TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump is helping dig former rival Chris Christie and the New Jersey Republican Party out of big debt they incurred from the George Washington Bridge scandal and the governor's presidential campaign.
Trump on Thursday will attend a $25,000-per-person fundraiser for the state GOP to help it pay off about $500,000 incurred in legal fees responding to legislative subpoenas in the bridge scandal. Trump and Christie will headline the event as well as a separate, $200 per-person fundraiser to pay down Christie's roughly $250,000 presidential campaign debt.
"Governor Christie has been very supportive of Mr. Trump," said Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks. "Mr. Trump looks forward to raising money for the Governor and spending time with the great people of New Jersey on Thursday night."
The hand-in-hand fund raising help is a sharp turnabout from five months ago, when Trump said Christie "totally knew" that some of his allies had shut down access lanes to bridge to retaliate against a Democratic mayor who wouldn't support Christie's re-election, as prosecutors allege. Two former Christie allies have pleaded not guilty to federal wire fraud and civil rights charges. Christie has not been charged and denies involvement.
Christie has since folded his presidential campaign and taken the big political risk of endorsing Trump, and the billionaire has tapped the governor to head his White House transition team.
Now Trump, eager to show support for the Republican Party, is making what some members of the GOP see as a helpful gesture.
"We certainly take it as a demonstration of their long and deep friendship," said Bill Palatucci, a long-time Christie adviser and New Jersey Republican National Committeeman. "Whether it's a thank-you or not, we appreciate it nonetheless."
The events, both held at the National Guard Armory in Lawrenceville, are expected to draw roughly 1,000 people for the presidential debt fundraiser and 15 to 20 for the state party fundraiser, Palatucci said. The fundraisers, he says, are expected to retire the debt almost entirely, if not completely.
Trump is coming to New Jersey as the bridge scandal is in headlines again this week after a federal appeals court delayed the release of a list of unindicted co-conspirators in the scheme sought by media organizations, including The Associated Press.
New Jersey taxpayers have spent more than $10 million for legal services for the Christie administration. Christie's 2013 gubernatorial campaign also still owes nearly $1 million for legal services. None of the money raised Thursday will go toward those costs, according to Palatucci.
Asked about the fundraisers this week by a reporter, Christie shook his head and laughed but refused to comment.
Hicks did not address whether Trump still believes Christie knew about the lane closures.
In recent comments Christie has highlighted his friendship with Trump, which goes back more than a decade, and insisted support doesn't stem from political expediency.
"This is not like some political marriage," Christie said. "This is a guy I've known and been friends with for 14 years."
The state party is praising Trump ahead of his first visit to the state since he has become the presumptive nominee.
"We are proud that Mr. Trump has shown his commitment to growing our party here in New Jersey," said Pete Sheridan, executive director of the Republican State Committee.
Christie's presidential campaign was a magnet for New Jersey Republicans with most of the party establishment backing him. He raised nearly $4 million from New Jersey donors, far more than any other Republican candidate, according to federal records. That produced a squeeze on contributors, which likely cost other Republicans running for office in the state, according to political experts.
"It really created a vacuum in the last years," Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison said. "There was this kind of sucking from New Jersey donors to his campaign at the cost of down-ballot candidates."
Follow Mike Catalini on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/@mikecatalini