If the meteoric rise of the Lincoln Project—a collection of longtime Republican operatives who branded themselves Never-Trumpers—seemed to happen overnight, the organization’s downfall has been just as dramatic. In the course of a week, damning report after damning report has come out about the group: that cofounder John Weaver allegedly sexually harassed more than 20 young men (allegations he acknowledged in an apology); that it funneled more than $50 million of the roughly $90 million it raised into firms with ties to its members; that senior members of the independent legal team hired by the Lincoln Project to perform a “comprehensive review” of its “operations and culture” are in fact donors to the super PAC themselves. That executives at the organization—including Steve Schmidt—may have known about allegations against Weaver before they were made public. (Schmidt has denied prior knowledge of the allegations. In a statement, the Lincoln Project said it had been “betrayed and deceived” by Weaver.) If true, the stories, which have blasted through the group with bombshell force, represent a spectacular and horrific denouement.
In response, many of the Lincoln Project’s members have fallen back on their favorite mantra: Donald Trump is worse. “You know who would be the happiest man in the world if he knew he’d never have to deal with [Lincoln Project] again? Donald Trump,” tweeted cofounder Stuart Stevens last week. “Pick a side. I’m with [Lincoln Project].” He then urged readers to stand with the group. “Most effective Super PAC in US history,” Stevens wrote. (In fact, though the Lincoln Project’s viral attack ads racked up millions of views, the videos seemingly didn’t do much to accomplish their stated goal of swaying the GOP electorate. Trump received a larger share of the Republican vote nationally in 2020 than he did in 2016.) Others appeared resigned. “Just shut it down already,” wrote Kurt Bardella, who departed from his position as a senior adviser amid the whirlwind of bad press. George Conway, another since-departed cofounder, likewise tweeted that, at this point, shuttering the PAC is the “right” move. On Thursday, the Lincoln Project announced the formation of a “transition advisory committee” that will support the internal investigation of Weaver, as well as a “Stewardship Report” to outline its finances.
As the organization flounders, its plans for the future have been thrown into doubt. The group’s stars had planned to work for Israeli prime minister hopeful Gideon Sa’ar in his bid against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an election that will be held in March. Sa’ar’s campaign had brought on the Lincoln Project’s Schmidt, Reed Galen, Stevens, and Rick Wilson a few weeks ago in the hopes that the group’s aggressive attack ads would work against Netanyahu, but their relationship has since been dissolved, according to a Tuesday report in the Jerusalem Post. Just before the 2020 election, Axios reported that the Lincoln Project had potential plans for a sprawling media organization—Lincoln Media—and had been approached by “several media and entertainment companies and podcast platforms looking to launch franchises from its brand.” Those talks reportedly included interest from a TV studio in developing a fiction series; queries from networks about streaming the Lincoln Project’s proprietary show, LPTV; and potentially creating a nonfiction film. The organization had planned to launch a revamped version of its podcast, telling Axios it would be “unveiling new episodes imminently” and expanding its LPTV programming “in the coming weeks.” Those plans are now, presumably, in limbo.
The Lincoln Project’s founders are feeling the fallout on an individual level too. While it failed in its stated mission, the organization succeeded in boosting the media profiles and lining the pockets of its star members, which, some critics argue, may have been its real goal all along. Schmidt, who is alleged to have known about the allegations against Weaver as early as last March according to The 19th, but has claimed that he became aware of them when they were made public in January, used the group’s success to become a staple MSNBC contributor; he appeared on former top Bush aide Nicolle Wallace’s show, Deadline: White House, at least 34 times since the group’s launch. Despite being introduced as an MSNBC contributor as recently as last weekend, when he was a guest on Bill Maher’s talk show, and appearing on the network to discuss Trump’s acquittal, a source familiar with Schmidt’s standing confirmed that he is no longer a contributor.
Schmidt also cohosted the Lincoln Project’s popular namesake podcast, which has landed among the most listened to political shows on the Apple Podcast charts. It’s unclear if the group’s podcasting plans will go forward with Schmidt at the helm. He announced last week that he will vacate his board seat “to make room for the appointment of a female board member as the first step to reform and professionalize the Lincoln Project,” but will remain in a managerial role. He compelled supporters to stick by the group in its fight against “the rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism in this country.”
Wilson, meanwhile, is an editor at large and columnist at the Daily Beast who cohosts its flagship political commentary podcast, The New Abnormal, which also regularly climbs the Apple Podcast charts. But his relationship with the outlet is on hold pending the results of an investigation into which members knew what about the Weaver allegations, and when. “Reporters from the Daily Beast and others have not uncovered any evidence so far that [Wilson] was aware of such actions,“ said Molly Jong-Fast, Wilson’s podcast cohost, in the latest episode of The New Abnormal, before disclosing that she “personally was an unpaid adviser for the Lincoln Project” but has since resigned. “There have been so many controversies around the Lincoln Project, we mutually agreed with Rick to pause his podcast appearances until at least the internal investigation is resolved,” she added.
Schmidt and Wilson are two of the notable holdouts, along with Reed Galen. Cofounder Jennifer Horn, who also resigned from the group, wrote that members of the Lincoln Project had “rejected outright” her push for a call to action on sexual harassment and power imbalance and to “properly address the Weaver issue publicly.” Horn asserted that she had heard from Weaver’s alleged victims who claimed that their interactions with Weaver “apparently started nearly a year ago and, according to these young men, were communicated to others in the Lincoln Project.” Last week, a number of former employees released a statement imploring the Lincoln Project to release them from their nondisclosure agreements, thus allowing them to freely discuss the PAC’s work environment. Earlier this week, the group announced it would “[Release] staff and former staff from the confidentiality provisions in their employment agreements”—an acquiescence that some critics say is relatively narrow.
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— “I Will Destroy You”: Why a Biden Aide Threatened a Politico Reporter
— For Donald Trump, Sarah Palin’s Fall Shows the Limits of Media Obsession
— The Chaos Behind Donald McNeil’s New York Times Exit
— The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin Billionaire Arthur Hayes
— Ivanka Trump Thinks Her “Political Reemergence” Is Just Around the Corner
— Will the Democrats’ Focus on Marjorie Taylor Greene Backfire?
— How the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Was Hobbled by Turf Wars and Magical Thinking
— From the Archive: The Complicated Dynamic Between the Young JFK, His Formidable Brother, and Their Tycoon Father
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.