Lincoln Project Co-Founder Resigns From Board Amid a Deepening Crisis

Steve Schmidt, a co-founder of the anti-Trump venture the Lincoln Project, resigned abruptly from the group’s board on Friday, deepening the crisis that has engulfed the organization over its handling of harassment allegations against another co-founder, John Weaver.

In an extraordinary statement Friday evening, Mr. Schmidt described being sexually assaulted as a teenager and said he was resigning from the board “to make room for the appointment of a female board member as the first step to reform and professionalize the Lincoln Project.”

Also on Friday, more former employees joined an open letter seeking release from their nondisclosure agreements, saying they want to make additional information public. The host of a program on the group’s media arm resigned after less than one week. And a top international affairs expert, the prominent anti-Trump conservative Tom Nichols, said he was stepping down as an unpaid adviser to the group.

The backlash against the Lincoln Project began with the revelation last month that Mr. Weaver had repeatedly harassed young men and at least one minor. It intensified on Thursday with published reports that leaders had known about the harassment last year and failed to act; the demand by former workers to be released from their N.D.A.s; a scathing statement from another co-founder, Jennifer Horn, who recently resigned; and a series of tweets in which the group, without authorization, posted Ms. Horn’s private Twitter messages with a reporter.

Top Lincoln Project officials said on Thursday night that they were hiring an outside investigator to review Mr. Weaver’s tenure, promising transparency and saying that Mr. Weaver’s conduct “must be reckoned with.”

In his statement, Mr. Schmidt reiterated what he has said several times: that he was not aware of Mr. Weaver’s online harassment of young men until last month. Several people who worked for the group have said that the group’s leaders knew about it by last summer at the latest.

Ms. Horn, who resigned from the Lincoln Project last week, said in a statement Thursday that she had recently learned that other leaders of the group had ignored warnings about Mr. Weaver’s conduct.

The young men she spoke with were “hurt that their experiences were being denied, angry that they had been used and lied to, and fearful that they would be targeted again,” she wrote. “When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned and lied to.”

More disclosures could be imminent. Eight former employees and associates — six on Thursday night, and two more on Friday — have now signed the letter asking for release from their N.D.A.s, saying said they wanted to disclose information “that would aid the press, public and our donors in answering questions relevant to the public interest.” The signers have not yet spoken publicly, but they provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times.

They said they were not comfortable contacting the organization directly to be released from their N.D.A.s, as Lincoln Project leaders suggested in a statement.

“Expecting victims and those close to victims to contact and engage the people and organization accused of protecting the very predator at issue is absurd, unreasonable and insensitive,” they wrote. While they did not sign their names, their identities are known to The Times.

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Further controversy erupted late Thursday night when the Lincoln Project posted screenshots from Ms. Horn’s Twitter account, revealing her direct messages with a reporter, and then quickly took them down. Unauthorized access of a social media account can be illegal, depending on the circumstances. Neither side had any comment.

Those posts were the last straw for Mr. Nichols, an international affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College, who announced on Friday that he was ending his ties to the organization.

“I have been thinking about whether to continue my association for a while,” Mr. Nichols said in an email to The Times. “I was upset by John Weaver’s despicable behavior and concerned about the ongoing public conflict among the principals, but I made my final decision yesterday when Jennifer Horn’s personal messages were published. I’m glad they’re bringing in an outside adviser to help them sort through everything, and I hope there is accountability for what happened with Weaver.”

Mr. Nichols said that as a volunteer, he had no insight into the group’s internal governance.

ImageJohn Weaver said last month that he would not return to the Lincoln Project from a medical leave.
Credit…Open Mind/CUNY-TV, via YouTube

Mr. Weaver, 61, is a longtime Republican presidential campaign adviser who gained prominence during John McCain’s runs in 2000 and 2008 and also worked for John Kasich in 2016. The Times reported last month, based on interviews with 21 young men, that Mr. Weaver had for years sent unsolicited and sexually provocative messages online.

The youngest person The Times interviewed was 14 when Mr. Weaver first contacted him; the messages became overtly sexual after he turned 18.

On Thursday, The Associated Press and New York magazine, citing unidentified former employees, reported that Lincoln Project leaders knew about Mr. Weaver’s behavior last summer, which Mr. Schmidt has continued to deny. Mr. Weaver took a medical leave from the group in August and announced last month that he would not return.

In its statement on Thursday, the Lincoln Project said that Mr. Weaver had “betrayed all of us” and that it was bringing in “a best-in-class outside professional” to “establish both accountability and best practices going forward.”

At the same time, the group’s leaders have repeatedly dismissed reporting about when they learned of Mr. Weaver’s behavior and about Ms. Horn’s resignation as hit jobs from supporters of former President Donald J. Trump.

The eight former employees and associates expressed anger at that in their open letter. To insinuate that their efforts constituted a right-wing attack, they wrote, “is not in keeping with the values we signed up to uphold, and resembles the tactics and behavior we joined the Lincoln Project to defeat.”

Over the last year, the Lincoln Project skewered Mr. Trump with mocking ads and drew a large following on the left. But since the election, its core group has fractured. Two board members, Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, left in December. George T. Conway III, another key figure, has also departed.

While a number of people involved in the Lincoln Project were considered co-founders, the four political consultants initially at its core were Mr. Schmidt, Mr. Weaver, Reed Galen and Rick Wilson. They created a three-member board consisting of Mr. Galen, Mr. Madrid and Mr. Steslow, who ran a key contractor, TUSK Digital. Ms. Horn also joined early in the process, Sarah Lenti was named executive director, and Matthew Sanderson was hired as general counsel.

The group was not envisioned as a major moneymaker at first, but soon, as anti-Trump sentiment grew, millions of dollars in donations begin pouring in. After the election, fissures over money and control emerged, and there was a move to add new members to the board, leading to tensions within the organization.

The Lincoln Project has attributed Ms. Horn’s departure to a dispute over money, saying that she had recently requested “an immediate ‘signing bonus’ payment of $250,000 and a $40,000-per-month consulting contract,” and that in December she had “demanded a board seat on the Lincoln Project, a television show, a podcast hosting assignment and a staff to manage these endeavors.”

Ms. Horn called the claims that her departure was financially motivated “patently false.”

In his statement, Mr. Schmidt reiterated what he has said several times: that he was not aware of Mr. Weaver’s online harassment of young men until last month. Several people who worked for the group have said that the group’s leaders knew about it by last summer at the latest.

Ms. Horn, who resigned from the Lincoln Project last week, said in a statement Thursday that she had recently learned that other leaders of the group had ignored warnings about Mr. Weaver’s conduct.

The young men she spoke with were “hurt that their experiences were being denied, angry that they had been used and lied to, and fearful that they would be targeted again,” she wrote. “When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned and lied to.”

More disclosures could be imminent. Eight former employees and associates — six on Thursday night, and two more on Friday — have now signed the letter asking for release from their N.D.A.s, saying said they wanted to disclose information “that would aid the press, public and our donors in answering questions relevant to the public interest.” The signers have not yet spoken publicly, but they provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times.

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