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Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt resigns from the board amid crisis

John Weaver during a campaign stop in Bow, N.H., in 2016. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Steve Schmidt, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, resigned from the organization’s board Friday, throwing the multimillion-dollar super PAC into further disarray over its handling of sexual harassment allegations against another one of its co-founders, John Weaver.

Schmidt, who like Weaver had worked for Sen. John McCain and other Republican moderates, announced his decision on Twitter. He disclosed that he had been sexually abused as a child, saying that he wanted “to make room for the appointment of a female board member as the first step to reform and professionalize the Lincoln Project,” currently all-male.

One day earlier, the organization’s Twitter account tweeted — then quickly deleted — private conversations between journalist Amanda Becker and Jennifer Horn, another Lincoln Project co-founder who left following the accusations against Weaver, who allegedly used his position to make unsolicited sexual advances toward young men.

Horn said the messages were published without her permission, and Lincoln Project co-founder and attorney George T. Conway III called the tweet “a violation of federal law [that] should be taken down immediately.” In his statement, Schmidt apologized for the tweet, and said he was aware of the messages before they were made public.

“I would like to apologize to Jennifer Horn,” he said. “I let my anger turn a business dispute into a public war that has distracted from the fight against American fascism,” he said.

On Thursday night, The Lincoln Project released a statement declining to comment “on issues related to Mr. Weaver” until an investigation was complete, urging anyone bound by a non-disclosure agreement to share information about him. On Friday, six former PAC employees published an anonymous letter, asking to be released from their NDAs, and the group’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella resigned.

Two donors who had given six figures to the PAC told CNBC on Friday they were reassessing their support.

“The Lincoln Project was probably the most high-profile Never Trumper group,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican member of Congress and one of three primary challengers to Trump in 2020. “For them to take a hit like this, it will hurt a movement that was out there trying to find its footing.”

Lincoln Project tweeted a co-founder’s private messages after leaders promised to probe sexual harassment claims

The allegations against Weaver, a 61-year-old strategist who had worked on both of McCain’s campaigns and for the 2016 bid of former Ohio governor John Kasich, were first reported by the American Conservative last month.

Weaver was accused of making unsolicited sexual advances to young men, including one as young as 14. In a follow-up article, the New York Times spoke to 21 men who said Weaver harassed them and pressured them for sex in exchange for professional advancement.

As more details surfaced, Weaver apologized, in a statement, to “men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time.”

Weaver did not respond to a question from The Washington Post.

Most of the Lincoln Project’s other co-founders, whose media profile grew throughout the 2020 campaign, have remained quiet about the scandal. Schmidt told New York magazine that Weaver had misled him when asked about the allegations last year.

“You are a liar and a predator,” Schmidt recalled telling Weaver in an email, after more details were reported by the New York Times. “You have no honor. Thank God McCain is gone.”

The Lincoln Project launched in late 2019 with a joint op-ed in the New York Times, with Weaver and Schmidt joined by former GOP operative Rick Wilson and Conway, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post . Together, they promised to win over “enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts” to rip Trump’s GOP out of power.

Mocked by the former president, the super PAC raised more than $87 million for a series of viral TV ads and videos. Many of its spots spun off the latest presidential drama, with the PAC purchasing time on Fox News for everything from a takeoff on Ronald Reagan’s iconic “Morning in America” to a mockery of Trump’s jittery walk down a ramp after his commencement address to West Point military graduates.

“Democrats could learn a lot from them,” Democratic strategist and TV commentator James Carville said on MSNBC after the spot inspired by “Morning in America” was released. “They’re mean, they fight hard, and we don’t fight like that.”

But the PAC’s approach rankled some of its political allies. The tone diverged wildly from the one President Biden’s campaign used, portraying the Democrat as a unifier who wanted to get past Trump. Focus groups found that some of its most viral spots were far less popular than economy-focused ads that got far less media attention.

Popular with many liberals, omnipresent on cable news, the PAC was viewed skeptically by left-wing Trump critics — and by much of the right. The socialist magazine Jacobin called the project a “giant grift” angling to “push a new Biden administration to the right,” while the conservative National Review used the same word, “grift,” to describe some of the co-founders’ sizable consulting fees. Republican Voters Against Trump, which raised less than a quarter as much money as the Lincoln Project, spent a fraction as much on salaries and contracts.

“The Lincoln Project promised to export their knowledge of how conservative voters think, instead they mostly exported the conservative consultant class’s instinct for grifting,” said Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the liberal group Data for Progress.

Before the Weaver revelations, the PAC was already drawing criticism for its own media projects, including popular podcasts and online shows. Ra Kumar, who represents Wilson at the United Talent Agency, told Axios in late October that the company was “putting a pretty big bet on the idea that they know how to get audiences.”

Kumar did not respond to a request for comment from The Post, while UTA said it was not currently representing Lincoln Media, the PAC’s spinoff. Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chair who hosted the show “Vote for America,” disappeared from the Lincoln Project YouTube channel this year.

In a statement this week, Horn said she had been “yelled at, demeaned and lied to” for raising questions about Weaver, and ended her relationship with the group. The Lincoln Project claimed that Horn’s salary demands had been unreasonable; Horn, reached for comment, referred back to her statement.

Republican operatives who’d tangled with the group, which made splashy investments in key Senate races, rejoiced at its problems, with Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel pointing out that Democrats transferred millions of dollars to the PAC.

“Their organization is destroyed and they’ve all basically been chased into hiding,” tweeted Matt Whitlock, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Andrea Salcedo contributed to this report.