The Lincoln Project wasn’t just another anti-Trump Super PAC.
In the endless search for Republicans willing to organize to oppose President Trump, it offered a real example of GOP-ers fighting back. The group caused endless headaches for the President and his campaign, working to make Trump a one-term President through a relentless succession of viral ads.
But that bizarre period of renown for the group has come to a smashing halt. In recent weeks, the group’s co-founder was credibly accused of sexually harassing young men, questions have been raised over the group’s spending, and the project’s leadership has degenerated into public recriminations.
Here are five points on how to make sense of the imbroglio.
It filled a niche: lifelong Republicans opposed to Trump
The Lincoln Project had a simple pitch: here, finally, are the Republicans who put country ahead of party. Disgusted by the Trumpificiation of the GOP, they’re giving it their all to defeat the the party for which they had worked their entire lives in the 2020 elections.
It was a striking message, and they brought cable news-ready GOP consultants to the fore. George Conway, the conservative attorney, is a member, as are former John Kasich adviser John Weaver, John McCain alum Reed Galen, and Florida political consultant Rick Wilson.
The group asked viewers to forget what the ads’ producers had spent their careers building towards — Trump — in favor of the central pitch: the sense that Trump violated something deeper in the American idea, that the former President’s neglect of the basic duties of the office should unite the country regardless of partisan affiliation.
But, more broadly, the Lincoln Project took the idea that Democrats are somehow too high-minded to play dirty and ran with it. Here were a bunch of disaffected GOPers willing to use the weapons that they’ve plied against liberals for decades and turn them against their own — including Trump’s allies in the Senate.
But there was rot within
After the Democrats won the 2020 election, the Lincoln Project pivoted towards countering Trump’s attempts at fomenting the myth that the election was stolen.
But the political group was beginning to face its own reckoning.
Rumors had begun to spread that one of the group’s top officials had sexually harassed a series of young men seeking to enter politics. Trump boosters eagerly spread the message on social media.
Worth noting: Schmidt posted this lie about Weaver having a heart attack as part of a successful effort to kill a story about Weaver luring young men into his bed. That story is now coming out. Is @ProjectLincoln protecting a sexual predator? Why? https://t.co/CuBfSKrdik
— Arthur Schwartz (@ArthurSchwartz) January 10, 2021
On Jan. 11, The American Conservative published an article tilted “The Lincoln Project’s Predator,” alleging that Weaver abused his position as a longtime adviser to top Republicans to request sexual favors in exchange for entry to the political world.
The article described how Weaver would approach young men on Twitter before engaging in sexual innuendo.
It also cited Scott Stedman, a Twitter journalist, recounting his own experience with Weaver.
One day, he DM'd me and said he had "advice". He then proceeded to tell me how "hot" I looked and commented on my profile picture and my hair. He started calling me "my boy". I found it deeply uncomfortable.
— Scott Stedman (@ScottMStedman) January 10, 2021
The New York Times later followed up with a blockbuster investigation, reporting that 21 men were accusing the Lincoln Project co-founder of sending unwanted, sexually provocative messages.
In one case, the recipient was 14.
The group said it was ‘shocked’ to hear about it
At first, the Lincoln Project ignored the allegations.
Trumpworld figures like Don Jr. had latched on to the allegations with their typical level of acuity.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 31, 2021
“While I am taking full responsibility for the inappropriate messages and conversations, I want to state clearly that the other smears being leveled at me by Donald Trump’s enablers as a way to get back at the Lincoln Project for our principled stand for democracy are categorically false and outrageous,” the statement reads.
It was unclear how much Weaver’s colleagues at the Lincoln Project knew about his misconduct.
Weaver had taken a medical leave of absence from the organization in summer 2020, and said in his statement that he would not return once he recovered. The organization issued a statement saying it was “shocked” by the accusations.
But it wasn’t until the February that things really blew up.
The Lincoln Project may not actually have been so surprised
On Thursday, the Associated Press published a story alleging that the group had ignored Weaver’s wrongdoing. Specifically, the AP reported that the group’s leadership had been informed “of at least 10 specific allegations” involving Weaver in June 2020 — seven months before it became public — and that Lincoln Project employees may have been victims.
That story undercut the Lincoln Project’s January statement that it was “shocked” to have learned of the allegations.
The Super PAC announced that it was hiring a “best-in-class” law firm to probe the allegations and “establish both accountability and best practices” for the group going forward.
The AP article also suggested that the PAC may have gone beyond the bog-standard level of payouts that political consultants tend to reap.
The group took in $90 million, filings cited by the news organization show. Of that, the AP noted, $50 million went to consulting firms controlled by its own executives. $27 million was spent on broadcast, cable, and online ad reservations.
It’s not clear what the $50 million in payments to firms controlled by the Super PACs’s leadership were for. The AP cited experts saying that there appeared to be a gap between the money at the group’s disposal and its output.
Now, the group is in full meltdown, staring down public recriminations and a possible FBI probe
The AP story came as the group took on its trademark level of aggression and turned it squarely on itself.
On Feb. 5, the group issued a statement attacking Jennifer Horn, a senior member of the organization, accusing her of demanding a $250,000 “signing bonus” as the group dealt with fallout from the Weaver allegations — “a moment when the Lincoln Project was under attack from the Trump organization and their propaganda allies,” in the organization’s telling.
Horn said in a statement that she had in fact resigned because of the allegations against Weaver. More revelations may be impending; six former Lincoln Project employees are asking to be released from non-disclosure agreements that they had signed with the group, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
But things boiled over on Thursday evening, when the Lincoln Project’s Twitter account sent out pictures of a private Twitter conversation between Horn and Amanda Becker, a journalist at the 19th, as she reported a story about the Super PAC.
“You hear a lot of talk about hit-jobs in journalism, but rarely do you get to see their origin story,” the group tweeted as a preface to the images.
The images appeared to have been taken from Horn’s account. They stayed up for around half an hour until group member George Conway pointed out that they may violate federal law against unauthorized access of others’ social media accounts.
This looks on its face to be a violation of federal law and should be taken down immediately. https://t.co/7IlMjiAIpl
— George Conway (@gtconway3d) February 12, 2021
Horn later confirmed that she did not consent to the images.
— Jennifer Expel the Seditionists Horn (@NHJennifer) February 12, 2021
The latest development in the story came this morning: Yashar Ali, an independent journalist, reported that FBI agents had contacted two of his sources asking about Weaver’s behavior. The agents reportedly focused on whether Weaver’s actions had occurred when the sources were underage.