The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC founded by a group of former Republican consultants united by their shared hatred of the former president, is by all public accounts in utter crisis.
The organization in recent months was racked by allegations that one of its co-founders, John Weaver, was guilty of sexual misconduct and now faces demands from six former employees to be released from nondisclosure agreements to discuss Weaver's conduct.
Former members of the PAC's leadership are speaking out, demanding an independent probe into the allegations and how the Lincoln Project responded to them. Additionally, there are also questions about how the PAC spends donor money, and on Wednesday there was a nasty public controversy with a former employee on social media.
Turmoil erupted after Weaver, 61, a former aide to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and ex-Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was accused of sexual misconduct by at least 21 young men, including one who was just 14 years old at the time. He is now reportedly under FBI investigation. The accusations were first reported by the American Conservative in January and Weaver issued a public apology to the men he sexually harassed.
After the allegations were made public, the Lincoln Project issued a statement claiming, "the totality of his deceptions are beyond anything any of us could have imagined and we are absolutely shocked and sickened by it." As some critics pointed out, the phrasing of that statement seemed to indicate that at least some of the allegations against Weaver were known to members of the Lincoln Project before the American Conservative broke the story.
A bombshell report from the Associated Press on Thursday confirmed that "at least 10 specific allegations of harassment" against Weaver, "including two involving Lincoln Project employees," were known and discussed by the organization's leadership in June 2020. A New York magazine article offered more details, including testimony from one of the men who says he was sexually harassed by Weaver and a report of a June 17 email sent to co-founder Ron Steslow about the allegations against Weaver:
On June 17, a person working at the Lincoln Project sent an email to co-founder Steslow that reported ten allegations of Weaver's harassing men, including at least one employee at the Lincoln Project; three people independently described the contents of the email to Intelligencer and said it warned Weaver could be using his position at the company to make promises of career advancement to prey on young men. The complaint called Weaver's predatory behavior an immediate threat to the company that, if it became public, could render a death blow to the Lincoln Project's reputation. As the complaint noted, the Lincoln Project itself was attacking Trump as a sexual predator. Steslow raised the email with his fellow co-founder Galen and corporate counsel Matthew Sanderson, the AP reported. Yet Weaver's harassment continued. (Weaver did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Washington Blade further reported leaked electronic communications that date back to August 2020 and include co-founder Mike Madrid that show leadership was made aware of allegations about Weaver from reporters who were investigating it. The communications also show discussions were underway on how to respond to fallout from a potential scandal.
The very real scandal that came in January prompted at least one of the PAC's co-founders, former New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn, to leave the group last week citing Weaver's "grotesque" conduct. Six other former employees are speaking out too, demanding in an open letter published by the New York Times that the Lincoln Project waive their nondisclosure agreements so they can disclose information "that would aid the press, public and our donors in answering questions relevant to the public interest."
These former employees made their concerns public because they believe the leadership of the Lincoln Project worked to protect Weaver.
"Expecting victims and those close to victims to contact and engage the people and organization accused of protecting the very predator at issue is absurd, unreasonable and insensitive," they wrote.
Horn also told the Times that she had learned other leaders of the group had ignored warnings about Weaver's misconduct.
"When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned and lied to," she wrote in a statement.
The PAC's other founders include Steve Schmidt, a GOP political strategist who worked on President George W. Bush's presidential campaign, former John McCain adviser Reed Galen, and political ad maker Rick Wilson.
Attorney George Conway was also a founding member of the PAC, but left in August 2020 and has publicly called for an "independent counsel" to investigate the allegations of misconduct and "provide a full accounting of the facts to everyone who worked at the organization, as well as all those who contributed to it."
Schmidt denied the reports from the AP and New York Magazine, claiming that Lincoln Project leadership was never aware of any of the allegations against Weaver.
"No Lincoln Project employee, intern, or contractors ever made an allegation of inappropriate communication about John Weaver that would have triggered an investigation by HR or by an outside employment counsel," Schmidt told the AP. "In other words, no human being ever made an allegation about any inappropriate sexualized communications about John Weaver ever."
But the Weaver scandal is just the beginning of the Lincoln Project's problems.
The AP's report also raises serious questions about how the super PAC is spending donor dollars. The Lincoln Project's pitch to progressive donors was that "independent-leaning men, those college-educated Republicans, the suburban Republican women" could be convinced to throw Trump-supporting Republicans out of office with the right messaging. And the left responded. The AP reported that the Lincoln Project successfully raised more than $90 million dollars since its inception, spending about $27 million on the production of a few sleek online anti-Trump advertisements that went viral, but ultimately failed to convince Republican voters to abandon Trump.
And the rest of the money? According to the AP, more than $50 million was paid to firms controlled by the group's leaders. In other words, more than half of all the donor dollars raised reportedly filled the PAC's leaders' pockets instead of fulfilling their promises to donors. But it's difficult to say exactly how much the Lincoln Project's founders paid themselves.
From the AP:
The vast majority of the cash was split among consulting firms controlled by its founders, including about $27 million paid to a small firm controlled by Galen and another $21 million paid to a boutique firm run by former Lincoln Project member Ron Steslow, campaign finance disclosures show.
But in many cases it's difficult to tell how much members of the group were paid. That's because the Lincoln Project adopted a strategy, much like the Trump campaign they criticized, to mask how much money they earned.
While several firms did collect payments, Weaver and Wilson are not listed in publicly available records. They were likely paid as subcontractors to those firms, an arrangement that avoids disclosure. Schmidt collected a $1.5 million payment in December but quickly returned it.
"We fully comply with the law," Schmidt said. "The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so, explaining the cash flow of the nearly $700 million that flowed through their organizations controlled by Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner."
On the heels of these controversies, the Lincoln Project had an embarrassing public dispute with former co-founder Horn this week when the PAC's Twitter account published screenshots of private Twitter direct messages between Horn and journalist Amanda Becker with 19th News.
The screenshots appear to have been published in retaliation for Horn's willingness to speak to the media about the Weaver scandal.
"Earlier this evening, we became aware that @AmandaBecker of @19thnews was preparing to publish a smear job on the Lincoln Project with the help of @NHJennifer," the Lincoln Project tweeted in what was the beginning of a lengthy since-deleted thread. "You hear a lot of talk about hit-jobs in journalism, but rarely do you get to see their origin story. Enjoy."
The Lincoln Project was met with fierce backlash for its tweets, including condemnation from former employee and co-founder Conway, who warned the tweets might be a "violation of federal law."
It is unclear how the Lincoln Project's account gained access to Horn's direct messages, which were shared without her consent.
A Twitter spokesman told journalist Yashar Ali that the Lincoln Project did not violate Twitter rules by sharing confidential direct messages and that the screenshots shared were not violations of the social media website's hacked materials policy.
In response, 19th News founder and CEO Emily Ramshaw tweeted, "Several minutes ago, @ProjectLincoln posted a series of screenshots of private Twitter DMs showing reporting by one of our journalists — not long after she sent @ProjectLincoln a series of questions to respond to for a story ... We're not going to be bullied or intimidated out of pursuing critical journalism."
So far, the Lincoln Project has not made a statement about why the tweets featuring screenshot's of Horn's direct messages were deleted.
The group on Thursday released a general statement accusing "recently published stories about the Lincoln Project" of being "filled with inaccuracies, incorrect information, and reliant on exclusively anonymous sources."