How a prominent anti-Trump group ignored a crisis in its ranks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Last June, the Lincoln Project was at its peak.

Led by several prominent former Republican consultants, its skillfully produced ads attacking President Donald Trump have made it perhaps the most well-known of the so-called Never Trump. organizations. The group attempted to claim higher moral ground in an effort to purge Trump from the GOP. Money poured in by the tens of millions of dollars from donors eager to help.

But within the organization, a crisis was brewing.

In June 2020, members of the organization’s leadership were notified in writing and in subsequent phone calls of at least 10 specific allegations of harassment against co-founder John Weaver., including two involving Lincoln Project employees, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the situation. The emails and phone calls raise questions about the Lincoln Project’s statement last month that it was “shocked” when accusations surfaced publicly this year. It is also the first known suggestion that Weaver targeted a Lincoln Project personnel.

The organization announced late Thursday, after the new details were reported by The Associated Press, that its board of directors had decided to “retain a top-notch outside professional” to review Weaver’s term “in order to establish both accountability and best practices going forward for The Lincoln Project.

The band also encouraged anyone bound by a nondisclosure agreement “to contact The Lincoln Project for a release.”

Despite the initial warning in June, the band took no action against Weaver and continued their high profile work. For all the consultants and former GOP officials, being anti-Trump was becoming very good for business. Of the $90 million raised by Lincoln Project, more than $50 million went to companies controlled by the group’s executives.

There is no evidence that the Lincoln Project buried the allegations against Weaver for business reasons. But taken together, the harassment allegations and new revelations about spending practices raise important questions about the handling of one of Trump’s most high-profile antagonists. The revelations threaten the stature of not just the Lincoln Project, but also the broader coalition of establishment-focused Republican groups working to keep Trump out of the party.

Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt insisted that he and the rest of the band’s management were unaware of any internal allegations of wrongdoing involving Weaver.

“No Lincoln Project employee, intern or contractor has ever made an allegation of improper communication about John Weaver that would have prompted an investigation by HR or outside labor attorney,” Schmidt said in a statement. interview Wednesday. “In other words, no human being has ever made an allegation of inappropriate sexualized communications about John Weaver.”

Weaver declined to comment for this story, but in a statement released late last month to Axios, he generally acknowledged the misconduct and apologized.

“To the men I made uncomfortable through my posts which I considered consensual mutual conversations at the time: I’m so sorry,” he wrote. “They were inappropriate and it was because of my failures that this discomfort was caused to you.”

The Lincoln Project was launched in November 2019 as a super PAC which allowed its leaders to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

Its founders represent a who’s who of prominent Republican cable television strategists, including Schmidt and Reed Galen, both former advisers to John McCain; conservative lawyer George Conway; former New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn; Florida-based veteran political ad creator Rick Wilson; and Weaver, who long advised former Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Buoyed by its founders’ commanding social media presence, the organization quickly attracted a massive body of bipartisan criticism of Trump that exceeded even its own founders’ expectations.

Since its inception, The Lincoln Project has raised $90 million. But only about a third of the money, about $27 million, directly paid for ads that aired on TV and cable, or appeared online, during the 2020 campaign, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures. and data from ad tracking company Kantar/ CMAG.

That leaves tens of millions of dollars spent on expenses such as production costs, overhead, and exorbitant consulting fees collected by band members.

“It raises questions about the ultimate destination of the rest of the money,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “Generally speaking, you’d expect to see a major super PAC spend the majority or more of their money on ads and that’s not what happened here.”

The vast majority of the money was split between consultancy firms controlled by its founders, with about $27 million going to a small company controlled by Galen and another $21 million going to a boutique company run by the former Lincoln Project member Ron Steslow, according to campaign finance information. .

But in many cases, it’s hard to tell how much band members were paid. That’s because the Lincoln Project adopted a strategy, much like the Trump campaign they criticized, to hide how much money they made.

Although several companies have collected payments, Weaver and Wilson are not listed in publicly available records. They were likely paid as subcontractors to these companies, 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 pleased to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs will, explaining the nearly $700 million cash flow that passed through their organizations controlled by Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner.

The Lincoln Project parted ways with co-founder Horn last week, saying in an unusual public statement that she was seeking a $250,000 signing bonus and a $40,000-a-month consulting contract. Horn said she left following revelations about Weaver’s “grotesque” behavior and differences of opinion with existing leaders over how to move forward.

Public records reveal that the unexpected success of the Lincoln Project extended a lifeline to some founders who spent much of the past decade struggling financially.

Over the past decade, Weaver has repeatedly failed to pay taxes, failed to repay loans and faced lawsuits from creditors seeking collection. In October, he paid off $313,000 in back taxes owed to the IRS since 2011, records show. A separate case in Texas is still pending over more than $340,000 in rent her family owes after closing a children’s store she operated, records show.

Others have used the money earned while at Lincoln Project to refinance homes or buy a new one. Schmidt bought a $1.4 million ‘Mountain Modern’ custom home in Kamas, Utah, with five bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a ‘stunning’ view of the Uinta Mountains, records show. property and real estate listings. He is currently trying to resell the house for $2.9 million.

But as money poured into the group, several people with direct knowledge said allegations against Weaver were repeatedly raised within the organization, long before leaders publicly acknowledged them in late January. Those with knowledge spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose private communications.

Last June, someone working for Lincoln Project payroll sent an email to Steslow, one of the organization’s co-founders, detailing numerous cases of sexual harassment involving Weaver that spanned several years. Although the AP has not seen the email, its contents were confirmed by four people who had seen it directly.

Schmidt did not confirm the existence of the email, saying only that if one existed, it was not shared with anyone on the organization’s board or leadership.

But several people familiar with the situation say Steslow immediately forwarded the email to Galen, who was helping manage day-to-day operations at the time, and Lincoln Project corporate attorney Matthew Sanderson. Steslow also encouraged his colleagues to remove Weaver from the organization.

These and other allegations were discussed in subsequent phone calls with organization leaders in June and August, and employees were assured that the alleged incidents would be investigated. Weaver went out on sick leave in August, but as the presidential campaign moved into the summer and fall, there was no formal resolution.

Washington’s Blade reported earlier this week details of another round of internal communications over the summer indicating that Lincoln Project executives were aware of the allegations against Weaver and were preparing to respond to media reports.

The allegations against Weaver followed a similar pattern in which the 61-year-old married father allegedly privately messaged young gay men on Twitter. They often started with work references before moving on to things like their personal appearance, workout routines, and favorite sex positions.

At least two Lincoln Project employees were targeted last year, including an intern finishing law school and a communications staff member. There is no allegation of physical contact.

Conway, one of the group’s co-founders, said Thursday that he had received nothing of value for his work on the Lincoln Project, and he denied knowledge of internal discussions last summer.

“No one ever told me about these complaints to the Lincoln Project, and the first time I heard that Weaver might have done anything questionable were rumors I heard long after the election, and long after I ceased to be actively involved in the organization,” Conway wrote on Twitter.

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People reported from New York.

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