October 15, 2021

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The Rise and Fall of the Lincoln Project

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There have been plenty of grifters in the political world. But what made the Lincoln Project grift unique was that much of it played out on television.

T here was nothing special about the Lincoln Project. Its ads were coarse, but this is a coarse age, and its efforts were neither creative nor particularly offensive. Its opacity and self-dealing, its unwieldy coterie of advisers and hangers-on, have all been mainstays of the #Resistance. Far from the only anti-Trump Super PAC run by former Republican consultants, the Lincoln Project lacked originality even in its ambitions. When, post-election, its founders sought to break into the media business, they were angling to become little more than a slightly older, slightly lower-end version of Crooked Media, the podcast and events network created by several Obama-administration alumni.

Despite this unoriginality, this utter bog-standard-ness, the Lincoln Project raised roughly $100 million from its announcement in December 2019 to its effective implosion this February. That eye-popping sum came from a flood of small donors. But the Lincoln Project also won over large and long-standing Democratic players. David Geffen gave the group half a million dollars. Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC forked over almost $2 million, and the dark-money network Sixteen Thirty Fund coughed up more than a quarter million.

In short, the Lincoln Project managed to extract money from not only the emotionally unstable and congenitally irate but also the institutionally liberal. Why did blue America shower a group of washed-up former Republicans with money? And why choose these ones?

Cut through the Lincoln Project’s onion rings of advisers, staffers, and volunteers, and one finds a small network of men at the heart: Steve Schmidt, Reed Galen, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson. Schmidt, Weaver, and Wilson announced the group along with erstwhile Wachtell Lipton partner George Conway, husband to pollster-turned-Trump-White-House-adviser Kellyanne Conway. Their December 17 New York Times op-ed, full of self-seriousness and high dudgeon, made public the existence of a super PAC, initially incorporated by Galen on November 5 as “Rough Riders for America,” but renamed “the Lincoln Project” on December 9.

Galen had been bouncing around the anti-partisan organizational web that haunts the fringes of American electoral politics. Among other things, he served as chief strategist for the Serve America Movement, which in 2018 endorsed Greg Orman’s ill-fated independent run for Kansas governor against Democrat Laura Kelly and Republican Kris Kobach.

Wilson, known more for bravado than for brass-tacks execution, went from working for Rudy Giuliani to a leading role on Kobach’s unsuccessful 2004 congressional bid in Kansas, a race he lost by double digits even as George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 11 percent in the district. Wilson then backed Bill McCollum’s unsuccessful 2010 Florida gubernatorial primary bid against Rick Scott, and in 2016 he made some forgettable ads for a pro–Marco Rubio entity ludicrously called Baby Got PAC. Wilson also managed to accrue more than $380,000 in IRS tax liens, a foreclosure on his home, and a claim from American Express for more than $25,000. Nonetheless, his acerbic tweeting landed him a following among online liberals, a writing gig with the Daily Beast, some CNN hits, and $65,000 raised online toward making a documentary that he never produced.

Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, and Jennifer Horn rounded out the group’s eight “cofounders.” Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman, had butted heads with some Trump allies in the Granite State but served two terms before stepping down in January 2017. She reemerged as a vehement Trump critic when steering Bill Weld’s quixotic Republican primary effort against Donald Trump in 2019. Like Conway, Horn’s day-to-day involvement in the group appears to have been peripheral.

Steslow ran a small digital practice called TUSK that counted Orrin Hatch and the Colorado Republican Committee among its clients. He helped steer Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential campaign and ran a number of small anti-Trump organizations prior to 2019. But his firm’s fortunes were uncertain. In 2018, TUSK did under $100,000 in federal election business — roughly 5 percent of the amount it received from Fiorina’s campaign. In 2020, the Lincoln Project would pay TUSK more than $21 million.

Like Wilson, Madrid was a quintessential regional political consultant, well-established in California. A self-styled expert on the Latino vote, Madrid had worked for both Republicans and moderate Democrats. In 2018, he steered former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. But with Gavin Newsom entrenched in Sacramento and the GOP taking a harder line on immigration, Madrid found himself a man without a party.

*****

Unlike the other Lincoln Project founders, Weaver and Schmidt were, if not exactly household names, well known to America’s political junkies. Yet theirs was an unlikely alliance. A New Jersey native, Schmidt dropped out of college shortly before graduating. After managing a series of unsuccessful campaigns around the country, he wound up in Washington at the outset of the Bush administration.

Inside the Beltway, Schmidt’s career took off: Within a year and a half, he was the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee and shortly thereafter joined the Bush administration in a senior role. In 2004, Nicolle Wallace tapped Schmidt to run the Bush reelection campaign’s war room, the media-tracking engine that drives a campaign’s rapid response to emerging stories in real time. Following Bush’s win, Schmidt would be tasked with managing the confirmations of justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito — showdowns that put his media savvy to the test and had him continuing to work closely with Wallace, by then White House communications director.

In 2006, Schmidt decamped for California and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection bid, helmed at the time by Matt Dowd and staffed by, among others, Reed Galen. Another alumnus of Texas politics, Dowd had been the chief strategist on the Bush reelection, but he fell out with Karl Rove. In the Golden State, Dowd embraced the intersection of celebrity and politics, and reportedly began an extramarital affair with First Lady of California Maria Shriver. Following Schwarzenegger’s reelection, Dowd became a conspicuous critic of the Bush administration and, by the end of 2007, joined ABC as a pundit, transitioning from campaign cowboy to television talking head.

It was in California that Schmidt encountered John McCain and John Weaver. Schmidt had worked for Lamar Alexander’s 2000 presidential bid and thus had no part in the long-simmering feud between the Bush and McCain camps. Having followed Dowd to California, he could not be mistaken for a Rove-ite. (That year, Wallace also left the White House, moving with her then-husband to New York City.)

McCain was preparing to run for president. By the time McCain’s presidential aspirations ended in defeat, both Weaver and Schmidt had taken a turn helming the operation.

John Weaver came up in Texas politics at the same time as Rove. No love is lost between them. In the mid 1980s, the two men were rivals for control of the state party and, according to a 2004 Atlantic article, Rove circulated a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man. That was dismissed as a smear 17 years ago, but since the revelations about Weaver’s behavior became public, Rove has claimed that he was long aware of Weaver’s pattern of inappropriate behavior toward young men.

The media have typically characterized the mutual dislike between Rove and Weaver in ideological terms: Weaver, the principled moderate, versus Rove, the ruthless ideologue. Rove is believed to have actively blackballed Weaver after 2000, with a willingness to play hardball that mapped onto the media’s preconceived notions about divisions in the Republican Party — divisions centered on Bush and McCain.

Yet Weaver is probably the chief architect of this self-serving narrative. Indeed, his principal skill is cultivating the media. Any political reporter over a certain age likely has a story of John Weaver being “helpful” — confirming a useful, juicy tip or dropping some insider bit of information that helped get urgent copy to print. In GOP circles, Weaver is notorious for leaking to the press, including about dysfunction in campaigns in which he himself holds a senior role, about the ineptitude of flagging candidates paying his bills.

The rivalry with Bush was politically useful for McCain and professionally essential for Weaver. A television mainstay, McCain worked hard to draw contrasts between himself and the increasingly unpopular incumbent, laboring to solidify his identity as a straight-talking maverick despite a fairly conventional Republican voting record. For his part, Weaver had a bad run of luck after Bush’s inauguration. He divorced, was diagnosed with leukemia, and, furious with Bush, advised a string of Democrats, including John Kerry. Yet institutional Democrats remained wary of Weaver and, before the era of small-dollar donors, had the means to keep him out. He was on a lonely island by 2005, excluded by Rove from the Bush reelection effort and looking for work.

McCain’s persistent loyalty to Weaver pulled him back from political Siberia. Mike Murphy, McCain’s 2000 campaign guru, had also steered Mitt Romney into the Massachusetts governorship and declared his neutrality between the two likely 2008 primary contenders (n.b., I worked for Murphy in 2016). It thus fell to Weaver to usher the McCain-for-president campaign into its second iteration.

But Weaver never got to see the campaign reach fruition. In July 2007, beset by flagging fundraising, Weaver was ousted along with Galen, who was then his deputy, after an internal power struggle. A year later, a similar power struggle would lead to Steve Schmidt’s promotion to take over the campaign. In the interim, Weaver managed to attract the lasting ire of McCain, who blamed him for a controversial New York Times story suggesting that McCain had had an extramarital affair. McCain turned his back on Weaver, and reportedly banned his former consigliere from his funeral.

For his part, Schmidt spent the waning months of the McCain campaign in a kind of frenetic overdrive — one McCain veteran described it to me as “a lot of early-morning meetings and a lot of yelling.” Riven by the competing factions in McCain’s orbit, the campaign had never had a great deal of focus. Schmidt brought his Bush-era war-room experience to bear and imposed some discipline. But even as tactics and operations improved, fundamental problems of strategy and organization remained, problems exacerbated by the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee — a selection Schmidt had pushed.

As the campaign began to lose control of Palin, many in McCain’s orbit came to suspect Schmidt and Wallace, who had also come aboard the McCain campaign, of leaking to the press to cover themselves. Many McCain loyalists still speak of Schmidt and Wallace with an animus typically reserved for Judas. In the end, like Weaver, they wound up excluded from the senator’s memorial.

*****

For all the chaos and turnover, the McCain campaign had one constant: an intimate, even incestuous relationship with the media. As Ryan Lizza put it in a 2008 New Yorker article, “the chumminess with the press usually spills into the evenings, and McCain’s senior advisers dine almost nightly with the people covering the candidate.” MSNBC played constantly aboard the Straight Talk Express, by then a party bus for the political chattering class.

Launched in 1996, MSNBC struggled initially to find its footing. Pitched as an in-depth alternative to CNN, the channel invested heavily in opinion-makers across the political spectrum. Early 2003 saw the launch of Scarborough Country, featuring former congressman Joe Scarborough, who had resigned from the House 18 months earlier to spend more time with his family.

Initially, the show echoed the paleoconservative sensibilities Scarborough had evinced in Congress. Then, in 2007, Don Imus said “nappy-headed hoes” and Scarborough made his move. He lobbied hard for a shot at guest-hosting MSNBC’s morning slot. He tapped Mika Brzezinski, who had come to MSNBC from CBS that year, to co-host. Pioneering an open-ended and conversational format, anchored by their personal chemistry, the show worked. Morning Joe was born.

Two months later, Tim Russert died. MSNBC lost its key man heading into the 2008 election.

Scarborough, apparently at the direction of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, pitched his new show at the very viewers with whom Russert had established a deep bond. By the summer of 2008, New York magazine was hailing Scarborough as liberal America’s favorite Republican, an avatar for the provincial bigotries of the Acela Corridor.

Scarborough was hard on the McCain campaign but harder still on Bush and the GOP generally. His second book, released in the spring of 2009, was ostensibly a guide to how Republicans could rise from the dead by rejecting the politics of Rush Limbaugh in favor of Scarborough’s own middlebrow sensibilities. In reality, the book told liberals what they wanted to hear Republicans get told. Attendees at its May launch party included Mark Halperin, previously of ABC but by then a Morning Joe staple. Donald Trump also attended.

Halperin was finishing Game Change, his account of the 2008 campaign co-authored with John Heilemann. Schmidt was a key source for the book. McCain loyalists saw his participation in the book as confirmation of self-serving treachery. But by late 2010, Schmidt was a Morning Joe regular, supplementing a day job at the massive public-affairs firm Edelman.

Weaver, meanwhile, was attempting to put something akin to Scarborough’s vision into motion. Jon Huntsman, scion to an immense fortune, and a former ambassador turned governor turned ambassador (again), entered the 2012 GOP primary against front-runner and longtime familial rival Mitt Romney. Liberal America’s favorite Republican, Huntsman spoke Mandarin on a debate stage, trotted out his photogenic family for Vogue, and finished a distant third in New Hampshire. He dropped out a week later. The next year, his daughter Abby joined MSNBC from ABC.

*****

The second Obama term was a bad time for the world of Morning Joe. By late 2014, MSNBC’s ratings were in the toilet across the board, leading to a comprehensive overhaul of the network’s lineup. Morning Joe survived, but many shows did not.

Schmidt was still a regular on Morning Joe. Wallace joined the network in 2014 after an ill-starred, one-season turn on ABC’s The View, and quickly joined Schmidt and Halperin at the Morning Joe table. https://dd5a6470bdb6714b553db6d9a6fb67fe.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Weaver was worried about being frozen out of the coming presidential race, which promised to have a massive Republican primary field. In early 2015, after reporting indicated that Trump was seriously considering a run, Weaver reached out and, according to a Politico article at the end of that year, began attempting to insinuate himself with the campaign. At the same time, he was convincing John Kasich of Ohio to run.

In June, Trump announced his candidacy for president, one day after Jeb Bush had. A little more than a month later, Kasich entered the ring.

The back half of 2015 saw a love-fest between Morning Joe and Trump. By December, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple was criticizing Scarborough and Brzezinski for the frequency and levity of their phone-in interviews with Trump. Yet the bonhomie continued. On March 16 and 17, Schmidt used appearances on Morning Joe to lavish praise on Trump. The afternoon of March 17, he interviewed at Trump Tower to take over and run the campaign.

Schmidt didn’t get the job and returned to MSNBC as a contributor. Kasich didn’t win the nomination, but Weaver continued to draw $10,000 monthly from his super PAC well after the primary and general election concluded. Trump went on to win the White House doing more or less the exact opposite of what Scarborough’s book had recommended.

Morning Joe became increasingly critical of Trump as the race shifted from the primary to the general election, leading to periods of estrangement between Trump and the show. Yet even after Trump stopped appearing on air, Brzezinski and Scarborough claimed that the three of them spoke multiple times a week. Then, in the summer of 2017, seemingly frustrated by the shift in treatment, Trump attacked both hosts directly via tweet. The pair responded with a Washington Post op-ed suggesting that the president had offered to kill a National Enquirer story in exchange for better coverage.

Beyond the personal feuding, however, by mid 2017, the Morning Joe viewership had had enough of indulging Trump. In May, MSNBC gave Wallace her own show, focused almost single-mindedly on pounding the anti-Trump drum. Showing the same deftness of a decade earlier, when he shifted from populist rabble-rouser to conversation-setter, Scarborough also adopted the mantle of the #Resistance. In July, Scarborough announced he was leaving the Republican Party (Schmidt would follow suit eleven months later). In October, Halperin was fired for sexual misconduct. Morning Joe moved away from insider water-cooler chat and increasingly embraced the simmering hysteria of the wealthy, white, and liberal.

*****

Morning television is hard on the people who make it. The hours are terrible, the pressure is immense, and the competition is cutthroat. Morning news shows often take on cult-like qualities, especially during election seasons, with the workplace devouring the lives of its participants like so many of Saturn’s children. Scarborough’s second marriage ended in 2013; Brzezinski’s first in 2016. The co-hosts married each other in 2018. Wallace divorced her husband a year thereafter.

In early 2019, Schmidt left the network to advise billionaire Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, then considering an independent bid for president. The Schultz effort was a disaster from beginning to end. The coffee magnate announced his exploratory efforts on 60 Minutes in February, sparking gleeful derision from Republicans and intense hostility from Democrats. Two days later, he took to the Morning Joe stage to explain himself, in what turned into a 23-minute-long interrogation, by turns soporific and bizarrely defensive despite the gentleness of the hosts. Schultz kept at it until early September 2019, but his goose was cooked. Schmidt found himself out of a job. Within two months, he had signed once again with MSNBC.

Weaver was also looking for a new hustle. In May, the same month that Kasich’s super PAC finally stopped paying Weaver his monthly haul, he signed on to serve as a lobbyist for a Russian uranium firm to the tune of $350,000, with a $40,000 monthly retainer. By then, Huntsman had been serving as ambassador to Russia since late 2017. To Weaver’s chagrin, reporters found his Foreign Agent Registration Act documentation, and he was forced to walk away from the contract. How much of the front-loaded payment he had by then received is unclear, but Weaver claimed at the time that “no funds were transferred, no actions taken.”

Thus was born the Lincoln Project.

Assured of access to the Morning Joe audience, the founders began to cut ads to flatter that audience’s fears. Critics pointed to Weaver’s Russian dalliance, to his and Wilson’s appalling personal finances, to Schmidt’s cynical Schultzian gambit, to bloated costs that the Lincoln Project was paying to firms owned by some of its founders. No matter. Morning Joe had its own political arm and a deeply personal grudge against the president.

Making the Lincoln Project a centerpiece of Morning Joe’s political coverage had two self-reinforcing effects. It raised the group’s profile and credibility instantly, opening hitherto unseen spigots of small-dollar donations from liberal viewers. At the same time, the rest of the political press, unwilling to risk the ire of liberal America’s premiere television real estate, played along. The revelations of apparent financial self-dealing compounded, and troubling rumors about Weaver began to mount. But having been designated the unofficial super PAC of an incandescently anti-Trump press, the Lincoln Project was not to be questioned.

By the back half of 2020, it became difficult at times to see where the show ended and the Lincoln Project began. MSNBC contributor and Morning Joe mainstay Kurt Bardella, a former Darrell Issa spokesman known for tweeting insane things and running a country-music newsletter, joined the group as a senior adviser. Mika Brzezinski breathlessly announced the “breaking news” and had Bardella on air to regale the audience about the importance of the Lincoln Project’s mission.

That mission was never terribly clear. Pushing against a Trump reelection seemed less important to the Lincoln Project than trolling the president into tweeting. Simultaneously, the mission expanded to include “Trump enablers” — meaning any incumbent Republican officeholder. Donations flooded in.

The Lincoln Project previewed its ads on Morning Joe, gaining millions in free airtime and hoping to inspire an angry tweet from the president. Its stable of advisers and associates filled panels there and on Wallace’s show as well. If one tuned in to MSNBC between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., there was a decent chance the Lincoln Project would be the topic of discussion, at the table, or both. Soon, senior leaders in the group became mainstays in the cable network’s primetime coverage as well. The network was generating its own “news” and its viewers were shelling out for the experience.

*****

Understandably, many observers view the Lincoln Project as a study in doing politics in our digital age. Its founders were prolific tweeters, and the organization’s fundraising spiked in the wake of a presidential tweet. Yet for all its ostensible online savvy, for all the millions of social-media followers gleaned by its members, and for all the millions of dollars it raised online, the Lincoln Project was from birth to death a product of television. The primary validator and exponent of the group, the entity that blessed its mission and created its audience, remained Morning Joe. As soon as the Lincoln Project lost access to television, it began to wither and die.

By midsummer 2020, the New York Post was working to confirm that Weaver habitually groomed young men looking to work in politics, offering to mentor them and seeking sexual favors in return. In early August, with the Post closing in, the Lincoln Project announced that Weaver had been “admitted to the hospital after a cardiac problem.” Weaver withdrew from public life and the Post abandoned the story.

The group had dodged a proverbial bullet. According to later reporting by the New York Times, the group’s senior leadership had been made aware of Weaver’s behavior two months after the group had formed, but word had not leaked, and so Weaver remained part of Schmidt’s post-election media ambitions. In the interim, Schmidt, Wilson, and an expanding roster of new associates continued to flog the organization on MSNBC and CNN, in the pages of America’s liberal magazines and newspapers, and across the Web itself. November came and went, as did the decisive Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

Eventually, however, the Internet struck back. Frustrated with a lack of movement by the Post, and concerned by the Lincoln Project’s grandiose plans to transform into a media empire, several of the men Weaver had targeted came forward on Twitter in January 2021.

Denials were followed by denunciations, which were followed in turn by resignations. When Horn left the group, Schmidt excoriated her as an opportunist, and the Lincoln Project posted private messages between her and a journalist. When Weaver’s targets pointed out that they had raised concerns with Mike Madrid and Keith Edwards, a Lincoln Project staffer who went to work for Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign while still on the Lincoln Project payroll, Schmidt downplayed Madrid’s role with the group.

When the New York Times reported that Weaver had approached nearly two dozen men, including one as young as 14, Schmidt released a sprawling manifesto condemning Weaver and recounting his own experience of sexual abuse at a Boy Scout camp. Schmidt ranted and raved. He made exaggerated encomiums to McCain. He blamed Weaver for everything. And he insisted categorically — and contrary to what the New York Times later reported — that he had been unaware of Weaver’s behavior.

Then, on February 12, Schmidt resigned. That night, he went on television.

In 2016, Donald Trump rode cable news to the Republican nomination, stoking outrage in order to get billions in free airtime from the networks. Whether consciously or not, the people at MSNBC decided to mobilize their share of that power and play an active role in the 2020 election. The group that formed to meet their ambitions instead gave expression to the failings and appetites of its masters. (A request to the Lincoln Project for comment was not returned.)

Some years ago, I was at a bar with a fellow practitioner of the political craft. Deep in our cups and trading war stories, one of us brought Weaver up. “Brilliant,” my bar mate said. “But the least ethical person I’ve ever met in this business. And that says something.” I guess it just depends on which business.

Original Article at The National Review

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