What Gives With The Lincoln Project?

Lincoln Project: Rise and Fall | National Review

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What Is The Lincoln Project? Meet The Republicans Who Want Trump Out Of Office

Though several videos have already hit the Lincoln Project’s YouTube channel, one of the most widely circulated ones is called “Whispers,” and the ad addresses Trump directly, attempting to take aim at what seem to be his biggest insecurities. In the ad, a whispering voice tells Trump that even those who work closely with him are against him, including his own family, talking behind his back.

The Lincoln Project has been around since December 2019. 

The group launched at the end of last year, starting their social media campaign against the sitting president. They started out by placing an ad to run on Fox News, where they were sure that Trump would see it, which he did — and the group, which is classified as a super PAC, has been growing ever since. Not only are they fighting against Trump, but they also don’t want to see Republican senators who have supported Trump re-elected either, and so far, they’ve managed to raise over $2 million for their efforts.

What does the name mean?

According to their website, the Lincoln Project captures the ideals of Abraham Lincoln after he united a divided country after the Civil War. Now that the country is divided again, those in the group are looking to find a way forward.

“President Abraham Lincoln led the United States through its bloodiest, most divisive and most decisive period of our history,” the group says. “He fought not because he wanted to, but because he knew the dual goals of preserving the Union and the end of slavery would be achieved only through armed conflict. Lincoln always kept the enormous human cost of the struggle in the front of his mind. At Gettysburg, he implored us not to forget those that had given “their last full measure of devotion” to preserving the American experiment. As it became clear that the Union would be victorious, Lincoln’s thoughts turned to how the nation would ‘bind up its wounds; and move forward together.”

Kellyanne Conway’s husband, George Conway, is involved in The Lincoln Project. 

Conway may be a counselor to Trump but her husband, George, doesn’t agree with the way he’s run the country, and along with political consultant John Weaver (who worked on John McCain’s campaign), they co-founded the movement. 

Their mission is specifically to see that Trump doesn’t get a second term.

According to the mission statement on the Lincoln Project’s website, the group states that they’d rather see a Democrat in office who upholds the Constitution rather than a Republican who doesn’t, if that’s what it takes.

“Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain. However, the priority for all patriotic Americans must be a shared fidelity to the Constitution and a commitment to defeat those candidates who have abandoned their constitutional oaths, regardless of party,” the statement says. “Electing Democrats who support the Constitution over Republicans who do not is a worthy effort.” 

They published a manifesto in the New York Times last year. 

In a piece published in December, George Conway, John Weaver, Steve Schmidt, and Rick Wilson officially introduced themselves via a piece they authored in the New York Times, sharing that while they disagree with liberal policy, they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect America from Trump, and the work hasn’t stopped since then.

Trump has already spoken out against them.

A group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me, a political first timer, 4 years ago, have copied (no imagination) the concept of an ad from Ronald Reagan, “Morning in America”, doing everything possible to….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2020

Back in May, Trump shared his wrath against the group in a Twitter storm, calling many of them out directly.

“Their so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe,” he tweeted. “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad. John Weaver lost big for Kasich (to me). Crazed Rick Wilson lost for Evan ‘McMuffin’ McMullin (to me). Steve Schmidt & Reed Galvin lost for John McCain, Romney’s campaign manager (?) lost big to “O”, & Jennifer Horn got thrown out of the New Hampshire Republican Party. They’re all LOSERS, but Abe Lincoln, Republican, is all smiles!”

It’s too soon to tell if the Lincoln Project’s efforts have worked in stopping a second Trump term, but if their main goal is getting under his skin, they’ve definitely succeeded.

There have been plenty of grifters in the political world. But what made the Lincoln Project grift unique was that much of it played out on television.

There was nothing special about the Lincoln Project. Its ads were coarse, but this is a coarse age, and its efforts were neither creative nor particularly offensive. Its opacity and self-dealing, its unwieldy coterie of advisers and hangers-on, have all been mainstays of the #Resistance. Far from the only anti-Trump Super PAC run by former Republican consultants, the Lincoln Project lacked originality even in its ambitions. When, post-election, its founders sought to break into the media business, they were angling to become little more than a slightly older, slightly lower-end version of Crooked Media, the podcast and events network created by several Obama-administration alumni.

Despite this unoriginality, this utter bog-standard-ness, the Lincoln Project raised roughly $100 million from its announcement in December 2019 to its effective implosion this February. That eye-popping sum came from a flood of small donors. But the Lincoln Project also won over large and long-standing Democratic players. David Geffen gave the group half a million dollars. Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC forked over almost $2 million, and the dark-money network Sixteen Thirty Fund coughed up more than a quarter million.

In short, the Lincoln Project managed to extract money from not only the emotionally unstable and congenitally irate but also the institutionally liberal. Why did blue America shower a group of washed-up former Republicans with money? And why choose these ones?

*****

Cut through the Lincoln Project’s onion rings of advisers, staffers, and volunteers, and one finds a small network of men at the heart: Steve Schmidt, Reed Galen, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson. Schmidt, Weaver, and Wilson announced the group along with erstwhile Wachtell Lipton partner George Conway, husband to pollster-turned-Trump-White-House-adviser Kellyanne Conway. Their December 17 New York Times op-ed, full of self-seriousness and high dudgeon, made public the existence of a super PAC, initially incorporated by Galen on November 5 as “Rough Riders for America,” but renamed “the Lincoln Project” on December 9.

Wilson, known more for bravado than for brass-tacks execution, went from working for Rudy Giuliani to a leading role on Kobach’s unsuccessful 2004 congressional bid in Kansas, a race he lost by double digits even as George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 11 percent in the district. Wilson then backed Bill McCollum’s unsuccessful 2010 Florida gubernatorial primary bid against Rick Scott, and in 2016 he made some forgettable ads for a pro–Marco Rubio entity ludicrously called Baby Got PAC. Wilson also managed to accrue more than $380,000 in IRS tax liens, a foreclosure on his home, and a claim from American Express for more than $25,000. Nonetheless, his acerbic tweeting landed him a following among online liberals, a writing gig with the Daily Beast, some CNN hits, and $65,000 raised online toward making a documentary that he never produced.

Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, and Jennifer Horn rounded out the group’s eight “cofounders.” Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman, had butted heads with some Trump allies in the Granite State but served two terms before stepping down in January 2017. She reemerged as a vehement Trump critic when steering Bill Weld’s quixotic Republican primary effort against Donald Trump in 2019. Like Conway, Horn’s day-to-day involvement in the group appears to have been peripheral.

Steslow ran a small digital practice called TUSK that counted Orrin Hatch and the Colorado Republican Committee among its clients. He helped steer Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential campaign and ran a number of small anti-Trump organizations prior to 2019. But his firm’s fortunes were uncertain. In 2018, TUSK did under $100,000 in federal election business — roughly 5 percent of the amount it received from Fiorina’s campaign. In 2020, the Lincoln Project would pay TUSK more than $21 million.

Like Wilson, Madrid was a quintessential regional political consultant, well-established in California. A self-styled expert on the Latino vote, Madrid had worked for both Republicans and moderate Democrats. In 2018, he steered former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. But with Gavin Newsom entrenched in Sacramento and the GOP taking a harder line on immigration, Madrid found himself a man without a party.

*****

Unlike the other Lincoln Project founders, Weaver and Schmidt were, if not exactly household names, well known to America’s political junkies. Yet theirs was an unlikely alliance. A New Jersey native, Schmidt dropped out of college shortly before graduating. After managing a series of unsuccessful campaigns around the country, he wound up in Washington at the outset of the Bush administration.

Inside the Beltway, Schmidt’s career took off: Within a year and a half, he was the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee and shortly thereafter joined the Bush administration in a senior role. In 2004, Nicolle Wallace tapped Schmidt to run the Bush reelection campaign’s war room, the media-tracking engine that drives a campaign’s rapid response to emerging stories in real time. Following Bush’s win, Schmidt would be tasked with managing the confirmations of justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito — showdowns that put his media savvy to the test and had him continuing to work closely with Wallace, by then White House communications director.

In 2006, Schmidt decamped for California and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection bid, helmed at the time by Matt Dowd and staffed by, among others, Reed Galen. Another alumnus of Texas politics, Dowd had been the chief strategist on the Bush reelection, but he fell out with Karl Rove. In the Golden State, Dowd embraced the intersection of celebrity and politics, and reportedly began an extramarital affair with First Lady of California Maria Shriver. Following Schwarzenegger’s reelection, Dowd became a conspicuous critic of the Bush administration and, by the end of 2007, joined ABC as a pundit, transitioning from campaign cowboy to television talking head.

It was in California that Schmidt encountered John McCain and John Weaver. Schmidt had worked for Lamar Alexander’s 2000 presidential bid and thus had no part in the long-simmering feud between the Bush and McCain camps. Having followed Dowd to California, he could not be mistaken for a Rove-ite. (That year, Wallace also left the White House, moving with her then-husband to New York City.)

McCain was preparing to run for president. By the time McCain’s presidential aspirations ended in defeat, both Weaver and Schmidt had taken a turn helming the operation.

John Weaver came up in Texas politics at the same time as Rove. No love is lost between them. In the mid 1980s, the two men were rivals for control of the state party and, according to a 2004 Atlantic article, Rove circulated a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man. That was dismissed as a smear 17 years ago, but since the revelations about Weaver’s behavior became public, Rove has claimed that he was long aware of Weaver’s pattern of inappropriate behavior toward young men.

The media have typically characterized the mutual dislike between Rove and Weaver in ideological terms: Weaver, the principled moderate, versus Rove, the ruthless ideologue. Rove is believed to have actively blackballed Weaver after 2000, with a willingness to play hardball that mapped onto the media’s preconceived notions about divisions in the Republican Party — divisions centered on Bush and McCain.

Yet Weaver is probably the chief architect of this self-serving narrative. Indeed, his principal skill is cultivating the media. Any political reporter over a certain age likely has a story of John Weaver being “helpful” — confirming a useful, juicy tip or dropping some insider bit of information that helped get urgent copy to print. In GOP circles, Weaver is notorious for leaking to the press, including about dysfunction in campaigns in which he himself holds a senior role, about the ineptitude of flagging candidates paying his bills.

The rivalry with Bush was politically useful for McCain and professionally essential for Weaver. A television mainstay, McCain worked hard to draw contrasts between himself and the increasingly unpopular incumbent, laboring to solidify his identity as a straight-talking maverick despite a fairly conventional Republican voting record. For his part, Weaver had a bad run of luck after Bush’s inauguration. He divorced, was diagnosed with leukemia, and, furious with Bush, advised a string of Democrats, including John Kerry. Yet institutional Democrats remained wary of Weaver and, before the era of small-dollar donors, had the means to keep him out. He was on a lonely island by 2005, excluded by Rove from the Bush reelection effort and looking for work.

McCain’s persistent loyalty to Weaver pulled him back from political Siberia. Mike Murphy, McCain’s 2000 campaign guru, had also steered Mitt Romney into the Massachusetts governorship and declared his neutrality between the two likely 2008 primary contenders (n.b., I worked for Murphy in 2016). It thus fell to Weaver to usher the McCain-for-president campaign into its second iteration.

But Weaver never got to see the campaign reach fruition. In July 2007, beset by flagging fundraising, Weaver was ousted along with Galen, who was then his deputy, after an internal power struggle. A year later, a similar power struggle would lead to Steve Schmidt’s promotion to take over the campaign. In the interim, Weaver managed to attract the lasting ire of McCain, who blamed him for a controversial New York Times story suggesting that McCain had had an extramarital affair. McCain turned his back on Weaver, and reportedly banned his former consigliere from his funeral.All Our Opinion in Your Inbox

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For his part, Schmidt spent the waning months of the McCain campaign in a kind of frenetic overdrive — one McCain veteran described it to me as “a lot of early-morning meetings and a lot of yelling.” Riven by the competing factions in McCain’s orbit, the campaign had never had a great deal of focus. Schmidt brought his Bush-era war-room experience to bear and imposed some discipline. But even as tactics and operations improved, fundamental problems of strategy and organization remained, problems exacerbated by the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee — a selection Schmidt had pushed.

As the campaign began to lose control of Palin, many in McCain’s orbit came to suspect Schmidt and Wallace, who had also come aboard the McCain campaign, of leaking to the press to cover themselves. Many McCain loyalists still speak of Schmidt and Wallace with an animus typically reserved for Judas. In the end, like Weaver, they wound up excluded from the senator’s memorial.

*****

For all the chaos and turnover, the McCain campaign had one constant: an intimate, even incestuous relationship with the media. As Ryan Lizza put it in a 2008 New Yorker article, “the chumminess with the press usually spills into the evenings, and McCain’s senior advisers dine almost nightly with the people covering the candidate.” MSNBC played constantly aboard the Straight Talk Express, by then a party bus for the political chattering class.

Launched in 1996, MSNBC struggled initially to find its footing. Pitched as an in-depth alternative to CNN, the channel invested heavily in opinion-makers across the political spectrum. Early 2003 saw the launch of Scarborough Country, featuring former congressman Joe Scarborough, who had resigned from the House 18 months earlier to spend more time with his family.

Initially, the show echoed the paleoconservative sensibilities Scarborough had evinced in Congress. Then, in 2007, Don Imus said “nappy-headed hoes” and Scarborough made his move. He lobbied hard for a shot at guest-hosting MSNBC’s morning slot. He tapped Mika Brzezinski, who had come to MSNBC from CBS that year, to co-host. Pioneering an open-ended and conversational format, anchored by their personal chemistry, the show worked. Morning Joe was born.

Two months later, Tim Russert died. MSNBC lost its key man heading into the 2008 election.

Scarborough, apparently at the direction of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, pitched his new show at the very viewers with whom Russert had established a deep bond. By the summer of 2008, New York magazine was hailing Scarborough as liberal America’s favorite Republican, an avatar for the provincial bigotries of the Acela Corridor.

Scarborough was hard on the McCain campaign but harder still on Bush and the GOP generally. His second book, released in the spring of 2009, was ostensibly a guide to how Republicans could rise from the dead by rejecting the politics of Rush Limbaugh in favor of Scarborough’s own middlebrow sensibilities. In reality, the book told liberals what they wanted to hear Republicans get told. Attendees at its May launch party included Mark Halperin, previously of ABC but by then a Morning Joe staple. Donald Trump also attended.

Halperin was finishing Game Change, his account of the 2008 campaign co-authored with John Heilemann. Schmidt was a key source for the book. McCain loyalists saw his participation in the book as confirmation of self-serving treachery. But by late 2010, Schmidt was a Morning Joe regular, supplementing a day job at the massive public-affairs firm Edelman.

Weaver, meanwhile, was attempting to put something akin to Scarborough’s vision into motion. Jon Huntsman, scion to an immense fortune, and a former ambassador turned governor turned ambassador (again), entered the 2012 GOP primary against front-runner and longtime familial rival Mitt Romney. Liberal America’s favorite Republican, Huntsman spoke Mandarin on a debate stage, trotted out his photogenic family for Vogue, and finished a distant third in New Hampshire. He dropped out a week later. The next year, his daughter Abby joined MSNBC from ABC.

*****

The second Obama term was a bad time for the world of Morning Joe. By late 2014, MSNBC’s ratings were in the toilet across the board, leading to a comprehensive overhaul of the network’s lineup. Morning Joe survived, but many shows did not.

Schmidt was still a regular on Morning Joe. Wallace joined the network in 2014 after an ill-starred, one-season turn on ABC’s The View, and quickly joined Schmidt and Halperin at the Morning Joe table.

Weaver was worried about being frozen out of the coming presidential race, which promised to have a massive Republican primary field. In early 2015, after reporting indicated that Trump was seriously considering a run, Weaver reached out and, according to a Politico article at the end of that year, began attempting to insinuate himself with the campaign. At the same time, he was convincing John Kasich of Ohio to run.

In June, Trump announced his candidacy for president, one day after Jeb Bush had. A little more than a month later, Kasich entered the ring.

The back half of 2015 saw a love-fest between Morning Joe and Trump. By December, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple was criticizing Scarborough and Brzezinski for the frequency and levity of their phone-in interviews with Trump. Yet the bonhomie continued. On March 16 and 17, Schmidt used appearances on Morning Joe to lavish praise on Trump. The afternoon of March 17, he interviewed at Trump Tower to take over and run the campaign.

Schmidt didn’t get the job and returned to MSNBC as a contributor. Kasich didn’t win the nomination, but Weaver continued to draw $10,000 monthly from his super PAC well after the primary and general election concluded. Trump went on to win the White House doing more or less the exact opposite of what Scarborough’s book had recommended.

Morning Joe became increasingly critical of Trump as the race shifted from the primary to the general election, leading to periods of estrangement between Trump and the show. Yet even after Trump stopped appearing on air, Brzezinski and Scarborough claimed that the three of them spoke multiple times a week. Then, in the summer of 2017, seemingly frustrated by the shift in treatment, Trump attacked both hosts directly via tweet. The pair responded with a Washington Post op-ed suggesting that the president had offered to kill a National Enquirer story in exchange for better coverage.

Beyond the personal feuding, however, by mid 2017, the Morning Joe viewership had had enough of indulging Trump. In May, MSNBC gave Wallace her own show, focused almost single-mindedly on pounding the anti-Trump drum. Showing the same deftness of a decade earlier, when he shifted from populist rabble-rouser to conversation-setter, Scarborough also adopted the mantle of the #Resistance. In July, Scarborough announced he was leaving the Republican Party (Schmidt would follow suit eleven months later). In October, Halperin was fired for sexual misconduct. Morning Joe moved away from insider water-cooler chat and increasingly embraced the simmering hysteria of the wealthy, white, and liberal.

*****

Morning television is hard on the people who make it. The hours are terrible, the pressure is immense, and the competition is cutthroat. Morning news shows often take on cult-like qualities, especially during election seasons, with the workplace devouring the lives of its participants like so many of Saturn’s children. Scarborough’s second marriage ended in 2013; Brzezinski’s first in 2016. The co-hosts married each other in 2018. Wallace divorced her husband a year thereafter.

In early 2019, Schmidt left the network to advise billionaire Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, then considering an independent bid for president. The Schultz effort was a disaster from beginning to end. The coffee magnate announced his exploratory efforts on 60 Minutes in February, sparking gleeful derision from Republicans and intense hostility from Democrats. Two days later, he took to the Morning Joe stage to explain himself, in what turned into a 23-minute-long interrogation, by turns soporific and bizarrely defensive despite the gentleness of the hosts. Schultz kept at it until early September 2019, but his goose was cooked. Schmidt found himself out of a job. Within two months, he had signed once again with MSNBC.

Weaver was also looking for a new hustle. In May, the same month that Kasich’s super PAC finally stopped paying Weaver his monthly haul, he signed on to serve as a lobbyist for a Russian uranium firm to the tune of $350,000, with a $40,000 monthly retainer. By then, Huntsman had been serving as ambassador to Russia since late 2017. To Weaver’s chagrin, reporters found his Foreign Agent Registration Act documentation, and he was forced to walk away from the contract. How much of the front-loaded payment he had by then received is unclear, but Weaver claimed at the time that “no funds were transferred, no actions taken.”

Thus was born the Lincoln Project.

Assured of access to the Morning Joe audience, the founders began to cut ads to flatter that audience’s fears. Critics pointed to Weaver’s Russian dalliance, to his and Wilson’s appalling personal finances, to Schmidt’s cynical Schultzian gambit, to bloated costs that the Lincoln Project was paying to firms owned by some of its founders. No matter. Morning Joe had its own political arm and a deeply personal grudge against the president.

Making the Lincoln Project a centerpiece of Morning Joe’s political coverage had two self-reinforcing effects. It raised the group’s profile and credibility instantly, opening hitherto unseen spigots of small-dollar donations from liberal viewers. At the same time, the rest of the political press, unwilling to risk the ire of liberal America’s premiere television real estate, played along. The revelations of apparent financial self-dealing compounded, and troubling rumors about Weaver began to mount. But having been designated the unofficial super PAC of an incandescently anti-Trump press, the Lincoln Project was not to be questioned.

By the back half of 2020, it became difficult at times to see where the show ended and the Lincoln Project began. MSNBC contributor and Morning Joe mainstay Kurt Bardella, a former Darrell Issa spokesman known for tweeting insane things and running a country-music newsletter, joined the group as a senior adviser. Mika Brzezinski breathlessly announced the “breaking news” and had Bardella on air to regale the audience about the importance of the Lincoln Project’s mission.

That mission was never terribly clear. Pushing against a Trump reelection seemed less important to the Lincoln Project than trolling the president into tweeting. Simultaneously, the mission expanded to include “Trump enablers” — meaning any incumbent Republican officeholder. Donations flooded in.

The Lincoln Project previewed its ads on Morning Joe, gaining millions in free airtime and hoping to inspire an angry tweet from the president. Its stable of advisers and associates filled panels there and on Wallace’s show as well. If one tuned in to MSNBC between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., there was a decent chance the Lincoln Project would be the topic of discussion, at the table, or both. Soon, senior leaders in the group became mainstays in the cable network’s primetime coverage as well. The network was generating its own “news” and its viewers were shelling out for the experience.

*****

Understandably, many observers view the Lincoln Project as a study in doing politics in our digital age. Its founders were prolific tweeters, and the organization’s fundraising spiked in the wake of a presidential tweet. Yet for all its ostensible online savvy, for all the millions of social-media followers gleaned by its members, and for all the millions of dollars it raised online, the Lincoln Project was from birth to death a product of television. The primary validator and exponent of the group, the entity that blessed its mission and created its audience, remained Morning Joe. As soon as the Lincoln Project lost access to television, it began to wither and die.

By midsummer 2020, the New York Post was working to confirm that Weaver habitually groomed young men looking to work in politics, offering to mentor them and seeking sexual favors in return. In early August, with the Post closing in, the Lincoln Project announced that Weaver had been “admitted to the hospital after a cardiac problem.” Weaver withdrew from public life and the Post abandoned the story.

The group had dodged a proverbial bullet. According to later reporting by the New York Times, the group’s senior leadership had been made aware of Weaver’s behavior two months after the group had formed, but word had not leaked, and so Weaver remained part of Schmidt’s post-election media ambitions. In the interim, Schmidt, Wilson, and an expanding roster of new associates continued to flog the organization on MSNBC and CNN, in the pages of America’s liberal magazines and newspapers, and across the Web itself. November came and went, as did the decisive Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

Eventually, however, the Internet struck back. Frustrated with a lack of movement by the Post, and concerned by the Lincoln Project’s grandiose plans to transform into a media empire, several of the men Weaver had targeted came forward on Twitter in January 2021.

Denials were followed by denunciations, which were followed in turn by resignations. When Horn left the group, Schmidt excoriated her as an opportunist, and the Lincoln Project posted private messages between her and a journalist. When Weaver’s targets pointed out that they had raised concerns with Mike Madrid and Keith Edwards, a Lincoln Project staffer who went to work for Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign while still on the Lincoln Project payroll, Schmidt downplayed Madrid’s role with the group.

When the New York Times reported that Weaver had approached nearly two dozen men, including one as young as 14, Schmidt released a sprawling manifesto condemning Weaver and recounting his own experience of sexual abuse at a Boy Scout camp. Schmidt ranted and raved. He made exaggerated encomiums to McCain. He blamed Weaver for everything. And he insisted categorically — and contrary to what the New York Times later reported — that he had been unaware of Weaver’s behavior.

Then, on February 12, Schmidt resigned. That night, he went on television.

In 2016, Donald Trump rode cable news to the Republican nomination, stoking outrage in order to get billions in free airtime from the networks. Whether consciously or not, the people at MSNBC decided to mobilize their share of that power and play an active role in the 2020 election. The group that formed to meet their ambitions instead gave expression to the failings and appetites of its masters. (A request to the Lincoln Project for comment was not returned.)

Some years ago, I was at a bar with a fellow practitioner of the political craft. Deep in our cups and trading war stories, one of us brought Weaver up. “Brilliant,” my bar mate said. “But the least ethical person I’ve ever met in this business. And that says something.” I guess it just depends on which business.

The Lincoln Project’s spectacular downfall: A timeline

Sexual harassment scandal surrounding co-founder John Weaver has rocked anti-Trump group

Anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project has hemorrhaged support in recent weeks after more than 20 men accused its co-founder John Weaver of sexual harassment in January.

While some on the left have praised its leaders for a principled stand against their former party, liberals and conservatives alike have criticized the group over its tactics and motives. Some, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have labeled it a scam PAC due to its funneling of liberal donor money to vendors controlled by the group’s founders and an overall lack of return on investment.

SECOND MINOR ACCUSES LINCOLN PROJECT CO-FOUNDER OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT, AUTHOR SAYS

Its primary co-founders are lawyer George Conway, Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, political strategist Rick Wilson and Weaver, a political consultant who worked on the late John McCain’s presidential campaigns. Now Conway, Schmidt and Wilson are facing questions about what they knew about Weaver’s behavior and when.

Here’s a timeline of the Lincoln Project:

Dec. 17, 2019

Co-founders Conway, Schmidt, Weaver and Wilson penned an op-ed in The New York Times announcing their political action committee on Dec. 17, 2019.

In this Jan. 20, 2016, file photo, John Weaver is shown on a campaign bus in Bow, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In this Jan. 20, 2016, file photo, John Weaver is shown on a campaign bus in Bow, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

“Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics. As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character,” they wrote.

Other co-founders include Jennifer Horn, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party; Ron Steslow, a political strategist; Reed Galen, an alum of George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns; and Mike Madrid, a political strategist.

April 15, 2020

The Lincoln Project advisory board (Conway, Schmidt, Weaver and Galen) endorsed President Biden in the Democratic primary on April 15, 2020. 

“When we founded the Lincoln Project, we did so with a clear mission: to defeat President Trump in November,” they wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “Publicly supporting a Democratic nominee for president is a first for all of us. We are in extraordinary times, and we have chosen to put country over party — and former vice president Joe Biden is the candidate who we believe will do the same.”

May 28, 2020

Romney 2012 presidential campaign alum Stuart Stevens joined the Lincoln Project as an adviser on May 28, 2020.

“It’s a small tribe,” Stevens told the Washington Post. “I don’t know George Conway at all. Our paths never crossed. … But this core group is mainly people I’ve known one way or another for a long time.”

LINCOLN PROJECT SAYS IT’S RELEASING STAFF FROM ‘CONFIDENTIALITY PROVISIONS’ OF AGREEMENTS AMID TURMOIL

July 2020

Wilson confirmed after the fact that the organization was aware in July that the New York Post was looking into Weaver.

Wilson addressed Weaver’s predatory behavior in 2021 on his Daily Beast podcast and an episode of the Lincoln Project’s YouTube show “The Breakdown.”

“In July of last year, there were rumors that the New York Post was going to report out a story about John being up in guys’ [direct messages],” Wilson said on the podcast. “And we heard about it because the Trump campaign was bragging about it, bragging that it was coming.”

Mike Madrid, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and Reed Galen during a "60 Minutes" interview about the Lincoln Project last year.

Mike Madrid, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and Reed Galen during a “60 Minutes” interview about the Lincoln Project last year.

Aug. 6, 2020

The Lincoln Project said Weaver was having health issues on Aug. 6, 2020.

“We have just learned that Lincoln Project warrior, [John Weaver], has been admitted to the hospital after a cardiac problem. We ask that you please lift up our friend and brother John and his family in prayer,” the Lincoln Project wrote on its Twitter account on Aug. 6.

Weaver went on medical leave in the summer of 2020 — around the time other members of the Lincoln Project became aware that journalists were looking into his inappropriate online behavior.

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Aug. 23, 2020

George Conway announced he was leaving the Lincoln Project on Aug. 23, 2020, as drama between his wife, Kellyanne Conway, and daughter, Claudia Conway, played out on social media.

“So I’m withdrawing from @ProjectLincoln to devote more time to family matters. And I’ll be taking a Twitter hiatus. Needless to say, I continue to support the Lincoln Project and its mission. Passionately,” he wrote on Twitter.

Aug. 24, 2020

Michael Steele, the first Black chairman of the Republican National Committee, joined the Lincoln Project on Aug. 24, 2020.

Jan. 11, 2021

Author Ryan Girdusky published an article titled “The Lincoln Project’s Predator” detailing Weaver’s inappropriate messages to young men on Jan. 11. One young man, a college student, said he had an uncomfortable phone call with Weaver, who he said was dropping sexual innuendoes and appeared to be drinking.

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LINCOLN PROJECT INSIDERS SHED LIGHT ON ‘TOXIC’ WORK ENVIRONMENT, ALLEGED SHADY FINANCIAL DEALS: REPORT

Jan. 15, 2021

A few days later, Weaver’s apology appeared in an Axios story.

“To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry,” Weaver said in a statement. “They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you.

“The truth is that I’m gay,” Weaver added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”

Jan. 31, 2021

The New York Times published a story on Jan. 31 reporting that Weaver has been accused of harassment by 21 men, including an alleged victim who was a minor when Weaver first made contact with him. The Lincoln Project disavowed Weaver shortly after.

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“John Weaver led a secret life that was built on a foundation of deception at every level. He is a predator, a liar, and an abuser,” the Lincoln Project said in a statement. “We extend our deepest sympathies to those who were targeted by his deplorable and predatory behavior. We are disgusted and outraged that someone in a position of power and trust would use it for these means.”

MEGHAN MCCAIN TORCHES JOHN WEAVER, STEVE SCHMIDT: ‘NO MCCAIN WOULD SPIT ON THEM IF THEY WERE ON FIRE’

Feb. 5, 2021

Horn told The New York Times on Feb. 5 that she was leaving The Lincoln Project after Weaver’s “grotesque and inappropriate behavior.” The Lincoln Project countered by claiming Horn resigned after the organization’s board rejected her demands that included a $40,000-per-month consulting contract and her own staff.

Days later, Schmidt resigned, claiming he did so to “make room for the appointment of a female board member as the first step to reform and professionalize the Lincoln Project.”

Feb. 15, 2021

The Lincoln Project said that it will be moving forward with its work while it deals with allegations of sexual harassment against Weaver. The anti-Trump political action committee said Monday night that it hired the law firm Paul Hastings to investigate the claims.

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“The Lincoln Project will continue producing and distributing our popular content and commentary while these reviews are being conducted and we are operating at full capacity,” the group said in a statement.

Feb. 16, 2021

The Daily Beast dropped co-founder Wilson from its “The New Abnormal” podcast amid the Weaver fallout on Tuesday.

Wilson’s co-host, pundit Molly Jong-Fast, made the announcement at the top of the show on Tuesday. Jong-Fast was an unpaid adviser to the Lincoln Project and said she had resigned from that post as well in yet another departure from the embattled political action committee.

The Lincoln Project—or the McClellan Project?

Abraham Lincoln advised Americans “Never swap horses in midstream” in 1864, but he might have been talking about 2020.

Lincoln’s warning came just months before the country’s first wartime election since 1812—and the only election held during any nation’s civil war—when Americans weighed the reelection of a president who vowed to save the Union against the candidacy of George B. McClellan, an anti-emancipation Democrat and former Northern hero who meant to destroy the Union.

Nearly 16 decades later the ironically named Lincoln Project is mounting an insurrectionist challenge to President Donald Trump—the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee—who is campaigning in similar Lincolnesque preserve-the-Union terms.

The Lincoln Project is a super political action committee (PAC) created by NeverTrump political operatives to help Democrat Joe Biden defeat Trump in November. The group’s leadership try to cast themselves as fearless Republicans defending the Constitution, but virtually nothing separates the PAC from the Democrats.

Destroy the GOP to Save It?

Between January and July, the Lincoln Project ran 66 ads (17 in July alone) attacking President Trump and Congressional Republicans. One such ad criticizes Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)—widely considered a moderate and skeptic of the president—as a “Trump stooge” who’s sold her constituents down the river.

As “proof” that Republicans are furious with Collins, the ad focuses on a protester waving a glossy sign that reads “Stop Kavanaugh” and bears the logo of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, the Democrats’ leading anti-Collins PAC, which has amassed some $4 million for her opponent’s campaign.

Left-Wing Money

Left-wing money is a theme with this anti-Trump PAC. Its Federal Election Commission (FEC) page shows a staggering $19.4 million in contributions. The PAC’s largest single donation ($1 million) came from Stephen Mandel, a hedge fund manager who regularly donates to Democratic groups such as the Hillary Clinton–aligned super PAC Priorities USA.

Forbes has counted at least six billionaires who support the group, including Walmart heir Christy Walton, who is a donor to former Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper’s PAC. Other donors include film producer David Geffen, a donor to Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, and Silicon Valley billionaire Ron Conway, credited with helping the Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2018.

Scamming the 2020 Election

The Lincoln Project’s finances have also earned scrutiny from conservatives and liberals. The left-leaning watchdog OpenSecrets reported that $1 million of the $1.7 million the Lincoln Project spent between January and March went to Summer Strategic Communications, a firm run by the PAC’s treasurer, Reed Galen. Another company reportedly hired to produce the PAC’s attack ads isn’t listed in its FEC filings, according to OpenSecrets, and is likely paid as a subcontractor to hide its involvement.

For a PAC that claims to be Republican, the Lincoln Project’s spending tilts heavily Democratic. To date, the Lincoln Project has paid $1.1 million to Tusk Digital, an advertising company that also caters to Stand Up Republic, a leftist-funded NeverTrump group run by 2016 presidential candidate Evan McMullin. It has also paid tens of thousands of dollars to the Katz Watson Group for fundraising services, a firm founded by a former Democratic National Committee national financial director Fran Katz Watson to cater to Democratic PACs and politicians, such as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX). One of the Lincoln Project’s consultants, James Lynch, advised former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on his briefly considered 2020 presidential bid. The Lincoln Project has also paid nearly $20,000 for “communications consulting” to Elrod Strategies, which was founded by the director of strategic communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

What’s clear is that the Lincoln Project is a massive funnel for donations from liberal donors to professional consultants. Republicans and others need to recognize that the Lincoln Project is essentially a Democratic PAC flying a Republican flag.

Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals

A civil war broke out in the group as it antagonized Donald Trump, with leaders splintering over financial arrangements and revelations of online harassment by a top official.

A few days before the presidential election, the leadership of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project gathered at the Utah home of Steve Schmidt, one of the group’s co-founders, and listened as he plotted out the organization’s future.

None of the dissident Republican consultants who created the Lincoln Project a year earlier had imagined how wildly successful it would be, pulling in more than $87 million in donations and producing scores of viral videos that doubled as a psy-ops campaign intended to drive President Donald J. Trump to distraction. Confident that a Biden administration was on the horizon, Mr. Schmidt, a swaggering former political adviser to John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger, pitched the other attendees on his post-Trump vision for the project over a breakfast of bagels and muffins. And it was ambitious.

“Five years from now, there will be a dozen billion-dollar media companies that don’t exist today,” he told the group, according to two people who attended. “I would like to build one, and would invite all of you to be part of that.”

In fact, Mr. Schmidt and the three other men who started the Lincoln Project — John Weaver, Reed Galen and Rick Wilson — had already quietly moved to set themselves up in the new enterprise, drafting and filing papers to create TLP Media in September and October, records show. Its aim was to transform the original project, a super PAC, into a far more lucrative venture under their control.

This was not the only private financial arrangement among the four men. Shortly after they created the group in late 2019, they had agreed to pay themselves millions of dollars in management fees, three people with knowledge of the deal said.

One of the people said a contract was drawn up among the four men but not signed. A spokeswoman for the Lincoln Project was broadly dismissive and said, “No such agreement exists and nothing like it was ever adopted.”

The behind-the-scenes moves by the four original founders showed that whatever their political goals, they were also privately taking steps to make money from the earliest stages, and wanted to limit the number of people who would share in the spoils. Over time, the Lincoln Project directed about $27 million — nearly a third of its total fund-raising — to Mr. Galen’s consulting firm, from which the four men were paid, according to people familiar with the arrangement.

Conceived as a full-time attack machine against Mr. Trump, the Lincoln Project’s public profile soared last year as its founders built a reputation as a creative yet ruthless band of veteran operators. They recruited like-minded colleagues, and their scathing videos brought adulation from the left and an aura of mischievous idealism for what they claimed was their mission: nothing less than to save democracy.

They also hit upon a geyser of cash, discovering that biting attacks on a uniquely polarizing president could be as profitable in the loosely regulated world of political fund-raising as Mr. Trump’s populist bravado was for his own campaign.

Then it all began to unravel. By the time of the Utah meeting, the leaders of the Lincoln Project — who had spent their careers making money from campaigns — recognized the value of their enterprise and had begun to maneuver for financial gain. But other leaders had learned of the financial arrangement among the original founders, and they were privately fuming.

Another major problem was festering: the behavior of Mr. Weaver, who for years had been harassing young men with sexually provocative messages.

Allegations about Mr. Weaver’s conduct began appearing in published reports in The American Conservative and Forensic News this winter. In late January, The New York Times reported on allegations going back several years. The Times has spoken to more than 25 people who received harassing messages, including one person who was 14 when Mr. Weaver first contacted him.

Fresh reporting by The Times found that Mr. Weaver’s inappropriate behavior was brought to the organization’s attention multiple times last year, beginning in January 2020, according to four people with direct knowledge of the complaints, though none of the warnings involved a minor. The Lincoln Project’s spokeswoman, Ryan Wiggins, said it would not comment on issues related to Mr. Weaver while an outside legal review of Mr. Weaver’s actions was ongoing. The group has hired the law firm Paul Hastings to conduct the review.

Steve Schmidt, a former political adviser to John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project.
Steve Schmidt, a former political adviser to John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project.Credit…Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Last June, an employee for a company hired by the Lincoln Project warned in an email that Mr. Weaver’s conduct was “potentially fatal” to the organization’s image. The email, sent to a board member and circulated to other leaders, described multiple instances of harassment. It said Mr. Weaver’s behavior was already damaging relationships with vendors and offered to put leaders in contact with some of the men involved.

Over the last month, The Times reviewed documents and conducted interviews with the founders and with scores of current and former contractors, executives, interns and men who were harassed by Mr. Weaver. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, and others because they feared retaliation from Lincoln Project leaders.

The crisis surrounding Mr. Weaver, and the splintering of the group’s leadership, have cast the future of the Lincoln Project into doubt. Within weeks of the meeting in Utah, a battle erupted over who would control the group’s board. There would be threats to sue, to start rival groups and to back different board slates, as millions of dollars were moved in and out of the organization.

Even people once associated with the group, including George T. Conway III, have called for its dissolution. But Mr. Schmidt’s faction intends to continue it as a modern media campaign against global forces of authoritarianism, while also monetizing the movement.

Save for Mr. Weaver, the project’s top leadership — Mr. Schmidt, Mr. Galen and Mr. Wilson — has not changed. They are hoping that enough of its more than 500,000 donors will remain to keep its coffers filled.

Mr. Schmidt, in a recent interview conducted shortly before he took a leave of absence, said this was no time to quit.

“I want the Lincoln Project to be one of the premier pro-democracy organizations,” he said. “We believe there is a real autocratic movement that is a threat to democracy and has a floor of 40 percent in the next election. And the pro-democracy side cannot be the gentle side of the debate.”

It was not initially clear that the Lincoln Project would be so wildly successful. Then, last May, it released its “Mourning in America” video, a play on a Reagan-era commercial that laid the failures of the country’s pandemic response squarely at Mr. Trump’s feet.

The commercial prompted a late-night Twitter barrage from Mr. Trump to his tens of millions of followers. He derided the project as “a group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me,” adding, “They’re all LOSERS.”

Mr. Trump’s outburst gave the Lincoln Project a flood of attention it could have only hoped for. Fund-raising surged. In June, the billionaire investor Stephen Mandel donated $1 million, while Joshua Bekenstein, a co-chairman of Bain Capital, and David Geffen each donated $100,000; Mr. Geffen has since given $500,000 in total. (David Dishman, the executive director of the David Geffen Foundation, said that Mr. Geffen’s donations were “specific to their work around the 2020 election cycle.”)

It was the start of a wave of contributions, not all from financial powerhouses like Mr. Geffen. The Lincoln Project raised more than $30 million from people who gave less than $200.

A hiring spree began, and the organization spread its wings, creating a communications shop, a political division, podcasts and political shows for its website. It went from “eight or 10 people on the first of May, to like 60-plus by late or early July,” Mr. Galen said. “We scaled up enormously quickly.”

Initially, the project operated much like a pirate ship. Typical workplace management practices were lacking. The organization has no chief executive. Two of its largest contractors, who were billing the Lincoln Project, were given seats on the three-member board of directors, a breach of normal governance practices.

The executive structure was malleable: The two contractors on the board, for instance, Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, who were each involved in reaching voters through digital advertising and data targeting, were also referred to as co-founders. So were Mr. Conway and Jennifer Horn, a former head of the Republican Party in New Hampshire who joined early on and played a leading role in outreach to independents and Republicans.

“This thing was literally a pop-up stand,” said Mr. Conway, an unpaid adviser who had no real operational role before stepping away from the organization last summer. “It was an organization that got big really fast, and more money came in than anyone could have imagined. It was just catch as catch can.”

Amid the rapid growth, it was the core group of original founders, led by Mr. Schmidt, who wielded operational control. “I had zero decision-making power,” Sarah Lenti, a Republican political consultant who at one point served as the group’s executive director, said in an interview.

Ms. Lenti, who has worked on four G.O.P. presidential campaigns in a variety of roles, added that she “was never privy to what founders were making.”

If liberals viewed the Lincoln Project’s mission as noble, the four Republicans who started it had long been practitioners of bare-knuckled political brawling.

Mr. Wilson was a longtime G.O.P. strategist known for producing jagged attack ads, like one in 2002 that claimed former Senator Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who had lost both legs and his right hand in Vietnam, lacked the courage to defend America against terrorists.

The other three were alumni of Mr. McCain’s presidential campaigns. Mr. Weaver is a brooding and mercurial Texan whom Mr. McCain nicknamed Sunny. Mr. Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson in the movie “Game Change,” championed Sarah Palin as Mr. McCain’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, a decision he later called a mistake. He and Mr. Weaver are not remembered fondly by the McCain family, judging by a recent tweet from Meghan McCain, the former senator’s daughter, who said that in recent years, “no McCain would have spit on them if they were on fire.”

Mr. Galen, once a Schmidt lieutenant and now an equal partner, said of presidential campaigns, “It’s not Montessori school.”

Rick Wilson is a longtime Republican strategist known for producing jagged attack ads against Democrats.
Rick Wilson is a longtime Republican strategist known for producing jagged attack ads against Democrats.Credit…Brad Barket/Getty Images

As money poured in, robust cost controls were lacking, with founders reaping management fees. And while big payments are common in politics, other Lincoln Project officials and employees were shocked at the scale when federal records revealed that nearly $27 million had been paid to Mr. Galen’s consulting firm, Summit Strategic Communications. It is not known how much of that each of the four received. Their private arrangement shielded even from other senior officials the size of the individual payments.

The Lincoln Project directed nearly $27 million to Reed Galen’s consulting firm, from which the four original founders were paid.
The Lincoln Project directed nearly $27 million to Reed Galen’s consulting firm, from which the four original founders were paid.Credit…Robin Marchant/Getty Images

“Based on public reports, I clearly was not compensated anywhere near as lavishly as others seemingly were, earning a small fraction of what some of my male counterparts did,” Ms. Horn said in a recent statement.

Obscuring payments via intermediary firms can violate campaign finance laws, but it is unclear whether the Lincoln Project crossed that line.

Ms. Wiggins, the spokeswoman, said Summit was one of the prime contractors that managed and performed work for the Lincoln Project, citing voter outreach efforts and placing advertisements. “All prime contractors and subcontractors were paid in accordance with industry standards,” she said.

Mr. Galen was also earning commissions on nearly $13.3 million directed to another contractor, Ashton Media, which placed the group’s television ads, a former Lincoln Project official said. The project declined to discuss the commissions but said in a statement that it was “standard practice” to use “either a percentage, fixed-fee or hybrid model for media buying.”

Jan Baran, a longtime Republican campaign finance lawyer, said that it was “customary and customarily controversial” for campaign consultants to steer business to their own firms, but that, typically, candidates and PACs negotiate those fees down. What makes the Lincoln Project different, he said, is that “the consultants are their own client, so I’m guessing the negotiations wouldn’t have been as rigorous.”

The Lincoln Project’s advertisements ceaselessly needled and called out President Donald J. Trump.
The Lincoln Project’s advertisements ceaselessly needled and called out President Donald J. Trump.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In the midst of the Lincoln Project’s overnight success last summer, a troubling email arrived.

“I’m writing regarding a pattern of concerning behavior by Weaver that has been brought to my attention by multiple people,” it began. “In addition to being morally and potentially legally wrong, I believe what I’m going to outline poses an immediate threat to the reputation of the organization, and is potentially fatal to our public image.”

The email was sent to Mr. Steslow, the Lincoln Project contractor and board member, by an employee at his company, Tusk, which handled the project’s digital advertising. It described a wide array of allegations dating from 2014 to 2020, including what it called a “bait-and-switch situation” around 2015 in which Mr. Weaver offered to discuss a political job with a young man, then tried to bring him to his hotel room instead. It also said that Mr. Weaver had continued to harass people after the Lincoln Project was founded in late 2019, and that he had “mixed suggestive commentary with official T.L.P. marketing work.”

The Times obtained a portion of the message, and multiple people who have read it provided detailed descriptions of the rest. It included an offer to provide more information if Lincoln Project leaders requested it.

This was not the first time that allegations of harassment by Mr. Weaver had been reported to project leaders. In January, five months before the email was sent, another person working for Tusk had raised concerns with Mr. Steslow.

Ms. Lenti said she was told last March, when she was executive director, that Mr. Weaver “had a history of flirting with gentlemen over Twitter in an inappropriate fashion.”

Mr. Steslow pressed unsuccessfully for some time to have Mr. Weaver pushed out, five people with knowledge of the matter said. While he informed other Lincoln Project officials as early as February 2020 of his concerns, three of the people said, there are conflicting accounts of who learned about Mr. Weaver, what they learned and when.

Mr. Schmidt has been adamant that he had “no awareness or insinuations of any type of inappropriate behavior,” only rumors that Mr. Weaver was gay, even as concerns about harassment were percolating within the organization he was helping run. Mr. Galen was made aware of the June email, the five people with knowledge of the matter said; he declined to comment on the issue, citing the outside legal review the Lincoln Project has commissioned.

John Weaver, accused of harassing young men, took a medical leave from the Lincoln Project in August.
John Weaver, accused of harassing young men, took a medical leave from the Lincoln Project in August.Credit…Open Mind/CUNY-TV, via YouTube

The Lincoln Project did not begin an internal review into Mr. Weaver’s conduct until after the email from the Tusk employee arrived in June. It was led by the group’s general counsel, Matt Sanderson, but was limited in scope, according to Ms. Lenti and others. Ms. Lenti said that to her knowledge, only two people who had complained about Mr. Weaver’s messages were contacted. The June email contained many more allegations that were never followed up on.

“I was not made privy to any written report, if there was ever one, and to my knowledge only the two gentlemen were interviewed,” Ms. Lenti said, adding that Mr. Weaver himself had not been interviewed.

Mr. Sanderson declined to comment, citing the legal inquiry.

By the time the Lincoln Project was founded, Mr. Weaver had been harassing young men online for years. In the most aggressive messages reviewed by The Times, he explicitly offered professional help or mentorship in exchange for sex. Other times, he asked young men about their height, weight and other measurements, and suggested they get drinks or travel together.

Mr. Weaver took a medical leave in August, quieting internal dissent. But soon afterward, he was included as an equal partner in Mr. Schmidt’s proposed private media venture. Axios reported in late October that the Lincoln Project was “weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks and book publishers.”

That was news to Mr. Steslow, Mr. Madrid and Ms. Horn, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. It exacerbated tensions that had been simmering since the summer, when the trio had resisted a brief effort by the original founders to strip them of their titles as co-founders, the people said.

By Oct. 30, Mr. Steslow, Mr. Madrid and Ms. Horn were already on edge as they gathered at Mr. Schmidt’s Utah house, listening as he outlined his vision for a media company. And it was soon made clear to them that they would not be equal partners. Though Mr. Schmidt had already brought Mr. Weaver in on the media deal, he referred to him indirectly as a “black box” that needed to be resolved, but didn’t give details.

Mike Madrid was installed as a board member but was often referred to as a co-founder.
Mike Madrid was installed as a board member but was often referred to as a co-founder.Credit…Max Whittaker

What Mr. Schmidt didn’t say was that the four original principals had already signed a 27-page agreement for TLP Media that named Mr. Schmidt as manager and required each to chip in $100,000 for an equal share, according to a copy reviewed by The Times.

Asked about those documents, Ms. Wiggins, the spokeswoman, said: “This is an inactive company — it only ever existed on paper, never conducted any business, and was never capitalized by its due date, making it null. There are no plans to use this business in the future.”

Not long after the election, with relationships fraying over the group’s finances, Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Wilson sought to formalize their control of the project by pushing to join the board of directors, multiple people with knowledge of the effort said. Mr. Steslow and Mr. Madrid were sent a resolution to sign that would add Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Wilson to the board. Mr. Steslow and Mr. Madrid instead requested a meeting to discuss the proposal. They were rebuffed.

A bitter standoff began. With Mr. Steslow and Mr. Madrid still in control of the board, Mr. Galen, aligned with Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Wilson, set up a new entity of their own called Lincoln Project 2024. In December, they moved millions of dollars from the existing Lincoln Project into companies they controlled, which would have left behind a hollowed-out shell, several people with knowledge of the dispute said. (Mr. Galen said, “Anything regarding this, I can’t speak to.”)

Mr. Steslow and Mr. Madrid, threatened with litigation by the original founders, asked to review the organization’s books, as well as information related to Mr. Galen’s consulting firm.

Mr. Conway tried to mediate. “I told them all these threats and counter-threats are going to blow up the organization and destroy something that had done so much good,” he said.

It was only during the course of that mediation, Mr. Conway added, that he first learned something about Mr. Weaver’s behavior. Mr. Steslow and Mr. Madrid told him they were concerned that Mr. Weaver might still be getting paid despite having sent inappropriate messages to young political consultants, Mr. Conway said, though he added that he wasn’t given details or told that it involved people who worked with the project.

In the end, the transferred funds were returned to the Lincoln Project, Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Wilson joined the board, and a settlement was reached with Mr. Steslow and Mr. Madrid, who departed in December.

Both declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement. While the organization has publicly offered to waive such agreements, several people with knowledge of the matter said the offers were limited.

Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, left the Lincoln Project in January.
Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, left the Lincoln Project in January.Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The infighting remained largely invisible until January, when reports surfaced about Mr. Weaver’s conduct. Ms. Horn soon departed, assailing fellow leaders’ handling of the situation and saying she had only recently become aware of it. “When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned and lied to,” she said.

Recriminations were swift. Ms. Horn’s private Twitter messages were posted to the project’s official Twitter account, then quickly taken down, a highly unusual breach of privacy; her lawyers have given notice of a potential lawsuit.

Mr. Schmidt retreated, leaving the board he had only recently joined. He also apologized to Ms. Horn for letting “my anger turn a business dispute into a public war” and called her “an important and valuable member of our team.”

Those comments were part of a lengthy statement in which Mr. Schmidt said the Weaver episode had reawakened his anger at sexual abuse he had experienced as a boy, as he sought to explain the group’s widely criticized response.

“I am incandescently angry about it,” he said of Mr. Weaver’s actions. “I know the journey that lies ahead for every young man that trusted, feared and was abused by John Weaver.”

As the Lincoln Project tries to reboot, in some ways little has changed. The project is still controlled by three of the four men who started it. Cognizant of a lack of diversity in the organization — all four original founders are white — they have asked Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser and former House Republican communications director, and a person of color, to lead a transition advisory committee.

Ms. Setmayer called the project a movement of people “who decided to get involved to help rehabilitate our democracy.” But from the start, it has blended money with mission. For some, like Mr. Conway, there was no money involved. For others, it was incredibly lucrative.

Few have been more omnipresent than Mr. Schmidt, who has gleefully brawled with the Trumps. Remarking on images of the family’s last Jan. 20 photo op, he tweeted, “Uday and Qusay looking sad,” conflating Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump with the sons of Saddam Hussein. “Crying Ivanka. Glorious indeed.”

George T. Conway III, an unpaid adviser who had no real operational role, has called for the Lincoln Project’s dissolution.
George T. Conway III, an unpaid adviser who had no real operational role, has called for the Lincoln Project’s dissolution.Credit…Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Stuart Stevens, a longtime media consultant who has taken an increasingly prominent role in the project, cried during an interview while talking about his commitment to the cause.

“I helped create this monster that is the current Republican Party,” Mr. Stevens wrote in a follow-up email. He called the recent tumult at the Lincoln Project “a rough couple of weeks,” adding: “This isn’t supposed to be easy. We’re human. We make mistakes. There’s stress at the highest level. All you can do is acknowledge, take responsibility and move on.”

Whether donors will keep the spigot open, especially with Mr. Trump both outside the White House and off Twitter, remains to be seen.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of donors,” Mr. Stevens said. “The support is tremendous. Most of them have been involved in business and had a few rough times. They were drawn to Lincoln Project not because we were H.R. geniuses but because we knew how to fight and were willing to take on our own party. That hasn’t changed.”

But the Weaver problem will linger.

“The attacks that are coming on us from Donald Trump Jr. and all these other people, they’re gleeful — they love the gift that John Weaver gave them,” Mr. Wilson said in an emotional monologue on the group’s video program “The Breakdown” last month. “What he’s given them is a weapon in their hands.”

What’s the Real Point of the Lincoln Project?

Democrats shouldn’t reject their help, but they also shouldn’t give them money.

Stuart Stevens was raised in the Episcopalian church, the American variation of the Church of England, or Anglicanism. It used to be illegal to hold office in England if you believed in transubstantiation. He prefers to keep religion out of politics, and that goes double for theology, but he’ll note that one of the main appeals of settling in the New World was to get away from governments that dictated what you could and could not believe. That process wasn’t really complete in America until we had to pull all the colonies together into one cohesive unit. It was only then that we banned religious tests, and we originally only banned religious tests for federal offices.

Today, you can believe that the communion sacrament literally turns the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and this belief cannot bar you from working in or for state or federal governments. So, from a legal and political point of view, it’s completely irrelevant what I think about it. He certainly doesn’t think it’s a terribly important subject for understanding what has gone wrong with the Republican Party, but Ross Douthat differs.

In reviewing Stuart Stevens’ new book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” Douthat places special significance on a passage where Stevens, who served as Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, suggests that no one really believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation.

There is another way of reading this history, though, that’s suggested by a passage where Stevens is emphasizing the fundamental emptiness of G.O.P. rhetoric on deficits and taxes. “But still the Republican Party continues to push tax cuts the same way the Roman Catholic Church uses incense for High Mass,” he writes, “as a comforting symbolism for believers that reminds them of their identity.” And then, pushing the analogy further: “Being against ‘out-of-control federal spending,’ a phrase I must have used in a hundred ads, is a catechism of the Republican faith. But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.”

Douthat believes that this is both naive and disrespectful, which it certainly is. But he also thinks it’s emblematic of something much more significant.

It suggests, instead, that at some level Stevens and his fellow Republican strategists regarded their own voters in exactly the way certain populist conservatives always claimed the Republican establishment regarded its supporters — as useful foot soldiers, provincials to be mobilized with culture-war appeals, religious weirdos who required certain rhetorical nods so that the grown-ups could get on with the more important work of governing.

In which case the original sin of the strategist class wasn’t moral compromise or racial blindness but simple condescension: a belief that they didn’t need to take their own constituents seriously, that they could campaign on social issues and protecting the homeland and govern on foreign wars and Social Security reform and that it would all hang together. Which it did — until a demagogue came along who was ready to exploit the gap between promises and policy, and to point out that the Republican adults supposedly in charge of governing weren’t actually governing very well.

Stevens obviously touched a raw nerve with Douthat, and he really could have been more generous in understanding the intended point, which is that most Republicans still mouth doctrines that they no longer believe. Yet, that doesn’t mean Douthat is off-base in sensing a chasm between the GOP’s base and its consultant class. His main critique of Stevens and the rest of the Lincoln Project crew is spot-on.

Stevens does not really offer a story of intellectual conversion or gradual ideological disillusionment. He doesn’t tell us that he used to believe in supply-side economics but now rejects it, or that he used to be against abortion or same-sex marriage but came to a different view, or that he used to favor welfare reform and tough sentencing laws and now repents…

…But mostly Stevens presses a critique of Republican voters, activists and operatives — and white religious conservatives above all — that makes its author seem less like a convert with a tale to tell and more like the world’s most clueless mercenary, a political veteran who noticed only after several decades that he was fighting for what was, by his own account, transparently the wicked side.

We can certainly say the same thing with equal accuracy about Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, George Conway, and the other ex-Republican strategists who dominate the Never Trump movement. Even when they ostensibly cop to having some responsibility for creating the monster that devoured the country, they do very little explaining about how they were so blinded for so long. They’re all like King Oedipus, clawing their eyes out when they realize that they’re the cause of the plague. But Oedipus could not have known he was killing his father or bedding his mother, while these political mercenaries were well aware that they were exploiting and stoking the religious conservatism and racial bigotry of a segment of Americans for the political benefit of rich people.

The thing about mercenaries is that you only hire them when you need them. They’re inherently unreliable because they’re always for sale. Right now, they’re acting as volunteer soldiers against Trump, and perhaps there’s a genuine desire for atonement involved here. Still, even if they’re not expecting the Democratic Party or its candidates to pay them, they’re still trying to sell books and make a buck.

Douthat is actually fairly successful in exposing their game, despite his idiosyncratic take on the subject. He won’t reject their help as long as it’s free, but he doesn’t recommend handing them your money.

How is the Lincoln Project still in business?

For people who have willingly given their money to Lincoln Project grifters, the word ‘sucker’ doesn’t go deep enough

OPINION:

A quote that’s often attributed to P.T. Barnum, whether or not he said it, is “There’s a sucker born every minute.” In the case of people who have willingly given their money to the grifters known as the Lincoln Project, I’m not sure that the term “sucker” goes deep enough.

Merely scratching the surface of the organization’s spending and the characters involved would make anyone — even the most ardent Trump hater — turn and run, yet somehow they still exist and make an extreme amount of money.

Many pundits and journalists have focused on the recently uncovered alleged actions of the Lincoln Project’s co-founder John Weaver, which include using his position of “power” to proposition young men for sex. That’s disturbing and gross all on its own, but the drum has been beaten on this grooming story so much that it’s not worth digging into.  There are plenty of other issues that raise red flags with this organization and its self-serving staff.

The first issue that comes to mind is what anyone donating money to any organization should ask: Where’d it all go?

According to Jacobin magazine, a leftist rag that should be cheering on their actions, Lincoln’s primary political activity has been “lighting liberals’ money on fire.” Lincoln had total expenditures of $86 million dollars in the last election cycle, over $52 million of that money was funneled through firms controlled by Lincoln’s founders Reed Galen and Ron Steslow — a.k.a. they paid themselves incredibly well.  

And when Lincoln spent money on a Democratic candidate in a key race, they lost, to the tune of $12 million.

When they’re not pocketing cash, they’re busy being some of the most blatant hypocrites in American politics. When founder Rick Wilson wasn’t busy being mislabeled as an accurate representation of a conservative on CNN and MSNBC, he spent most of his last year attacking President Trump and the GOP for ‘being racist.’ Unfortunately for the sloppy Mr. Wilson, he forgot to clean up piles of tweets disparaging Mexicans and Muslims — and pictures of his ‘South will rise again’ Confederate Flag cooler before going on his long-winded rants.

While we’re on the topic of Mr. Wilson, the donors who gave nearly $68 thousand to his GoFundMe for a documentary film, “on the disastrous 1st year of the Trump administration” are still waiting to see any results of their donations.  

It’s interesting that the Lincoln Project would speak about how President Trump ‘behaved like a dictator’ — perhaps this was known from personal knowledge. Another of their executives, Stuart Stevens, had a long history of counseling autocratic regimes spanning from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Albania, where he worked for a former Stalinist apparatchik — going as far as to make direct phone calls to the opposition leadership of who he was working for to threaten to withhold U.S. aid. 

Then there’s the laughable case of Steve Schmidt, who conveniently decided he hated President Trump after he had praised him and had interviewed and was turned down for a Trump campaign position. Mr. Trump even called him a “blathering idiot” and a “total loser.”

The question now becomes, where do these self-serving gentlemen now turn since Mr. Trump lost the election? And the answer is simply, cancel culture.

A successful grift has to move the goalposts on to the next big bogeymen in order to keep the money flowing in, and now that Joe Biden has become President, the Lincoln Project has shifted to canceling businesses and corporations who support Senate Republicans. 

Suddenly, this group of MSNBC-friendly conservatives finds it offensive that corporate America has donated to Sens. Cruz, Hawley, Cotton and Paul after they objected to the certification of the election results. How dare these Republicans fulfill what they believed to be their constitutional duty by doing the exact same thing that Democrats have done in multiple presidential elections over the past few decades — and to take it further, how dare anyone — especially corporations — support them, right? 

More importantly, it’s going to take millions more dollars in donations to stop these Republicans with ridiculous ads on Fox News that can be summarized as caricatures of the most ridiculous leftist tweets on any topic. 

Luckily, it seems there are less and less rubes in America who are giving the Lincoln Project their hard-earned dollars, but who’s to say that a business competitor of one of the targeted corporations won’t drop a few extra dollars into their pockets to try to score some points in the market. 

In the middle of the left removing President Abraham Lincoln’s name from schools because he’s no longer woke enough for them, perhaps they should consider forcing this group of bottom-feeding swamp creatures to change their name to something much more accurate — The Barnum Project. 

HE LINCOLN PROJECT’S IMPLOSION HAS DERAILED ITS FOUNDERS’ PLAN FOR A MEDIA EMPIRE

The Republican PAC is fighting for survival after a series of scandals. And its founders’ media bona fides—MSNBC, the Daily Beast, various podcast properties—could be out the window next, along with its dreams of TV dramas.

If the meteoric rise of the Lincoln Project—a collection of longtime Republican operatives who branded themselves Never-Trumpers—seemed to happen overnight, the organization’s downfall has been just as dramatic. In the course of a week, damning report after damning report has come out about the group: that cofounder John Weaver allegedly sexually harassed more than 20 young men (allegations he acknowledged in an apology); that it funneled more than $50 million of the roughly $90 million it raised into firms with ties to its members; that senior members of the independent legal team hired by the Lincoln Project to perform a “comprehensive review” of its “operations and culture” are in fact donors to the super PAC themselves. That executives at the organization—including Steve Schmidt—may have known about allegations against Weaver before they were made public. (Schmidt has denied prior knowledge of the allegations. In a statement, the Lincoln Project said it had been “betrayed and deceived” by Weaver.) If true, the stories, which have blasted through the group with bombshell force, represent a spectacular and horrific denouement.

In response, many of the Lincoln Project’s members have fallen back on their favorite mantra: Donald Trump is worse. “You know who would be the happiest man in the world if he knew he’d never have to deal with [Lincoln Project] again? Donald Trump,” tweeted cofounder Stuart Stevens last week. “Pick a side. I’m with [Lincoln Project].” He then urged readers to stand with the group. “Most effective Super PAC in US history,” Stevens wrote. (In fact, though the Lincoln Project’s viral attack ads racked up millions of views, the videos seemingly didn’t do much to accomplish their stated goal of swaying the GOP electorate. Trump received a larger share of the Republican vote nationally in 2020 than he did in 2016.) Others appeared resigned. “Just shut it down already,” wrote Kurt Bardella, who departed from his position as a senior adviser amid the whirlwind of bad press. George Conway, another since-departed cofounder, likewise tweeted that, at this point, shuttering the PAC is the “right” move. On Thursday, the Lincoln Project announced the formation of a “transition advisory committee” that will support the internal investigation of Weaver, as well as a “Stewardship Report” to outline its finances.

As the organization flounders, its plans for the future have been thrown into doubt. The group’s stars had planned to work for Israeli prime minister hopeful Gideon Sa’ar in his bid against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an election that will be held in March. Sa’ar’s campaign had brought on the Lincoln Project’s Schmidt, Reed Galen, Stevens, and Rick Wilson a few weeks ago in the hopes that the group’s aggressive attack ads would work against Netanyahu, but their relationship has since been dissolved, according to a Tuesday report in the Jerusalem Post. Just before the 2020 election, Axios reported that the Lincoln Project had potential plans for a sprawling media organization—Lincoln Media—and had been approached by “several media and entertainment companies and podcast platforms looking to launch franchises from its brand.” Those talks reportedly included interest from a TV studio in developing a fiction series; queries from networks about streaming the Lincoln Project’s proprietary show, LPTV; and potentially creating a nonfiction film. The organization had planned to launch a revamped version of its podcast, telling Axios it would be “unveiling new episodes imminently” and expanding its LPTV programming “in the coming weeks.” Those plans are now, presumably, in limbo.

The Lincoln Project’s founders are feeling the fallout on an individual level too. While it failed in its stated mission, the organization succeeded in boosting the media profiles and lining the pockets of its star members, which, some critics argue, may have been its real goal all along. Schmidt, who is alleged to have known about the allegations against Weaver as early as last March according to The 19th, but has claimed that he became aware of them when they were made public in January, used the group’s success to become a staple MSNBC contributor; he appeared on former top Bush aide Nicolle Wallace’s show, Deadline: White House, at least 34 times since the group’s launch. Despite being introduced as an MSNBC contributor as recently as last weekend, when he was a guest on Bill Maher’s talk show, and appearing on the network to discuss Trump’s acquittal, a source familiar with Schmidt’s standing confirmed that he is no longer a contributor. 

Schmidt also cohosted the Lincoln Project’s popular namesake podcast, which has landed among the most listened to political shows on the Apple Podcast charts. It’s unclear if the group’s podcasting plans will go forward with Schmidt at the helm. He announced last week that he will vacate his board seat “to make room for the appointment of a female board member as the first step to reform and professionalize the Lincoln Project,” but will remain in a managerial role. He compelled supporters to stick by the group in its fight against “the rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism in this country.” 

Wilson, meanwhile, is an editor at large and columnist at the Daily Beast who cohosts its flagship political commentary podcast, The New Abnormal, which also regularly climbs the Apple Podcast charts. But his relationship with the outlet is on hold pending the results of an investigation into which members knew what about the Weaver allegations, and when. “Reporters from the Daily Beast and others have not uncovered any evidence so far that [Wilson] was aware of such actions,“ said Molly Jong-Fast, Wilson’s podcast cohost, in the latest episode of The New Abnormal, before disclosing that she “personally was an unpaid adviser for the Lincoln Project” but has since resigned. “There have been so many controversies around the Lincoln Project, we mutually agreed with Rick to pause his podcast appearances until at least the internal investigation is resolved,” she added.

Schmidt and Wilson are two of the notable holdouts, along with Reed Galen. Cofounder Jennifer Horn, who also resigned from the group, wrote that members of the Lincoln Project had “rejected outright” her push for a call to action on sexual harassment and power imbalance and to “properly address the Weaver issue publicly.” Horn asserted that she had heard from Weaver’s alleged victims who claimed that their interactions with Weaver “apparently started nearly a year ago and, according to these young men, were communicated to others in the Lincoln Project.” Last week, a number of former employees released a statement imploring the Lincoln Project to release them from their nondisclosure agreements, thus allowing them to freely discuss the PAC’s work environment. Earlier this week, the group announced it would “[Release] staff and former staff from the confidentiality provisions in their employment agreements”—an acquiescence that some critics say is relatively narrow.

References

nationalreview.com, “The Rise and Fall of the Lincoln Project,” By LUKE THOMPSON; yourtango.com, “What Is The Lincoln Project? Meet The Republicans Who Want Trump Out Of Office,” By Nicole pomarico; foxnews.com, “The Lincoln Project’s spectacular downfall: A timeline: Sexual harassment scandal surrounding co-founder John Weaver has rocked anti-Trump group.” By Evie Fordham; capitalresearch.org, “The Lincoln Project—or the McClellan Project?” By Hayden Ludwig; nytimes.com, “Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals: A civil war broke out in the group as it antagonized Donald Trump, with leaders splintering over financial arrangements and revelations of online harassment by a top official.” By Danny HakimMaggie Astor and Jo Becker; washingtonmonthly.com, “What’s the Real Point of the Lincoln Project? Democrats shouldn’t reject their help, but they also shouldn’t give them money.” by Martin Longman; washingtontimes.com, “How is the Lincoln Project still in business? For people who have willingly given their money to Lincoln Project grifters, the word ‘sucker’ doesn’t go deep enough.” By Tim Young; vanityfair.com, “HE LINCOLN PROJECT’S IMPLOSION HAS DERAILED ITS FOUNDERS’ PLAN FOR A MEDIA EMPIRE: The Republican PAC is fighting for survival after a series of scandals. And its founders’ media bona fides—MSNBC, the Daily Beast, various podcast properties—could be out the window next, along with its dreams of TV dramas.” BY CALEB ECARMA;

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