking point about Romney not releasing enough tax returns: "By not releasing more information, is he not creating more mystery than needs to be created and has he not become somewhat of an enigma when it comes to his taxes?"

Christie responded: "I think the President has been a mystery and an enigma to a lot of people in terms of what he's really willing to fight for, what he really believes in. And I think that's much more important, on policy, than on what are side issues here, like taxes."

Lauer continued to grill: "And if you were a guy like Mitt Romney, who'd been in public office, in and out of public office 10 years, who'd been running for president for the better part of five years, wouldn't you have taken steps to take all of your money out of known tax havens, just to avoid the appearance of impropriety?"

Here is a portion of the August 28 interview:

7:13AM ET

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LAUER: You have said that you want to tell some very direct and hard truths to the country about the trouble we're in, in this speech tonight. Will you also, in this speech, say that the only way out of that trouble is the Republican way, solely the Republican way, or will you strike one of your common themes of compromise?

CHRISTIE: Well, we'll wait til' tonight. But what I will tell you is, I'll use New Jersey as an illustrative experience about what can happen if you stick by your principles and look for ways to solve problems.

LAUER: Except your locked in a pretty tough battle with Democrats in your own state right now, there's gridlock over your tax plan. So is that the absolute right message to be sending now?

CHRISTIE: It sure it is. Because if you look at over the course of two and a half years, we've compromised on significant pension and health benefit reform that few other people have done in the country, capped property taxes. Done a number of different things that people said we weren't going to be able to get done. Reformed teacher tenure. So, it can be done, but you've got to be consistent and stick to your principles, and send that message to the people and to those you're working with.

LAUER: On the subject of compromise, the delegates who are attending here have been vocal, they've come right out and said they want a convention that takes a hard line against the Democrats. If they win the White House and they continue to control the House and perhaps even control the Senate, if your party does, do you think that people in this party are going to be in the mood for compromise?

CHRISTIE: I think that what's going to matter is what the President of the United States is going to want to do. And we've seen that the last four years. The President of the United States did not want to work with Republicans and didn't, and didn't reach out to the Republicans until they were in the majority in the House. I think Mitt Romney brings a much different experience to the table, worked with an 85% Democrat legislature as governor of Massachusetts. Knows how to work across the aisle and get things done, but also stand for his principles. I think those are things that are both possible, we'll talk about that tonight.

LAUER: There is continuing pressure and talk about Mitt Romney and tax returns. And there's more pressure, not only from the Obama campaign, but from conservatives within your own party, to have him release more information. You gave a speech recently and you said, "You can't lead by being a mystery. You can't lead by being an enigma." By not releasing more information, is he not creating more mystery than needs to be created and has he not become somewhat of an enigma when it comes to his taxes?

CHRISTIE: I don't think so. I – listen, he's been very clear about it, he's not releasing anymore of his tax returns. And so I think, at some point, 70 days out, we've got to take the man at his word,  he's not going to do it. And I don't think he's been a mystery or an enigma in terms of what he stands for and what he believes, which is what I was talking about in that speech. I think the President has been a mystery and an enigma to a lot of people in terms of what he's really willing to fight for, what he really believes in. And I think that's much more important, on policy, than on what are side issues here, like taxes.  

LAUER: You're a very savvy politician.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

LAUER: And if you were a guy like Mitt Romney, who'd been in public office, in and out of public office 10 years, who'd been running for president for the better part of five years, wouldn't you have taken steps to take all of your money out of known tax havens, just to avoid the appearance of impropriety?

CHRISTIE: Well, here's the good news. I don't have enough money to send to tax havens, Matt, so I never had to confront that issue. So my general rule is not to answer hypotheticals. And given that, I hope some day to have enough money to go to tax havens, but I don't have it now.

LAUER: But you don't think he's failed to take some steps that would have paved a much smoother road for him?

CHRISTIE: Well listen, I think you can always look back, alright, in retrospect and say maybe I would have done this or that differently. But in the end, do I think any American voter is gonna say, 'I'm not voting for him because of this,' no. I think there are much more concerns about mounting debt and deficit and the other issues we're talking about, joblessness, and those are the things that are gonna decide this election.

LAUER: Every once in a while, comments on the trail crop up. And Governor Romney made a comment at a rally, I think it was on Friday, and he said, "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," an obvious reference to the birther debate. Is it – he says it was a joke. Is it funny to kind of pay attention to a fringe group and question the very legitimacy of the President of the United States's citizenship?

CHRISTIE: Yeah, but he hasn't. I mean, he has been the clearest, the most affirmative of all the Republican candidates who are running for this nomination, in saying that he didn't think that was an issue. He believes the President was born here in the United States and that it shouldn't be discussed. I think if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't make the joke. But you know what? When you're on camera 12, 14 hours a day and you're out at big rallies and you're just going off the cuff, there are gonna be times when you're gonna say stuff you wish you could take back. Believe me, Matt, I could put together a catalog for you of things I wish I could take back.

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