The Lincoln Project Grift

Its founders are laughing all the way to the bank.

The most prominent of #NeverTrump organizations is falling apart at the seams. While masquerading as a home for reasonable Republicans “holding accountable those who would violate their oaths to the Constitution and would put others before Americans,” it was really something else, entirely.

Axios details the string of stories that have come out in recent days and weeks:

  • The New York Times reported last month on allegations from 21 men that Weaver sent them unsolicited and sexually charged messages. One was 14 years old at the time, according to the report.
  • Multiple people have reportedly been contacted by federal law enforcement regarding the alleged conduct. The Lincoln Project said it has hired an external law firm to conduct an investigation into the matter.
  • The AP reported that the majority of the $90 million that the Lincoln Project has raised was paid to consulting firms tied to the group’s founders and senior staff.
  • On Thursday, the group’s official Twitter account tweeted screenshots of messages between a former senior staffer and a reporter writing a story on the group. Lincoln Project co-founder George Conway suggested the disclosures may have been illegal.

This is quite the comeuppance for a group that got famous for trolling Trump on Twitter and seemed poised to really capitalize in the aftermath of the election.

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.

Amanda Becker, writing at something called 19th News, interviewed several lower-level people in the organization. In addition to portraying a toxic workplace culture, shows how slapdash the organization was from the outset:

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.

[…]

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. 

On December 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.” 

It’s noteworthy that the page that listed the group’s leadership and support team has been taken down entirely.

Regardless, everyone now seems to be where I was back in my July post “NeverTrump Democrats.”

Additionally, it’s worth noting that several of the founders, notably Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, and Reed Galen, are essentially professional grifters who are cashing in on the project […] Again, to the extent they’re getting under Trump’s skin and diminishing his already-slim re-election chances, I’m happy. But the consistent media narrative that this is somehow principled opposition to Trump and what he has done to the party is grating.

It’s perhaps not surprising that National Review‘s David Harsanyi takes schadenfreude in declaring that, “Yes, the Lincoln Project Is an Ugly Grift.” But David Sirota and Andrew Perez make the same declaration (“The Lincoln Project Was a Giant Grift“) at Jacobin. The critiques are, not surprisingly, very different but they both hone in on the group’s leadership raking in piles of money from anti-Trump donors, little of which was used to defeat Trump and even most of that was spent telling people what they already knew.

Regardless, while their reputation has taken a hit, it’s not clear that any of this graft is illegal. With the exception of Weaver, who may well face criminal charges for his sexual predation, I suspect the rest will be just fine.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    What were we expecting? They were all Republicans.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    In actuality, the whole concept of Super Pacs are legal graft and just another form of rent-seeking found in the economic system. The Lincoln Project is simply more odious due to the behavior of Weaver. We shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed in this, as it was to be expected.

    File under Same Sh%t, Different Day.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    This is my shocked face.

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  4. @Sleeping Dog:

    the whole concept of Super Pacs are legal graft and just another form of rent-seeking found in the economic system

    This is the core problem. It is way too easy to lie to the public and then funnel money into your pocket.

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  5. Nightcrawler says:

    You know what? I don’t care.

    Granted, I don’t think I ever donated any money to them. If I did, it was a nominal amount, maybe $10 or $20. Most of my political donations were directly to the Democratic Party or individual candidates.

    Further, they’re bad people, and it turns out that they committed financial crimes. They deserve to be prosecuted for that. Weaver is a pedophile who deserves to be castrated, but I’ll settle for life in prison.

    But I don’t care that they turned out to be bad people, because their marketing campaigns helped get DT out of office. They also helped Warnock and Ossoff win the Senate runoff in Georgia.

    Maybe they needed to be bad people to do the work they did. Kind of like Sisko going to Garak for help in a DS9 episode, because he knew that Garak would do the dirty, nasty, morally grey work that Sisko couldn’t bring himself to do.

    The Lincoln Project did the dirty, nasty, and morally grey — but necessary — work that the Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to do.

    Welcome to the apocalypse, folks! I’ve got news for everyone: Nice people with clean hands aren’t going to survive the apocalypse. They never do.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    They delivered excellent media, so clearly not just a grift. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    Progressives seem terribly concerned about the Lincoln Project, or more accurately blue money going to them. They seem to think liberals have forgotten who these people are. We haven’t.

    I was in favor of taking it easy on never-Trump Republicans in much the same way that we made nice with Uncle Joe Stalin when we had to, but never forgot who he was. But I have yet to see a never-Trump Republican face up squarely to their own complicity in creating Trump voters. Now Trump’s gone, and the gloves come off.

    No pity for these people. But they make excellent media.

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  7. R. Dave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think the refugees from National Review that set up The Dispatch, particularly David French, come about as close as can reasonably be expected to recognizing the way the tactics of pre-Trump Republicans and conservatives, like themselves, gave rise to the current insanity and evil on the Right. I’d highly recommend https://thedispatch.com/ to anyone interested in a principled conservative take on issues from people who both held onto those principles through the Trump era despite personal and professional blowback and recognize to some degree how we got here.

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  8. CSK says:

    @R. Dave:
    I think you can add Tom Nichols to that list. He’s been vehemently opposed to Trump since 2015, and didn’t hesitate to say so.

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  9. Raoul says:

    Sounds like the NCP is off to an auspicious beginning.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Regardless, while their reputation has taken a hit, it’s not clear that any of this graft is illegal.

    No reason to suspect anything else considering that the people who write the laws on what Super PACs can do also form them. These same people also wrote the insider trading laws that exclude members of Congress, sexual harassment laws the exclude employees of Congressional offices and Congressional pages, and all the rest. Calling it hypocritical isn’t fair–hypocrites have principles compared to the empty suits “WE THE PEEPUL” elect.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    Poorly regulated groups with money pouring through them are going to have grifters — it’s the nature of the beast. I don’t know how effective they were at turning votes, but presumably they weren’t completely useless and in the tight states they may have made the difference.

    Weaver the pedophile is a surprise. But I suppose if you have enough people, two will share the same birthday and one will be a pedophile.

    Random aside: you want to screw who you want to screw, and you can’t change that. I expect it’s incredibly difficult for pedos who understand that they can’t act on that because it will hurt someone — it would be better for them to be interested in centaurs, or 50 foot tall women or something that doesn’t exist.

    But we’ve cracked down too hard — mental health professionals have a duty to report to report to the state in effectively any case where a person is seeking help at managing their unfortunate and dangerous attraction. This means they don’t seek help. It also means that we can’t really do any experiments to see what treatments are effective at keeping them from offending, only what treatments are most effective at keeping them from repeating their offense — which is likely too late, as patterns of behavior are too ingrained at that point to be easily changed.

    That said, I don’t understand how anyone could ever speak to a 14 year old and have any interest. Ugh. Arrogant, self-conscious, angry, with mood swings and the belief that they have the world worked out when they know nothing. The only redeeming quality of a 14 year old is they will eventually age out of it, probably. I don’t know how other 14 year olds have any interest in 14 year olds. Ugh.

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  12. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    I don’t think interesting conversation is the point of the encounter.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: All I’m going to say to that is I really should not be put in a position of authority over grad students. They’re so earnest and nerdy.

    (I don’t think I’d abuse my authority, but I don’t think anyone ever sets out to abuse their authority over grad students…)

  14. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    Grad students, with the exception of a few prodigies, are almost invariably adults, not young teenagers, and can consent to a relationship. I don’t advise it, and I’ve seen professors sexually exploit grad students, but they’re not 14-year-olds.

    When I was a grad student, there were three married guys in the English Language and English Literature Departments who regularly had affairs with women students. It was semi-acceptable behavior then–or at least no one was bothered by it.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    My house and car were paid for by 14 year-olds. Some older, some younger, but that’s the sweet spot. From the get-go I made an ironclad rule that I would never be alone with any minor, anywhere, for any reason, not even for 30 seconds. That was self-protective.

    But my wife and I have also been at pains to de-mythologize ourselves to young readers. And when we do schools at the YA level we make clear that we are not authority figures, we are not teachers, we work for the readers, and we’re just their dancing monkeys. I have many times explicitly rejected the idea that I’m a role model. (If I’m a role model, time to stock up on survival gear.) I understand how people fall into thinking of themselves as superior to, entitled to control over, to the exploitation of 14 years-olds. . . No, actually I can’t. Some day I may write something that will force me to crawl through that snake pit to write about it, but we’re not there.

    A grown man who’d go after a fourteen year-old is contemptible. You cannot look at a 14 year old and see anything but a child. In a lot of ways they’re closer to four than to twenty-four, however smart and capable they might be. Still nowhere near ready to deal with men.

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  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Roman Polanski was quoted as justifying himself by saying he couldn’t be expected to not be attracted to a girl who looked like that. I don’t know if anyone explained to him that we do expect it, that’s why we have laws against it.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’m not in any way defending those who prey upon 14 year olds. Or 4 year olds.

    I do make a distinction between the attraction and the action — you can’t control who you are attracted to, but you can control what you do about it. And I think we (as society in general) do a poor job of helping them control it because we only get involved after they have failed to control it. And we create barriers that prevent them from getting help before then.

    If someone can recognize they have a problem that can put others in danger, and avoid ever doing so, I respect that. But it’s also really hard to do on one’s own, be it alcoholism or lusting after children.

    (Alcoholism being a poor analogy, as no one is born an alcoholic, but I have a lot more respect for the lush who takes a taxi home from the bar every night than I do for the “respectable” guy who drinks too much on occasion and doesn’t realize he’s too impaired to safely drive)

    @CSK: Those professors should have been fired. It’s totally legal to pursue normal-aged grad students, but it’s grossly unethical if they are your grad students.

    (Whether it’s advisable for a 50 year old man to get involved with a bright, earnest, eager 24 year old grad student so full of hope and optimism is another matter, but there are differences in degree between being a mistake and a regret)

    1
  18. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: We have laws against the action, not the attraction. I don’t think anyone should care who Roman Polanski is attracted to, but we should care about who he drugs and rapes, and whether that person is a minor…

    Setting aside his attraction to children who “look like that”, the man is a horrible monster.

    1
  19. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    Oh, I agree they should have. But this was in a time when such behavior wasn’t punished. (Boys will be boys, you know.) And a different country, for what that’s worth.

    I recalled after I wrote my initial reply to you that these three guys gang-raped an acquaintance of mine. They suffered no consequences. The woman never reported it. I assume now that she felt that she wouldn’t be believed–or that she’d be blamed for it.

  20. Gustopher says:

    Apparently I’ve decided that the distinction between pedophiles and child molesters is a more pleasant thing to think about than the Republicans acquitting Trump and the inevitable victory lap the truly disgusting members of our society (some of whom, statistically, are also pedophiles) are going to have.

    Perhaps that means it’s just time to go outside.

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  21. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I’d hope everyone was adult enough to understand that LP was/is useful as long as they are aimed at Trumpers. But its entirely possible that one day they will be aimed at Dems. That’s just the way it goes.

    “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” ~ Jim Mattis.

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  22. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Calling LP founders grifters implies that they were taking the money and not doing anything with it. Ads were produced that went after Trump more effectively than anything Democrats on their own were doing. It left the D’s with the task of making pro-Biden ads and avoiding the overt mention of Trump. LP knows how GOP thinks, where all the bodies are buried with congressional GOP, and how to talk to GOP donors in a way that no Democrat could ever get the chance to do. LP was also ramping up ads that pointed out to corporations that being associated with GOP senators and reps was not good for their brand, and they were going after those up for re-election in 2022 with both barrels. That ain’t nothing.

    They wouldn’t be the first guys who got blindsided by someone they thought they knew well and got the shock of their lives when it turned out they didn’t. That there was confusion and arguments about future directions also doesn’t surprise me or cause me concern. The amounts of money their companies got doesn’t strike me as outrageous: ad campaigns don’t produce themselves.

    But these guys – Schmidt, Stevens, Wilson, Galen – were anti-Trump before Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016, and were loud and proud about it. Yeah, there could have been more acknowledgement that Trump didn’t fall out of the sky without warning and that there was a reason why the GOP went for him like they did. The closest LP came to dealing with it was that there has always been a lunatic fringe but they thought it was under control and they were wrong about that. (James, I don’t believe, has even gone that far.)

    If LP disappears without a trace that would be a bad thing because GOP representatives and senators should be unemployed whenever possible. But they showed that it is possible to go on the attack effectively and their work should not stop. Democrats can decide if they want to fight and pick up where LP left off.

    Personally, I hope they regroup and make a comeback. And no, I’ve never given them donations either.

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