What Is The Lincoln Project? The Strategies And Secrets Explained

The Lincoln Project holds individuals who would breach their oaths to the Constitution and put others ahead of Americans responsible.

Former Republicans who are adamant “Never Trump” conservatives make up the Lincoln Project. Between April and June of this year, the organization received $16.8 million, the majority of which came from donors who gave $200 or less. However, the majority of the advertisements are digital and never make it to television screens.

What is The Lincoln Project?

“Defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box and electing those patriots who will hold the line,” the Lincoln Endeavor’s founders said in a December 2019 New York Times op-ed launching the project. As former Republicans, the Lincoln Project members hope their advertisements will destabilize Trump and appeal to Trump skeptics, allowing them to vote against Trump and for Joe Biden.

Keith Edwards, the Lincoln Initiative’s communications director, informed me in a text that the project had no goals other than to oppose Trump. “We’re focused on ensuring Trump is only in power for one term and that Biden takes the oath of office in January.” “We haven’t considered anything else.”

Lincoln Project donors

It also appears to have inspired some wealthy individuals to go for their wallets. According to Federal Election Commission documents released in May, the Lincoln Project, a super-PAC that may receive limitless sums from donors, had only raised $1.9 million at the time, including $20,000 from wealthy Walmart heiress Christy Walton. By Nov. 23, the group had funded $82.6 million, with more than $3.3 million coming from 24 billionaires and billionaires’ wives.

Stephen Mandel Jr., a hedge fund manager, and Gordon Getty, an oil heir, were the top billionaire donors, each donating $1 million. David Geffen, a media mogul, donated $500,000. Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, Jonathan Nelson of Providence Equity Partners, Jennifer and John Pritzker of Hyatt donated $100,000 apiece.

While the majority of the wealthy donors were Democrats, the organization also accepted funds from conservative billionaires. Jennifer Pritzker, for example, gave more than $250,000 to Trump-supporting groups in 2016, while Robert Ziff provided $250,000 to a super-PAC attempting to elect Republicans to Congress in 2018.

While the Lincoln Project spent most of its ad spending on the presidential campaign, it also spent millions (unsuccessfully) trying to aid Democratic Senate candidates in Montana, South Carolina, Maine, and Alaska. There are two more Senate contests to be decided, both for Georgia Senate seats, determining Senate control. The Lincoln Project, which anti-Trump Republicans created, supports Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Here are some of the biggest donors to The Lincoln Project, according to the Center for Responsive Politics:

  • Democratic dark money group Majority Forward donated $1.35 million
  • Investor and philanthropist Gordon Getty donated $1 million
  • Lone Pine Capital founder Stephen Frank Mandel donated $1 million
  • William Harris of “Anburst” donated $800,000
  • Aderdeen, Inc. President Alfred Clark donated $701,000
  • Billionaire David Geffen donated $500,000
  • Democratic dark money group Sixteen Thirty Fund donated $300,000
  • Katz Watson Group founder and President Fran Watson donated $300,000
  • A Colorado-based company called Do Right Inc. donated $200,000
  • A David Deniger with no listed occupation donated $200,000
  • Hellman & Friedman L.L.C. partner Allen Thorpe donated $200,000
  • A Paul Sullivan with no listed domain donated $195,000
  • Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund President Andrew Klingenstein donated $150,000
  • Another William Harris with no listed domain donated $125,000
  • Billionaire John Pritzker donated $100,000
  • Bain Capital Chief Investment Officer Jonathan Lavine donated $100,000
  • Architect Graham Gund donated $100,000
  • Billionaire Jennifer Pritzker donated $100,00
  • Philanthropist Liz Lefkofsky of the Lefkofsky Family Foundation donated $100,000
  • Restaurant owner and Walt Disney’s niece Susan Disney Lord donated $100,000
  • Providence Equity Partners founder Jonathan Nelson donated $100,000
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  • WndrCo founding partner Jeffrey Katzenberg donated $100,000
  • Urban School board member Lucia Choi-Dalton donated $100,000
  • An Amy Berwyn George with no listed occupation donated $100,000
  • LA Promise Fund Co-Chair of the Board Megan Chernin donated $100,000
  • Wolverine Gas and Oil Corp. President Sidney J. Jansma Jr. donated $100,000
  • Bain Capital Co-Chair Joshua Bekenstein donated $100,000
  • Former Continental Cablevision founder and C.E.O. Amos Hostetter Jr. donated $100,000

Defeating Trump, Republican-style

Eight former Republican operatives founded the Lincoln Project; the most prominent of whom was George Conway (married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway), Rick Wilson (former Republican political strategist), Jennifer Horn (former New Hampshire G.O.P. chair), and Steve Schmidt (best known for his work on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, where he assisted in the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice president).

The Lincoln Project’s backers believe they have a unique grasp of how Trump, and presumably Republicans more widely, think as former Republican political strategists. Their television ad purchases are primarily focused on Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, indicating that their goal is to get many of their spots in front of Trump.

Saxby Chambliss co-wrote an attack commercial against then-Sen. Max Cleland, implying that Cleland opposed the founding of the Department of Homeland Security, making America vulnerable to terrorism.

Wilson stated the commercial “was built ugly” in a 2015 interview with HuffPost. The ad was designed to appear rudimentary and quick, and it was taken down almost immediately. It’s a dreadful advertisement. We knew back then that using the terms “against the president’s essential homeland security operations” against Cleland would backfire.

If they were Democrats, Galen said, Trump and the G.O.P. would be more likely to ignore their ads. “I believe the apostates’ attack on the head of the G.O.P. church is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon that [Trump] probably doesn’t understand, and his people certainly don’t know how to respond to.”

The advertising themselves are often dark and aggressive, similar to Republican attack ads that the Lincoln Project’s planners may have employed in the past against Democrats. According to Galen, the ads “[appeal] to Republican voters with Republican rhetoric and Republican iconography.”

Rick Wilson, the originator of the Lincoln Project, assisted in creating an ad for Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss’ Senate campaign in 2002.

Strategies of The Lincoln Project

The Lincoln Project was successful because its advertisements went viral and because of its “unusual technique of playing mind games with the president.” According to Politico, the Lincoln Project “successfully established itself as a squatter in Trump’s mental space, thanks to several factors, including members boasting hundreds of thousands of social media followers, quickly cut ads that respond to current events, and a single-minded focus on buying airtime wherever Trump is most likely to be binging cable news that day, whether it’s the D.C. market or his golf courses across the country.” Roxanne Roberts wrote in The Washington Post that the project’s ads are “specifically designed to trigger the president” so that he “talk(s) about things he shouldn’t be talking about,” in effect “raising millions of dollars…for the Lincoln Project,” quoting co-founder George Conway as saying that the project takes advantage of Trump’s narcissistic reactivity, inability to take criticism, and inability to think ahead.”

The Lincoln Project has produced a lot in terms of tweets and videos. Laugh tracks are layered over bits of a Chris Wallace interview with Trump in the commercial Trumpfeld (a satire of Seinfeld). At the same time, Trump is mocked as “Impotus americanus,” “the most corrupt of its species” in Nationalist Geographic (a spoof of National Geographic).

Most of the Lincoln Project’s ads “pack an emotional punch, using imagery designed to provoke anxiety, anger, and fear—aimed at the very voters who were driven to (Trump) by those same feelings in 2016,” Joanna Weiss of Northeastern University’s Experience magazine wrote in Politico, citing scientific research indicating that fear-mongering ads might be effective with Republican voters.

The operation has targeted swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Republican Senate candidates in Arizona, Iowa, Montana, and other conditions, in addition to the Washington media market and hence Trump himself. Following the election, Lenti assessed the situation: “Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia were our primary targets. We were seeking ladies with a college education, women from the suburbs, and older males.”

The Jim Crow caucus has been recognized as a faction within the Republican Party that disenfranchises African American voters.

An unexpectedly fast rise

The Lincoln Project was not expected to be such a huge success at first. Then, in May of this year, it produced its “Mourning in America” film, a parody of a Reagan-era commercial that blamed Mr. Trump for the country’s pandemic response failings.

Mr. Trump unleashed a late-night Twitter onslaught on his tens of millions of followers in response to the commercial. “They’re all LOSERS,” he said of the project, which he described as “a collection of RINO Republicans that failed poorly 12 years ago, then again eight years ago, and then got BADLY trounced by me.”

Mr. Trump’s rant drew more attention to the Lincoln Project than it could have hoped for. The amount of money raised increased dramatically. In June, billionaire businessman Stephen Mandel donated $1 million, while Bain Capital co-chairman Joshua Bekenstein and David Geffen each donated $100,000; Mr. Geffen has subsequently given a total of $500,000. (The David Geffen Foundation’s executive director, David Dishman, said Mr. Geffen’s contributions were “related to their efforts surrounding the 2020 election cycle.”)

It was the start of a flurry of donations, not all of which came from financial behemoths like Mr. Geffen. People who paid less than $200 helped the Lincoln Project generate more than $30 million.

A hiring binge ensued, and the group expanded its horizons by establishing a communications department, a political section, and podcasts and political shows for its website. Mr. Galen said it went from “eight or ten people on May 1 to like 60-plus by late or early July.” “We were able to expand up quite quickly.”

Initially, the project functioned similarly to that of a pirate ship. There were no standard workplace management techniques in existence. There is no one in charge of the company. Two of the company’s leading contractors, who were in charge of invoicing for the Lincoln Project, were appointed to the three-member board of directors, a breach of standard governance practices.

The organizational structure was flexible: Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, two contractors on the board involved in voter outreach via digital advertising and data targeting, were referred to as co-founders. Mr. Conway and Jennifer Horn, a former leader of the Republican Party in New Hampshire who joined early on and played a crucial role in outreach to Republicans and independents, were in the same boat.

Mr. Conway, an unpaid adviser who had no meaningful operational role before leaving the organization this summer, described it as “essentially a pop-up stand.” “It was a vast organization that overgrew, and more money flowed in than anyone could have predicted.” “It was as catchy as catch can get.”

Despite the rapid expansion, the founders’ core group, led by Mr. Schmidt, maintained operational control. In an interview, Sarah Lenti, a Republican political consultant who worked as the group’s executive director at one point, stated, “I had zero decision-making power.”

Ms. Lenti, who has worked in various capacities on four Republican presidential campaigns, noted that she “was never privy to what founders were making.”

If liberals admired the Lincoln Project’s laudable purpose, the four Republicans who founded it had a history of bare-knuckled political brawling.

Mr. Wilson was a longtime Republican strategist known for sharp attack commercials, such as one in 2002 that said former Senator Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who had lost both legs and his right hand in Vietnam, had the bravery to defend America against terrorism.

Mr. McCain’s presidential campaigns had produced the other three. Mr. Weaver, a brooding and temperamental Texan dubbed Sunny by Mr. McCain, is a brooding and mercurial Texan. In 2008, Mr. Schmidt, represented by Woody Harrelson in the film “Game Change,” endorsed Sarah Palin as Mr. McCain’s vice-presidential contender, a decision he later deemed a mistake. According to Meghan McCain, the former senator’s daughter, “no McCain would have spit on them if they were on fire” in recent years. The McCain family does not remember him and Mr. Weaver well.

“It’s not Montessori school,” Mr. Galen, a former Schmidt lieutenant who is now an equal partner, said of presidential campaigns.

As money came in, cost controls were lax, and the founders reaped the benefits of management fees. While such payments are usual in politics, some Lincoln Project leaders and staff were taken aback when federal documents revealed that Mr. Galen’s consulting firm, Summit Strategic Communications, had been paid over $27 million. It’s unclear how much of that each of the four got. Even other top officials were unaware of the extent of the individual payments because of their exclusive arrangement.

Unaddressed complaints

A worrisome email arrived amid the Lincoln Project’s overnight success last summer.

“I’m writing in response to many people bringing to my attention a pattern of disturbing behavior by Weaver,” it started. “Aside from being morally and potentially legally wrong, I believe what I’m about to say poses an immediate threat to the organization’s reputation and might be fatal to our public image.”

An employee at Mr. Steslow’s company, Tusk, which handled the project’s digital advertising, sent the email to Mr. Steslow, the Lincoln Project contractor and board member. It detailed a slew of allegations spanning 2014 to 2020, including a “bait-and-switch” incident in which Mr. Weaver offered to talk about a political job with a young man in 2015, only to try to bring him to his hotel room instead. Mr. Weaver had continued to harass people after the Lincoln Project was created in late 2019 and had “combined suggestive commentary with official T.L.P. marketing activity,” according to the report.

The New York Times received a portion of the message, and other persons who have read it have supplied precise details of the rest. It also included a promise to deliver further information to the Lincoln Project’s directors if they asked for it.

It wasn’t the first time Mr. Weaver’s alleged harassment had been brought to the attention of project leaders. In January, another Tusk employee had expressed concerns to Mr. Steslow five months before the email was written.

Mr. Weaver “had a history of flirting with gentlemen over Twitter in an inappropriate fashion,” according to Ms. Lenti, who was executive director at the time.

According to five individuals familiar with the situation, Mr. Steslow tried unsuccessfully for an extended period to have Mr. Weaver pushed out. Three people claimed that while he notified other Lincoln Project officials of his worries as early as February 2020, there are various reports of who learned about Mr. Weaver, what they learned, and when.


Mr. Schmidt has insisted that he had “no awareness or insinuations of any form of inappropriate activity,” merely rumors that Mr. Weaver was gay, even as harassment issues arose within the group he was helping to lead. According to five people familiar with the situation, the June email was made known to Mr. Galen; he declined to comment on the topic, citing the outside legal examination.

The Lincoln Project did not investigate Mr. Weaver’s conduct until after the email from the Tusk employee arrived in June. According to Ms. Lenti and others, it was managed by the group’s general attorney, Matt Sanderson, although limited in scope. Only two persons who had protested about Mr. Weaver’s messages, according to Ms. Lenti, were contacted. Many additional complaints were made in the June email, but they were never investigated.

“I was not made privy to any written report if there was ever one, and to my knowledge, only the two gentlemen were interviewed,” Ms. Lenti said, adding that Mr. Weaver himself had not been interviewed.

Mr. Sanderson declined to comment, citing the legal inquiry.

Mr. Weaver had been harassing young men online for years when the Lincoln Project was created. He expressly offered professional help or mentorship in exchange for sex in the most aggressive messages reviewed by The New York Times. He also inquired about young men’s height, weight, and other measurements, suggesting that they go out for drinks or travel together.

In August, Mr. Weaver took a medical leave, ending internal strife. But, not long after, he was invited to join Mr. Schmidt’s proposed private media business as an equal partner. The Lincoln Project was “weighing offers from several television studios, podcast networks, and book publishers,” according to Axios in late October.

According to three people familiar with the situation, Mr. Steslow, Mr. Madrid, and Ms. Horn were unaware. According to the sources, it heightened tensions that had been simmering since the summer, when the trio fought an attempt by the founders to strip them of their co-founder credentials.

Mr. Steslow, Mr. Madrid, and Ms. Horn were nervous when they gathered at Mr. Schmidt’s Utah home on Oct. 30 to listen to him describe his vision for a media company. And it was quickly made evident that they would not be partners on an equal footing. Mr. Weaver had previously been brought in on the media contract, but Mr. Schmidt referred to him as a “black box” that needed to be unlocked.

The bottom line

The Lincoln Project might readily be described as a movement of people “who decided to assist repair democracy.” However, it has always combined money and mission. There was no money involved for some, such as Mr. Conway. It was highly profitable for others.