After months of dominating the Republican race partly on a vow to fund his own campaign, Donald Trump is laying the groundwork to install an ally as the top fundraiser at the Republican National Committee.
Ray Washburne, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's top finance adviser, has become the front-runner's choice to become finance chairman of the RNC, according to a campaign source familiar with his decision-making. Washburne previously served as RNC finance chairman, stepping down in January, 2015, to join the Christie campaign.
But RNC Chairman Reince Priebus insisted that he had no intention of replacing the party's current finance chairman, Lew Eisenberg -- setting up a possible early clash with Trump should Trump become the party's nominee. Eisenberg was a prominent fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain, who have both spoken out against Trump.
"Lew is the most successful finance chairman in RNC history. He is and will remain finance chairman throughout my term," Priebus said in a statement.
Shortly after Christie endorsed Trump, Washburne approached the campaign about leading his national fundraising, the campaign source said. But the campaign, citing Trump's decision to self-fund his run, offered an alternative path to working together once he seizes the nomination.
"Mr. Trump has been clear that he's not raising money in this election," the source said. "Instead, he thought it would be better for him and his team to go to the RNC to raise money for the party so he can help everybody down the ballot."
Historically in both parties, when candidates have won enough delegates to become the presumed nominee, they begin to make substantial changes at the national committee. In the case of the kind of establishment figures both parties have nominated in the modern era, the de facto nominees face little or no resistance to such changes.
In this case, Trump would be anything but a typical nominee. He has had at times a contentious relationship with the RNC, and it is not a sure thing that he would be able to make the same kind of effectively unilateral changes at the committee as past nominees.
Still, the move suggests Trump—who is now looking to unify the party behind him after running as an outsider—wants to install a fundraising apparatus within the RNC. It would allow him to continue arguing that he is self-funding his campaign, while also bolstering the party's fundraising efforts and supporting Republicans in elections across the country.
Already, Washburne has begun reaching out to Republican donors on behalf of Trump, according to a prominent Republican donor familiar with the calls.
One conversation, according to the donor, was taken as a sign that Trump is willing to include more people in his political orbit should he become the nominee.
Trump has frequently attacked his rivals for accepting money from lobbyists and special interest groups. But that didn't stop him from welcoming Christie, who raised a record $102 million during his tenure as head of the Republican Governors Association.
In recent campaign events, Trump has subtly noted the expense of presidential campaigns. At a rally earlier this month in Redford, Va., Trump said that he has spent $25 million of his own money on his campaign. He said that the money "is not a big impact" on his business, but also added "it was a lot of money."
While Washburne, who didn't respond to calls for comment, has warmed-up to Trump, there has been no organization among Christie donors in terms of backing Trump en masse or taking a vote to do so. Christie himself called donors the night after he endorsed Trump, fully recognizing that not all of them would agree with his decision.
Peter Woolley, a professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said Christie's ability to bring to Trump a proven fundraising operation is something that can't be overlooked in the significance of his endorsement.
"That's a significant value. Clearly Trump is going to have to have some sort of apparatus," Woolley said. "Trump doesn't have the kind of supporting PAC that got behind Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie or even John Kasich. He's going to have to spend a lot of money and Trump specializes in other people's money."