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The Spectacular Fall of the Lincoln Project

A few months ago, the Never Trump group was raking in tens of millions of dollars. Is it all over?

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt

In the days leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the Lincoln Project, the viral ad-making Never Trump group, was riding high. Over the previous 11 months, the group’s videos and tweets had been viewed tens of millions of times and it had raised tens of millions of dollars. It had garnered the attention of Trump himself, who regarded the group as a thorn in his side and frequently groused about it, both in public and in private.

The group was also on the verge of a huge victory. With Trump facing a historic wipeout, the Lincoln Project could claim it played a decisive role in his defeat, particularly for marshaling Republicans to Joe Biden’s side. The group seemed poised to enter a new strata of success, one that wouldn’t require its muse. The Lincoln Project had ambitions of creating a political influence company that would guide campaigns for years to come, while also negotiating with United Talent Agency on a host of projects befitting a multiplatform media behemoth: podcasts, books, movies, even a House of Cards–esque TV series.

The last few months have seen all those castle-in-the-sky dreams come crashing down.

The 2020 election did not play out as planned. The hoped-for electoral landslide didn’t materialize, and it took January special elections in Georgia for the Democrats to win narrow control of the Senate. The group was then stung by scandal—co-founder John Weaver has been accused of sexually harassing several men, one who was initially contacted when he was 14—and the departure of several other co-founders.* On Thursday evening, the group’s Twitter account appeared to post direct messages between a since-departed co-founder and a reporter who was working on a story about the group; the posts may have violated federal law.

The Lincoln Project expected 2021 to be a coronation. Instead, the group is melting down in spectacular fashion.

The allegations against Weaver have subsumed the Lincoln Project in recent weeks. At least 21 men have said that Weaver sent them sexually suggestive messages over Twitter and, in some cases, offered professional help in exchange for sex. Those messages, according to The New York Times, “did not lead to physical encounters except in one consensual case, and none of the men accused Mr. Weaver of unlawful conduct. Rather, many of them described feeling preyed upon by an influential older man in the field in which they wanted to work, and believing they had to engage with his repeated messaging or lose a professional opportunity.”

In earlier statements about the allegations against Weaver, the Lincoln Project insisted that its founders were unaware of any improper behavior until quite recently. In a brash statement released after his actions were first reported, the group denounced Weaver as “a predator, a liar, and an abuser,” while also claiming, “The totality of his deceptions are beyond anything any of us could have imagined and we are absolutely shocked and sickened by it. Like so many, we have been betrayed and deceived by John Weaver. We are grateful beyond words that at no time was John Weaver in the physical presence of any member of The Lincoln Project.”

But subsequent reporting has strongly suggested that the group’s founders were aware of the allegations for months and that they were an “open secret” for much of 2020. Nevertheless, according to reporting from New York, the Lincoln Project continued to hire interns recommended by Weaver, even “after receiving a warning he would dangle job opportunities to potential victims.” Weaver was placed on medical leave in August, but many suspected he was being sidelined as a result of his misbehavior. Several former Lincoln Project employees have asked to be released from nondisclosure agreements so they can speak openly about Weaver’s conduct.

Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, and George Conway, all board members, have left in recent months. Jennifer Horn, a co-founder, announced she was leaving in the wake of the revelations about Weaver. “When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned, and lied to,” Horn said in a statement on Thursday.

The Lincoln Project has responded by repeatedly attacking Horn’s character. First, the group released a statement saying she was lying about trying to rein in Weaver and that, actually, she was out to get the organization over a financial dispute. Horn had demanded “an immediate ‘signing bonus’ payment of $250,000 and a $40,000-per-month consulting contract,” as well as a television show, a podcast, and “a staff to manage these endeavors,” the company said.

Then, on Thursday, the group publicly released on Twitter direct messages between Horn and a reporter, in an attempt to discredit a story the reporter was working on. The posts have since been taken down, but it’s still unclear how the messages were acquired. Horn tweeted that evening that she did not give the group consent to release them.

Concerns about the group’s finances have also resurfaced. The Lincoln Project showered firms owned by its co-founders with tens of millions of dollars, with $45 million spent at two advertising companies owned by Steslow and Steve Schmidt alone. More and more, it seems like the founders of the Lincoln Project grew spectacularly rich while ignoring serious harassment complaints against one of their own. Pressed about the group’s finances, Schmidt released a Trumpian whataboutist statement, saying, “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.”

The fate of the group’s other projects is uncertain, though it seems unlikely that it will soon be cranking out television shows and books. United Talent Agency did not return a request for comment about the status of its work with the Lincoln Project.

The operating theory behind the Lincoln Project was that to defeat Trump, you needed to act like him. Democrats were too afraid to wrestle with him in the mud. The Lincoln Project was more than happy to throw elbows and say things others wouldn’t. But since the election, the group has shown itself to be very much like Donald Trump in other ways. Overwhelmed by scandal, it’s lashing out in all directions as the accusations pile up.

*This article has been updated for accuracy.