The Lincoln Project, Facing Multiple Scandals, is Accused by its Own Co-Founder of Likely Criminality
Liberals heralded this group of life-long scammers, sleaze merchants and con artists as noble men of conscience, enabling them to fleece and deceive the public.
The group of life-long Republican Party consultants who, under the name “The Lincoln Project,” got very rich in 2020 with anti-Trump online messaging has spent weeks responding to numerous scandals on multiple fronts. Despite the gravity of those scandals, its conduct on Thursday night was in a whole new category of sleaze. It not only infuriated their long-time allies, but also constituted the abuse of Twitter’s platform to commit likely illegal acts.
That the primary effect of the Lincoln Project was to personally enrich its key operatives by cynically exploiting the fears of U.S. liberals has long been obvious. Reporting throughout 2020 conclusively demonstrated that the vast majority of the tens of millions of dollars raised by the group was going to firms controlled by its founders. One of its most prominent founders — GOP consultant Rick Wilson — personally collected $65,000 from liberals through GoFundMe for an anti-Trump film he kept promising but which never came; to this date, he refuses to explain what he did with that money.
A study conducted after the 2020 election found that the group’s effect on the election’s outcome was trivial to non-existent — not surprising given its penchant for spending money on ads that aired in electorally irrelevant places such as Washington, D.C. or which circulated almost exclusively in liberal cable news and social media venues, and thus had no purpose other than to enable its consultants to take large commissions from the ad spending. They were producing ads solely for liberals, with the overriding intent not of defeating Trump but inflating their net worth. And it worked: until they were no longer needed.
Heading into the 2020 election, most of the U.S. media was uninterested in, if not outright hostile to, any reporting that might have helped President Trump’s re-election bid. As a result, the Lincoln Project continued to enjoy media veneration even as the magnitude of its scam became increasingly obvious. But with Trump now safely vanquished, the Lincoln Project is dispensable, and the protective shield it enjoyed against any real journalistic scrutiny is — like its reputation and prospects for future profiteering — rapidly crumbling.
On Monday, the Associated Press published a comprehensive exposé with new facts about two of the group’s growing scandals. It reported that “in June 2020, members of the organization’s leadership were informed 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” — directly contradicting the group’s emphatic denial that it knew nothing about Weaver’s misconduct until the New York Times reported on them at the end of January. As AP delicately put it, these new materials “raise questions about the Lincoln Project’s statement last month that it was ‘shocked’ when accusations surfaced publicly this year.” The gay news outlet The Washington Blade on Tuesday published emails and other correspondence similarly demonstrating the high likelihood that the group’s denials regarding its past knowledge of Weaver’s misconduct were false, as did New York Magazine.
AP’s exposé also included highly incriminating reporting about what the group did — and did not — do with the close to $100 million it received in the name of fighting Trump and converting Republican voters into Biden supporters:
For the collection of GOP consultants and former officials, being anti-Trump was becoming very good for business. Of the $90 million Lincoln Project has raised, more than $50 million has gone to firms controlled by the group’s leaders….
Since its creation, the Lincoln Project has raised $90 million. But only about a third of the money, roughly $27 million, directly paid for advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable, or appeared online, during the 2020 campaign, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures and data from the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.
That leaves tens of millions of dollars that went toward expenses like production costs, overhead — and exorbitant consulting fees collected by members of the group.
“It raises questions about where the rest of the money ultimately went,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “Generally speaking, you’d expect to see a major super PAC spend a majority or more of their money on advertisements and that’s not what happened here.”
The vast majority of the cash was split among consulting firms controlled by its founders, including about $27 million paid to a small firm controlled by Galen and another $21 million paid to a boutique firm run by former Lincoln Project member Ron Steslow, campaign finance disclosures show.
But in many cases it’s difficult to tell how much members of the group were paid. That’s because the Lincoln Project adopted a strategy, much like the Trump campaign they criticized, to mask how much money they earned.
These scandals multiplied even further in the last week. In the wake of the New York Times report about the serial sexual misconduct by Weaver — he has “been accused of sending unsolicited and sexually provocative messages to 21 men, one as young as 14 when the messages began” — one of the group’s co-founders, Jennifer Horn, announced: “I have terminated my relationship with the Lincoln Project, effective immediately,” citing the group’s mishandling of the Weaver scandal.
The Lincoln Project then published a statement attacking Horn by claiming her resignation was motivated not by noble objections to what appeared to be their protection of a sexual predator but instead — in an unsurpassed case of projection — accused her of being driven solely by money: namely, that she had demanded, and they rejected, “an immediate ‘signing bonus’ payment of $250,000 and a $40,000-per-month consulting contract.” Revealingly, the group refused to say how Horn’s supposedly outrageous pecuniary demands compare to the payments actually received by her male co-founders and other Lincoln Project operatives.
When AP inquired about this, they bizarrely proclaimed that they would provide transparency of their finances only after Trump does. “The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so,” Steve Schmidt said in response to inquiries about how much of the donations went into their personal bank accounts rather than ads designed to defeat Trump.
And then, on Thursday night, The New York Times reported that “leaders of the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump media venture, came under fire on Thursday night from six former workers demanding to be released from nondisclosure agreements in order to talk about John Weaver, a co-founder who harassed young men online.” Those six former employees accused the Lincoln Project of having “protected” a “predator.” The article also cited Horn’s claims that when she raised objections about the group’s treatment of the Weaver allegations, she was “yelled at, demeaned and lied to.”
So that has been the trajectory of the Lincoln Project over the past couple of months. They are drowning in allegations of financial scamming, lying to the public and to their own employees about what they knew about a predator at the top level of their organization, and engaging in open warfare among themselves playing out in public in the pettiest yet most vindictive ways.
But even by their lowly standards, the Lincoln Project’s behavior last night was so appalling and likely illegal that it provoked widespread denunciations even from many of the group’s most prominent supporters, who have thus far been willing to tolerate every deceitful, grifting, unethical and profiteering transgression. Accusations that their behavior was a “violation of federal law” were notably led by long-time lawyer George Conway, who shot to cable news and social media stardom in the Trump years by vehemently denouncing Trump despite being married to the former President’s close adviser, Kellyanne Conway. But what made Conway’s accusations so stinging is that he is one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project, one of the most prominent representatives of the group since its inception.
Conway’s public accusation of criminality against his own group came after they tried to intimidate a journalist, Amanda Becker, who was working to report on the group’s various scandals. Shortly before 11:00 pm ET on Thursday night, the Lincoln Project Twitter account, which has close to three million followers, announced that it was posting the private communications between Becker and Jennifer Horn, the group’s co-founder who recently resigned, in order to reveal how the two were, in their words, conspiring to produce “a smear job on the Lincoln Project.”
The unknown person operating the Lincoln Project’s Twitter page then posted excerpts of the inbox of Jennifer Horn’s personal Twitter account as well as the private messages she was exchanging with Becker about the story. Whoever saw those tweets could therefore read not only Horn’s private messages with Becker but also the identity of the last six or seven people with whom Horn had privately communicated, as well as parts of their conversations. In a subsequent tweet, the group posted even more extensive conversations between their now dissident co-founder and this journalist.
How did the Lincoln Project get access to Horn’s private Twitter account? Horn herself quickly proclaimed that she did not consent to the publication of those messages. While Becker, as a party to this exchange, would have the legal authority to grant consent to the publication of this particular conversation, only Horn has the right to provide the legally required consent to access her private Twitter account and publish its contents. But that is academic, since Becker made clear in a series of tweets that she was outraged by what the Lincoln Project did, negating any possibility that she provided her consent to their publication of her conversations with Horn.
After Conway, the group’s own co-founder, strongly suggested that they had violated federal law with these tweets, the Lincoln Project deleted them without comment. Neither the group nor its typically vocal operatives have addressed any of the fallout despite numerous media inquiries and extensive commentary. They have, for once, fallen silent.
Due to their hiding, it remains unknown which specific Lincoln Project functionary accessed and posted Horn’s private messages. But one of them, Rick Wilson, shortly after publication, boasted of it as though it were some great accomplishment of which he was proud:
Conway’s accusation that the Lincoln Project’s behavior here “looks on its face to be a violation of federal law” is clearly accurate (for disclosure: my first job after law school back in 1994 was with the law firm where Conway was and is a partner, though I remained there only 18 months and had little to no interaction with him then or since).
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) makes it a federal crime for anyone who has “knowingly accessed a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access, and thereby obtains” information from that computer. A separate section makes it a crime to cause harm or damage to the person through that unauthorized access by, for instance, making the contents public. The law provides for punishments ranging from fines to years in prison depending on the motive of the unauthorized access.
The Lincoln Project may claim that it possessed authorized access to Horn’s computer because she had previously worked there. But that authorization would almost certainly be deemed to terminate upon Horn’s termination of her relationship with the group, which preceded her private conversations with Becker. Beyond that, Yashar Ali reported that Horn “did not have a laptop or phone issued by the Lincoln Project,” rendering it even more implausible that they were somehow authorized to access her computer.
But even if one brushes all that to the side and still insists that the Lincoln Project somehow had authorization to access Horn’s computer, their behavior would still likely be illegal since the CFAA criminalizes not only unauthorized access to a computer but also any access “exceeding authorized access.” In other words, if you are authorized to access someone’s computer for specific purposes, but instead abuse that access for unauthorized purposes, then you are still guilty of crimes under this statute.
Clearly, accessing Horn’s computer in order to publish her private communications without her consent, after she left, wildly “exceeds” whatever “authorized access” the group can plausibly claim it possessed. Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario under which the Lincoln Project and its employees who participated in this breach did not violate federal law, which is presumably why Conway, a very careful and accomplished litigator, barely caveated his serious accusation against this notoriously litigious group:
Not only have the Lincoln Project’s boisterous leaders fallen completely silent, but they also are refusing to answer basic questions about what happened here. Earlier this morning, I submitted a list of questions to them (published below) and they have failed to respond in any way, including even with their characteristic fake bravado, insults and threats.
They have transformed into meek, mute little mice, hiding somewhere out of sight. Anyone who has their best interests at heart should hope they are huddled in their criminal lawyers’ offices. All of this silence and hiding and evasion is particularly ironic given the Abraham Lincoln quote they chose to define themselves, that still sits atop their now-dormant Twitter profile, which admonishes: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Indeed.
From the start, it was obvious that this disgraceful collapse was the inevitable end for this group. The very idea that this freakish hodgepodge of life-long D.C. Republican consultants were men of profound conscience defending the Republic was a complete and total joke. They are life-long grifters, responsible for some of the most grotesque and amoral attack ads in the modern era, with a very long and recent history of advocating the exact opposite values of what they claimed to represent once they opportunistically identified the optimal Trump-era profit model: namely, relentlessly fleece scared and gullible #Resistance liberals of their cash by posturing as brave and principled warriors against Trumpism.
But their lucrative scheme could never have succeeded without the knowingly fraudulent cooperation of liberal networks such as MSNBC and CNN. Over and over, those Democratic Party spokespeople masquerading as TV journalists — knowing exactly who these bottom-feeding GOP operatives have always been — encouraged their misguided and trusting viewers to regard the Lincoln Project as a selfless and noble bulwark against Trumpism rather than the scamming, grifting, lowlife con it so obviously was from the start.
What this sorry episode reveals above all else is that much of American liberalism, including its all-but-official arm in corporate media, replicated, in the name of combatting Trump, every unethical tactic, every deceitful method, and every toxic assault on basic decency that they insisted Trump singularly represented. They allied with the most amoral societal actors, venerated the most corrupt factions, and vouched for the sleaziest operatives in the name of uprooting amorality, corruption and sleaze. The claimed Trump acted without limits or respect for normalcy and truth while proudly relinquishing all boundaries, principles and constraints of truth in order to fight him.
In doing so, they became everything they claimed they were fighting. And unlike Trump, who is now gone, these unholy alliances and ethic-free habits that define them will remain and fester forever. That is why when American liberals, including in the media, look in the mirror, what they see staring back is Rick Wilson and Steve Schmidt and John Weaver. That is the perfect reflection of what they have become, of who they now are.