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Inside the Lincoln Project's secrets, side deals and scandals

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – A few days before the US 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 organisation’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 US$87 million (S$117.5 million) in donations and producing scores of viral videos that doubled as a psy-ops campaign intended to drive President Donald Trump to distraction.

Confident that a Biden administration was on the horizon, 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, 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.

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.

Over time, the Lincoln Project directed about US$27 million – nearly one-third of its total fundraising – to 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 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 polarising president could be as profitable in the loosely regulated world of political fundraising as 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 – recognised the value of their enterprise and had begun to manoeuvre 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 behaviour of Weaver, who for years had been harassing young men with sexually provocative messages.

Allegations about 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 Weaver first contacted him.

Fresh reporting by The Times found that Weaver’s inappropriate behaviour was brought to the organisation’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 Weaver while an outside legal review of Weaver’s actions was ongoing. The group has hired the law firm Paul Hastings to conduct the review.

The crisis surrounding Weaver, and the splintering of the group’s leadership, have cast the future of the Lincoln Project into doubt.

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

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

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 organisations,” he said. “We believe there is a real autocratic movement that is a threat to democracy and has a floor of 40 per cent 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 Trump’s feet.

The commercial prompted a late-night Twitter barrage from 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.”

Trump’s outburst gave the Lincoln Project a flood of attention it could have only hoped for. Fundraising surged. In June, billionaire investor Stephen Mandel donated US$1 million, while Joshua Bekenstein, a co-chairman of Bain Capital, and David Geffen each donated US$100,000; Geffen has since given US$500,000 in total. (David Dishman, executive director of the David Geffen Foundation, said that 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 Geffen. The Lincoln Project raised more than US$30 million from people who gave less than US$200.

A hiring spree began, and the organisation spread its wings, creating a communications shop, a political division, podcasts and political shows for its website. “We scaled up enormously quickly,” Galen said.

Initially, the project operated much like a pirate ship. Typical workplace management practices were lacking. The organisation 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 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 Conway, an unpaid adviser who had no real operational role before stepping away from the organisation last summer.

“It was an organisation that got big really fast, and more money came in than anyone could have imagined. It was just catch as catch can.”

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 US$27 million had been paid to 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.

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

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 Black senior adviser and former House Republican communications director, to lead a transition advisory committee.

Setmayer called the project a movement of people “who decided to get involved to help rehabilitate our democracy.” Few have been more omnipresent than 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.”

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,” Stevens wrote in a follow-up email. He called the recent tumult at the Lincoln Project “a rough couple of weeks.” Whether donors will keep the spigot open remains to be seen.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of donors,” 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 HR 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,” 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.”

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