This story was published in partnership with The 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.
The Lincoln Project’s launch in late 2019 was designed to make a splash.
“We are Republicans, and we want Trump defeated,” four of its co-founders wrote in the New York Times of the organization that would go on to raise nearly $90 million for its stated mission of defeating Donald Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box in 2020.
They created attention-grabbing ads that provoked responses from the former president. High-profile liberals such as DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen wrote them six-figure checks. Hundreds of small-dollar donations poured in. Leaders and staff decamped to a pre-election headquarters in the ski haven of Park City, Utah, where their effort was chronicled by Hollywood filmmakers. Their post-election plans included leveraging the massive following they gained to build a media empire. They recently launched the platform LPTV.
But, as of last week, just three of the Lincoln Project’s eight co-founders remained — Rick Wilson, Reed Galen and Steve Schmidt. Schmidt resigned from the organization’s board late Friday, though he remains affiliated with the organization.
The organization is facing a rapidly escalating controversy over allegations that another of its co-founders, John Weaver, sexually harassed more than a dozen young men, including some working for the project, and over what other members of senior management knew about the claims and when they knew it.
The accusations have roiled the organization, and as its current and former employees and contractors began coming forward to discuss them, they described a workplace where women in key positions were sidelined and where sexist and homophobic language was used by those in leadership posts.
In reporting a story over the past several weeks about the Lincoln Project’s management, culture, finances and handling of the Weaver allegations, The 19th interviewed nearly two dozen individuals currently or formerly associated with the group or familiar with its operations.
Nearly all of them said they feared speaking publicly about their experiences with the Lincoln Project and its remaining co-founders. Many cited their tendency to “go nuclear,” as several put it, when faced with internal dynamics that could undermine the public image they cultivated with their liberal fans.
The interviews depict an organization that grew quickly, with little planning at its inception, and then began to spiral out of control as its founders quarreled over the organization’s direction, finances, tactics and even who would own the donor data that the project would eventually amass. Some of the co-founders had an informal management agreement that excluded the others, without their knowledge. Several had private firms to which the Lincoln Project channeled tens of millions of dollars that are then not subject to disclosure, while others were paid relatively modest amounts directly or nothing at all. There were clashes over ego and resentments over podcasts and television contracts.
The Lincoln Project’s founders were some of the highest-profile players in Republican politics before they rejected Trump and became apostates within their own party. There was George Conway, a high-profile conservative lawyer who is married to Kellyanne Conway, who was a top adviser to Trump. Weaver worked on Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaigns, as did Galen and Schmidt. Mike Madrid is a strategist specializing in Latino voting trends. Jennifer Horn is a former GOP chair in New Hampshire. Wilson worked on Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral and Senate campaigns. Ron Steslow started his own consulting firm after working at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Conway was the first to leave in August, citing family obligations. Weaver took medical leave around the same time.
A three-person board — Galen, Madrid and Steslow — was created without input from some of the other co-founders. Eventually, disputes over that board, and its scope, led to bitter infighting that involved individual co-founders lawyering up and threatening one another with “oppo” research, Washington speak for the type of negative information amassed by a political campaign or organization to use against a rival.
In late 2020, Conway stepped in to help mediate what was quickly becoming a civil war within the organization. Madrid and Steslow departed in December after signing nondisclosure agreements and receiving separation packages that those familiar with the negotiations describe as lucrative.
Group’s super PAC status makes tracking spending difficult
On Dec. 21, the Lincoln Project paid Madrid’s firm, Grassroots Lab, two round sum payments of $1.1 million and $300,000. On the same date, it paid Steslow’s firm, TUSK Digital, $900,000. All of the payments were described as for “political strategy consulting” on campaign finance filings.
The Lincoln Project was organized as a super PAC, meaning it could raise and spend unlimited sums of money but had to disclose only basic details about where the money was going. The firms that some of the co-founders brought with them to the Lincoln Project’s work became a source of internal frustration, as more than half of the nearly $90 million raised by the project flowed to firms controlled by its various founders. Once it was there, there was usually no way to track how they spent or kept it.
As of late January, Galen’s firm, Summit Strategic Communications, had received roughly $27.5 million from the Lincoln Project, with the bulk of that going to “independent expenditures” such as television or internet advertisements and nearly $7 million to consulting. Steslow’s firm, TUSK, received $22.4 million, with $7.1 million for consulting.
Schmidt’s firm, SES Strategies, received $1.5 million for consulting, but he told the Chicago Tribune he returned it. Madrid’s Grassroots Lab received nearly $2.2 million for consulting services. The Lincoln Project paid Horn directly in amounts of $5,000 or $10,000 per month, campaign finance filings show. In the fall, she began receiving additional payments from LPTV, but in all, her annual compensation was approximately $150,000, sources familiar with the situation said.
There is no way to determine what portion of the consulting fees went directly to the co-founders as their compensation for Lincoln Project work, or whether they paid one another, according to campaign finance experts. Super PACs are structured this way by design.
Super PACs are widely used by both political parties, but the percent of the Lincoln Project’s money that went to vendors and firms connected to its co-founders raised eyebrows given the group’s criticism of Trump-affiliated political groups that similarly directed money to the organizations of allies as a “criminal enterprise.”
Another point of internal financial contention was the donor information that Lincoln Project amassed with ads that spread across social media. The specifics over who or which entity would own the data was not negotiated in advance, sources said, and the data’s market value grew as more and more people gave.
A frequent quip from Schmidt overheard by multiple people was that the Lincoln Project was his vehicle to achieve “generational wealth.”
Sexist, homophobic language cited in toxic workplace
As senior management squabbled over how to divide the pieces of the project’s financial pie, dissatisfaction was growing within the organization’s more junior ranks, which were made up of largely young and liberal staffers who said they had different standards than some of the group’s leaders, citing Schmidt and Wilson specifically. There was language used in both the Lincoln Project’s ads and within its workplace about gender and sexuality that made many of them uncomfortable, the dozens of interviews revealed.
Young men were “wizards” while young women were “girls.” Political rivals were “pussies” or “cocksuckers” or “faggots.” By the time the staff convened in Park City, the situation had become so “toxic,” according to more than a dozen accounts, that at least two co-founders, neither of whom remain at the project, had tried unsuccessfully to intervene to improve working conditions.
Staff had also complained that some of the project’s ads, specifically some related to Ivanka Trump, were sexist.
Plans to sue: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kusher threaten to sue over Lincoln Project Times Square billboards
There was dissatisfaction among the ranks when Ben Howe, billed as the wunderkind behind some of the Lincoln Project’s earliest ads, was brought back by Wilson. Howe had been fired after The 19th reported that in a series of tweets, he had used offensive slang for female anatomy to insult political rivals.
Women in group were treated differently than men
There were few women in Lincoln Project’s leadership, and those who were there were treated differently than the men, multiple people said. Horn was left out of meetings and not consulted about key decisions or public statements. At points, others within the organization had to persuade her not to quit entirely.
On Thursday night, the Lincoln Project tweeted out private direct messages on the social media platform between Horn, who left the organization the previous week, and this reporter.
Horn had just provided a lengthy statement to the New York Times on the specifics of her departure, citing the remaining co-founders’ handling of the allegations against Weaver and saying that when she raised her concerns, she was “yelled at, demeaned and lied to.”
The Lincoln Project had the week before released a statement about Horn’s departure — it had not done so for Madrid or Steslow — that said they had parted ways with Horn over a compensation dispute after she asked for a “signing bonus” of $250,000 to remain with the group for its post-election work, along with a $40,000-per-month consulting contract.
Horn, who was in the middle of negotiating a post-election employment contract, has not denied the specifics. She said her departure was not about compensation but a request to take on sexual harassment that was “rejected outright.”
Some of Horn’s allies with ties to the Lincoln Project reached out to The 19th at that time, wanting to discuss the group’s treatment of her specifically and women generally.
The screenshots shared Thursday night by the Lincoln Project, one of which was reshared by Wilson from his personal account, were of Horn’s inbox on the social media platform. She said she had neither provided the images to the Lincoln Project nor had she given another individual permission to access her account. The tweets were quickly deleted after Conway said publicly that the move “looks on its face to be a violation of federal law” and urged their removal.
The Lincoln Project’s sharing of Horn’s private messages came shortly after The 19th had reached out to the group’s spokesperson, Kurt Bardella, as well as Wilson, Schmidt and Galen, with a list of more than 20 specifics about the group’s management, finances and handling of the Weaver allegations, drawn from publicly available government records and the interviews that it intended to publish in a forthcoming story.
Bardella said Friday he was no longer with the Lincoln Project, effective immediately. Wilson, Schmidt and Galen did not directly respond to any of the points laid out by The 19th.
Spotlight shines on allegations of Weaver harassing young men
New attention has been drawn to issues at the Lincoln Project in the wake of allegations about Weaver.
Sources familiar with internal communications said that in June, multiple members of the Lincoln Project’s senior leadership team were told in conversations and in writing about allegations that Weaver had sexually harassed young men, including some who were doing work for the organization.
By August, nearly all of the co-founders still with the project were aware and a media plan was being crafted after the group’s employees and contractors were contacted by a news outlet working on a story about it. By the time staff gathered in Park City for the build-up to the election, it was an open secret even among junior staff, sources said.
The first allegations were published in January, first in the American Conservative and later in other publications, including the New York Times. Schmidt told the Times that senior management was not aware until that month. Schmidt’s timeline conflicts with that offered by more than a dozen sources who worked within and as contractors for the group at various points.
In the past few days, multiple news outlets have published articles laying out more extensive accusations against Weaver, as well as allegations that they were known earlier than previously reported. Schmidt has run point on responding to the reporting.
He told the Associated Press on Wednesday that no Lincoln Project employee, intern or contractor ever made an allegation so serious it would have triggered an investigation by an independent investigator. He provided the same statement to New York Magazine on Thursday. By Thursday night, the Lincoln Project announced it would hire a “best-in-class outside professional” to investigate the matter.
Calls to release staffers from nondisclosure agreements
Who knew how much and when, and who can say what, is now dominating the back-and-forth between those who remain at the Lincoln Project and those who have left.
When Ryan Girdusky first wrote about the allegations for the American Conservative magazine, he told The 19th it was a “constant problem of finding someone willing to come out and make allegations, go on the record, and within 48 hours, out of fear for their future, would drop out of the story. It happened for months on end.”
Conway and Horn, who said she was not aware of severity of the allegations against Weaver until the New York Times published its story in January, have called for the Lincoln Project’s current and former staff to be released from their nondisclosure agreements.
The group’s remaining leaders said Thursday night that anyone who wants to be released from their nondisclosure agreements to discuss allegations against Weaver should reach out to them directly. Six individuals told the New York Times that they did not feel comfortable doing so, citing Horn’s treatment and Schmidt’s statements about when he first learned of the allegations.
Steslow’s lawyer on Thursday night sent the Lincoln Project a letter asking that he be released from the nondisclosure agreement he signed at the time of his departure, a spokesperson said.
“Any time there is an imbalance of power in a relationship, the weaker person becomes vulnerable to abuse. The stronger, more influential person has an obligation to conduct themselves with honor and integrity in order to preserve the dignity and autonomy of all involved,” Horn said in the Thursday night statement.
“Victims deserve to be — and must be — heard,” she added.