“The truth is that I’m gay,” he wrote. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”
The news was a shock in elite political circles: Even those who thought they knew Weaver well were floored to discover his sexual orientation and that he had been approaching young men for years.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather — I couldn’t believe it,” says Fred Davis, a GOP media consultant who knows Weaver and his family. And yet, there was always something mysterious about Weaver. “He’s a genius, but that genius comes with a dark cloud.”
One of his secrets was the decades-long effort to hide his homosexuality, which could have been an issue in conservative circles, especially at the beginning of his career. Friends and colleagues interviewed for this article say they don’t care about his sexuality, but his texts were unacceptable: unsolicited and creepy, especially a four-year exchange that started when one man was just 14 years old, the New York Times reported. Weaver offered help with their careers, then veered into explicit, suggestive comments about their bodies.
None of the men accuse Weaver of a crime; the only reported sexual encounter was consensual. But the men became increasingly uncomfortable and worried that blocking an influential Republican could negatively impact their aspirations for a job in politics.
Now there’s a scramble to determine who knew what and when they knew it. A spokesman for the Lincoln Project, the group Weaver co-founded to unseat former president Donald Trump, says it was unaware of his texts until last month, when its statement denounced him as a “predator, a liar and an abuser.” But multiple news outlets report some staffers may have known about the inappropriate behavior earlier. The organization announced Thursday that it was launching an independent investigation to determine Weaver’s actions during his tenure. But the scandal has already compromised the moral high ground that the group touted last year.
Weaver declined to be interviewed for this article — not a surprise, really, just a month after his life imploded.
He spent four decades as a political operative without a winning presidential campaign — he got close with John McCain, had a shot with John Kasich, but ultimately fell short. The Lincoln Project was supposed to be another chance for Weaver to prove himself. Instead, that spotlight proved to be his undoing.
Growing up in Texas, Weaver dreamed of becoming a sports columnist. It was while working for the student newspaper at Texas A&M that Weaver met professor Phil Gramm and stumbled into a profession well suited for a smart, restless young man: political consulting. It's a job with no rules, no credentials and no permanent address.
“The problem with politics is that it attracts highly passionate and often brilliant people, but it requires no degree or license,” says a Republican consultant who has worked on campaigns with Weaver and who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about their former colleague. “There are no regulations. All you have to do to be a political consultant is show up at a campaign and say you are one. It’s not like a real job where there’s at least some modicum of vetting and background checks.”
Weaver, he says, always had a dark side. “He was attracted to positive, reform-minded candidates who preached bipartisanship, but you always had a sense he had a stiletto in his boot — and would be happy to use it.”
Weaver began his career with Gramm, who became a Democratic congressman, switched parties, was elected to the Senate and eventually ran for president. That led Weaver to the most significant politician in his life: McCain, who became almost a father figure.
Weaver and the senator from Arizona were joined at the hip for many, many years. As a top adviser, Weaver is credited with the “Straight Talk Express” strategy for McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, a gambit that almost won the nomination. But McCain lost to George W. Bush, and Weaver was crushed he couldn’t pull his friend over the finish line.
A winning presidential campaign is the Oscar of political consulting. Win and you write your own ticket: books, TV, pick of candidates. Still, despite the loss, the 2000 campaign made him a member of the political elite. “He’s easily one the smartest and most creative strategic thinkers I’ve worked with in politics,” says Davis, who worked with Weaver for McCain and Kasich.
But Weaver was also his own worst enemy. Dark — that word comes up in nearly every interview — and difficult. He could be charming and persuasive with candidates, explaining how he could help them win the office they thought they so richly deserved. But he was opinionated and arrogant, always right on any subject and dismissive of those beneath him.
A longtime rivalry with fellow Texan Karl Rove effectively shut Weaver out of the lucrative Bush political orbit. He was an adviser for John Kerry’s 2004 campaign and was back working for McCain’s next presidential bid by 2007. But he lost an internal battle with another consultant on the campaign and was soon back on the street.
Weaver, despite commanding top-dollar consulting fees, was “always broke,” according to several colleagues. He borrowed money from friends but never paid it back. (In 2013, Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens took Weaver to court for an unpaid loan of $125,000; Weaver said it was a misunderstanding and repaid the money.) Yes, there was a divorce from his first wife and ongoing medical bills, but his empty pockets were another mystery.
Thus commenced a series of uncomfortable partings with candidates (including Ambassador Jon Huntsman in his presidential bid and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder) who paid Weaver large amounts of money and then alleged financial irregularities, which Weaver denied, according to a 2015 Politico profile. The major consultants can make $1 million a year, and Weaver negotiated big bucks with little oversight. He was famous for disappearing and not returning calls. The rap is that he sought out weak candidates with deep pockets — but, then again, failed campaigns have plenty of blame to go around.
In the midst of all of this, there was no hint that Weaver was a closeted gay man. Typically, in this world of dirty tricks and backstabbing, someone would have leaked that information. “Weaver’s enemies delight in exposing that kind of stuff,” says Jason Zengerle, who wrote the Politico story. The fact that they didn’t suggests Weaver’s sexuality really was a deeply held secret.
His health, however, was a source of frequent speculation. Weaver was beset by cancer and heart issues, but to campaign staffers those illnesses sometimes appeared to be a convenient excuse for Weaver to skip meetings and anything else he didn’t feel like attending. “He was the boy who cried wolf,” says one colleague.
By 2015, he was healthy enough to sign up for Kasich’s presidential campaign. That job also faltered, and Weaver was looking for his next one.
It was around this time, according to the New York Times, that Weaver began texting his Twitter followers.
Weaver joined the Lincoln Project in late 2019, as one of eight Republican co-founders dedicated to the proposition that Trump was a threat to the republic. The opening salvo came in a New York Times op-ed written by Weaver, George Conway, Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson, spoiling to take on the president and his enablers.
Weaver, says Schmidt, was asked to join because of his presidential campaign experience and extensive media contacts. The board, aware of his reputation for messy finances, decided he would have no role in management or access to the money side of the organization.
To the surprise of almost everyone involved, the Lincoln Project took off. The ads attacking Trump were unsparing, and widely shared on social media. Democrats and money flooded what was suddenly an influential political action committee.
So did attacks on all the founders, veterans of Republican campaigns with plenty of enemies — especially from supporters of Trump who were furious at what they considered to be the ultimate betrayal. During the summer, according to Schmidt’s account, the group picked up online chatter saying Weaver was gay. Schmidt then called Weaver simply to let him know the rumor was floating around and he should be aware in case it went public. Weaver told him the rumor was not true.
Shortly after that conversation, Weaver had a heart attack — at least, that’s what friends were told — and went on medical leave. He never came back.
The American Conservative broke the story about the texts last month, before the New York Times report citing 21 accusers. Schmidt says the organization learned about the accusations at that time along with the rest of the public — and immediately cut ties.
“John Weaver led a secret life that was built on a foundation of deception at every level,” reads a Lincoln Project statement. “. . . We extend our deepest sympathies to those who were targeted by his deplorable and predatory behavior. We are disgusted and outraged that someone in a position of power and trust would use it for these means.”
But the Washington Blade, the Associated Press, the 19th and New York magazine, citing unnamed sources, reported this week that some Lincoln Project leaders were aware of the rumors last year. Six former staffers demanded to be released from nondisclosure agreements to discuss Weaver, the New York Times reported.
On Thursday, the group announced it is hiring “a best-in-class outside professional to review Mr. Weaver’s tenure with the organization and to establish both accountability and best practices going forward.”
Late Friday, Schmidt announced he had resigned from the board of the Lincoln Project “to make room for the appointment of a female board member” amid reports not only about Weaver but also internal chaos and infighting. In his statement, he said he had been sexually abused as a child and shared his rage at his former colleague: “I detest John Weaver in a way I can’t articulate.”
One baffling aspect of the story is why Weaver would risk his family and career to approach strangers on Twitter with unsolicited sexual offers. Yes, he was a closeted gay man. But using such a public forum was reckless, at best, and the success of the Lincoln Project — with the ensuing spotlight on all the founders — made the risk much greater. And as New York Magazine reported, two men allege they received suggestive texts from Weaver before Lincoln Project internships. Weaver was playing with dynamite in one hand and a match in the other.
Why was he able to go undetected for so long? His unwanted behavior took place primarily outside an established workplace, and there has been no criminal behavior charged so far. Plus, Caren Goldberg, an expert witness in workplace harassment litigation, notes, “Men who are harassed, regardless of their own sexual orientation, don’t tend to report” it as often as women who are harassed do (though as a general rule, victims of harassment rarely report it).
Weaver’s career as a political consultant is over, which may be the least of his concerns. But he left with one last cryptic rejoinder.
“While I am taking full responsibility for the inappropriate messages and conversations, I want to state clearly that the other smears being leveled at me by Donald Trump’s enablers as a way to get back at the Lincoln Project for our principled stand for democracy are categorically false and outrageous,” he wrote in his statement. “I hope that by telling this truth at long last my family and I can move forward.’’