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Steve Schmidt, then an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters on board the Straight Talk Air campaign charter airplane, Monday, Aug. 25, 2008. Schmidt was a co-founder of The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump PAC mired in controversy.

Illustration by Michelle Budge / Photograph by Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

The rise and fall of the Trumpiest Never-Trumper

Steve Schmidt, co-founder of The Lincoln Project, sought to take down Donald Trump. But some believe he took himself down in the process.

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The private enclave outside Park City where Steve Schmidt calls home boasts an impressive list of residents. There are CEOs, a managing director of Goldman Sachs and a successful pharmacotherapy entrepreneur. And then there’s Schmidt — a college dropout-turned-political strategist extraordinaire.

Before Donald Trump’s rise to the White House, and long before Schmidt moved into a luxury home in the Wasatch Mountains, Schmidt’s reputation was clamped to his role resurrecting Sen. John McCain’s flagging 2008 presidential campaign, winning him the GOP nomination. But today, Schmidt has become synonymous with his controversial second act: The Lincoln Project — a “conservative” never-Trump outfit that raised tens of millions of dollars in a headstrong quest to take down President Trump.

A year into Trump’s presidency, Schmidt formally renounced his membership in the Republican Party, calling it “fully the party of Trump.” Eighteen months later, he and three other longtime Republicans — John Weaver, Rick Wilson and George Conway III — became the principal co-founders of a political action committee that would become one of the nation’s largest money-haulers in the run-up to 2020.

Fueled by internet-era social media savvy, the PAC quickly distinguished itself, in the words of one Politico writer, “as a squatter in Trump’s mental space,” and Democrat donors and never-Trump Republicans alike opened their wallets. But now, The Lincoln Project and those trying to capture the future of the Republican Party are trying to overcome financial questions, the sexual misconduct of one of the founders and a strategy that mimicked the very man they were trying to prevent from winning a second term: Donald Trump. 

In a Melvillian obsession over their White Whale in the White House, Schmidt’s fate and that of the Lincoln Project have become increasingly enmeshed in the persona and tactics of their intended target.

Schmidt’s highly publicized exit from the GOP in 2018 put him in unfamiliar territory. A longtime Republican, he was suddenly at odds with the party he’d championed for decades. He ran President George W. Bush’s reelection rapid-response team in 2004 and later headed Vice President Dick Cheney’s press shop. He orchestrated the confirmations of Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito Jr. and John Roberts on Capitol Hill. And, most recognizably, he was the senior adviser on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, capturing the GOP nomination in what was then called “one of the biggest comebacks in history.”

But Schmidt — who insisted I call him “Steve,” rather than Mr. Schmidt, during an otherwise fruitless and brief phone call in June — came back into national consciousness after Trump’s surprising 2016 victory. From conversations and email exchanges with Lincoln Project insiders and observers, a picture of Schmidt emerged as a man whose opposition to Trump was deeply personal — but also deeply Trumpian.

It was Schmidt who encouraged McCain to select Sarah Palin as his running mate, a focal point which some say paved the way for the rise of Trump. After a plan to select independent Sen. Joe Lieberman fell apart, McCain needed someone who would energize the Republican base. Palin, then a relatively unknown governor from Alaska, was the answer.

For a few weeks, it worked. Palin’s first public appearances turned her into an overnight celebrity. Campaign donations skyrocketed. McCain even inched closer to Barack Obama in the polls, resurrecting what appeared to be a hopeless presidential bid. But the Palin momentum didn’t last. Miscue after miscue added up. And when the votes came in, McCain and Palin were on the wrong side of the largest presidential electoral deficit in a dozen years.

Schmidt later regretted the Palin decision. It wasn’t his choice alone — McCain had the final word — but Schmidt pushed hard. “I am sick about it,” he told The New York Times four years after Election Day.

Despite McCain’s loss, informed political observers believe Palin altered the GOP’s trajectory. Former Sen. Jeff Flake, McCain’s Arizona colleague in the Senate, pointed to “the Palinization of politics” as an enabling factor for Trump’s rise. In 2016, a month before Trump’s election, President Obama said he saw “a straight line” from Palin’s nomination as the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate “to what we see today in Donald Trump.” In this month’s edition of The Atlantic, George Packer describes Palin as “John the Baptist to the coming of Trump.”

Strangely, Schmidt — the man who brought Palin to the national stage — agrees. Palin represented “the beginning of the politics of cowardice and fear,” he admitted last fall. Schmidt profusely regrets pushing for Palin now. “Terrible, terrible, terrible,” Schmidt said in 2012 when pressed about how he felt. “I have a level of regret that is hard to put into words.”

By the time he started The Lincoln Project, Schmidt was no longer at a loss for what to say.

Schmidt’s drive took The Lincoln Project from an idea to a lucrative super-PAC drowning in donations. In total, the group amassed $90 million from donors. According to Schmidt, $63 million to $66 million went to “voter-contact programs.”

But with financial success came scrutiny. The Associated Press reports that over $50 million of the group’s earnings went to firms controlled by the group’s leaders — $27 million to a small firm run by strategist Reed Galen and $21 million to a firm run by former member Ron Steslow, among others. Only $27 million of the group’s funds — less than one-third — went toward advertisements on cable television or the internet, based on an analysis from the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.

But Schmidt has publicly defended the group’s financial practices. “Every super PAC operates like this,” he told Bill Maher. Transferring funds to outside firms, he explained, protects the group’s workers from “harassment by the Trump people.”

Paying employees as subcontractors to outside firms does not require disclosure, he also observed. But that can mean less transparency around how donations are ultimately spent. Schmidt has not publicly disclosed whether he personally benefitted from the funds, nor did he grant a request for an extended interview. But the Associated Press reported that some of the group’s leaders “used the money earned during their time with Lincoln Project to refinance homes, or purchase a new one.” The AP noted that Schmidt purchased his five-bedroom, seven-bathroom custom home in Kamas, Utah, just east of Park City, in 2020, though it’s not known whether money received from his work at the Lincoln Project was used for the home purchase.

The group’s critics point to its opaque finances as evidence of hypocrisy. It’s impossible to tell how much Schmidt and the other founders are profiting off the group, they say, and by not disclosing financial information, they are not unlike Trump, who refused to release his tax returns during the campaign.

“While the goal of the organization was to take down Trump, the founders became no better than the former president.” — A former Lincoln Project employee

“We fully comply with the law,” Schmidt told the Associated Press. “The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so(.)”

The Lincoln Project’s television ads were likewise Trumpian in their intentional ruthlessness and ferocity. On one September day in 2020, the group released an ad with the slogan, “It’s time for decency. It’s time for Joe Biden.” Only hours later, the group put out a different ad portraying Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, Rudy Giuliani and others as boorish chimpanzees. 

For some, the tactics were a necessary evil. At least one person I spoke with expressed feeling conflicted about the organization, but saw the work as helpful to opposing Trump’s influence within the GOP. Another questioned whether the group’s tactics were all that effective in garnering anti-Trump Republican support.

In an interview with the Denver-based Westword, a former Lincoln Project leader said the group’s “targeted” digital efforts to get out the vote helped move “1 to 4 percent of those voters who were independents or Republicans to cross the line to make the difference in (targeted swing states) for Biden.”

Others championed fighting vitriol with vitriol as a winning strategy. When asked by the “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl if “stooping to the president’s level of being mean” was concerning, Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson laughed. “I hope so,” he said. “People do hate negative ads, but negative ads work.”

As with the Palin move, not everything with The Lincoln Project went as planned.

Instead of the landslide electoral victory some predicted in November 2020, Biden needed wins in key swing states that were not called for some time after election night. Trump disputed the results, and The Lincoln Project’s cause continued. But on Jan. 11 — less than a week after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol — a story in The American Conservative accused John Weaver, one of The Lincoln Project’s founders, of sexual misconduct.

Weaver soon released a statement admitting to sending inappropriate sexual messages to men over the span of several years. The New York Times later reported that 21 men received messages from Weaver, one as young as 14. The most damning allegations involved offering career help in exchange for sex.

Weaver, who has a wife and two children, also came out as gay in his statement, noting that his “inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”

On Jan. 31, The Lincoln Project released a scathing rebuke, attempting to separate itself from Weaver. “Like so many, we have been betrayed and deceived by John Weaver,” it read. “We are grateful beyond words that at no time was John Weaver in the physical presence of any member of The Lincoln Project.”

Within weeks, however, The Associated Press reported that in June 2020, Lincoln Project leaders were made aware of at least 10 cases of alleged sexual misconduct on the part of Weaver, including two related to Lincoln Project employees. These allegations, according to the AP reporting, were sent in writing and later via phone calls to leaders.

The New York Times later reported that leaders were informed of Weaver’s behavior as early as January 2020 — just one month after The Lincoln Project’s founding. But Schmidt and other leaders denied any knowledge of Weaver’s practices prior to January 2021. “There was no awareness or insinuations of any type of inappropriate behavior when we became aware of the chatter at the time,” Schmidt told The New York Times, and a June 2021 investigation performed by an external law firm concurred. According to the firm, which The Lincoln Project hired, there was no evidence that the organization’s leaders were aware of the allegations against Weaver until news outlets reported them.

On Oct. 30, 2020, Schmidt hosted several top Lincoln Project leaders — Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid and Jennifer Horn — at his Utah base camp to pitch the idea of a new, billion-dollar media organization. The election, the pinnacle of the group’s work, was just a weeks away, but it had already taken a back seat to future plans.

“Five years from now, there will be a dozen billion-dollar media companies that don’t exist today,” he said, attendees told The New York Times. “I would like to build one, and would invite all of you to be part of that.”

Three days earlier, Axios broke news of The Lincoln Project’s talks with United Talent Agency to expand its media offerings. The group was “weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks and book publishers,” the article said, with the intent of transforming the advertisement-minded PAC into a fully functional media organization.

The Lincoln Project podcast already had millions of listeners. Its television arm, LPTV, boasted large followings on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. And its social media accounts were booming — the official Lincoln Project Twitter account, @ProjectLincoln, had more followers than the official account of the Republican Party.

What Schmidt didn’t tell his guests that October day, according to The New York Times, was that “the four original principals” of The Lincoln Project “had already signed a 27-page agreement for TLP Media that named Mr. Schmidt as manager and required each to chip in $100,000 for an equal share.” 

Just two days before, his Kamas home was listed on the market for $2.9 million; in early February, weeks after news of the Weaver scandal went public, the listing was removed.

In a matter of months, the plan started to unravel. Allegations of mismanagement, secret meetings and the Weaver sex scandal surfaced. Negative press sunk the group’s public reputation. And their all-out efforts to combat Trump, a man they deemed “vile,” “corrupt” and “cruel,” seemed to bring out cruelty from within the group’s own ranks.

“While the goal of the organization was to take down Trump, the founders became no better than the former president,” one former Lincoln Project employee, who requested anonymity, told me. “The fame, the money, the ego.”

Before long, relationships frayed. Insider Mike Madrid left the organization in December; he was reportedly unaware of the allegations against Weaver until they became public. Jennifer Horn, who said she was also unaware of Weaver’s alleged behavior until the news broke, left the group in February, citing the “grotesque and inappropriate behavior” of Weaver as her reason. An official statement from The Lincoln Project said board members “immediately accepted” Horn’s resignation, as she’d allegedly requested a signing bonus and monthly payments to stay on that other leaders rejected.

Days after Horn announced her resignation, the official Lincoln Project page leaked screenshots of what they said were private conversations between Horn and a reporter. The journalist was writing a “smear job” with the “help” of Horn, The Lincoln Project tweeted. The images and tweets were quickly deleted. Schmidt took responsibility and apologized for the incident, though another Lincoln Project staffer later admitted to being the one who made the actual posts.

“The most consequential fallout from The Lincoln Project was the damage incurred upon people, from consultants to donors to true believers,” someone close to the situation told me. “Relationships were destroyed.”

It’s not the first time Schmidt had a falling-out with former allies. McCain viewed Schmidt’s public criticism and remorse over Palin, alongside his lack of discretion about the campaign, as a betrayal. And while Obama and Biden, McCain’s 2008 opponents, were invited to speak at the late senator’s funeral in 2018, Schmidt didn’t receive an invite.

That wasn’t accidental, McCain’s daughter Meghan said. “Steve Schmidt (was) so despised by my Dad he made it a point to ban (him) from his funeral,” she tweeted. “Since 2008, no McCain would have spit on (Schmidt) if (he was) on fire.”

Schmidt’s next move is unknown. A Lincoln Project spokesperson told the Times that “there are no plans” to use the TLP Media business that Schmidt pitched during the October meeting at his Utah residence. In November, Schmidt floated the idea of running for the U.S. Senate, tweeting that he was “thinking about” challenging Utah Sen. Mike Lee, in 2022. 

In December, he announced that he was registering as a Democrat, but Utah voter registration data accessed by the Deseret News currently identifies him as a member of the far-right Independent American Party.

“Since 2008, no McCain would have spit on (Schmidt) if (he was) on fire.” — Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Sen. John McCain

The day after the Horn messages leaked, Schmidt tweeted an 1,800-word statement announcing his resignation from The Lincoln Project board. “I woke up this morning, and realized I’ve been fighting for a long time,” he wrote. “It’s taken a toll. I’m tired.”

Schmidt’s statement recounted his own experiences — being sexually abused as a 13-year-old at Scout camp; fighting in the political arena and finding faith; trudging alongside “the three companions of (his) life”: anger, shame and depression. 

Then, he addressed Weaver’s victims. “I detest John Weaver in a way I can’t articulate,” Schmidt wrote, in a since-deleted tweet. “My heart breaks that young men felt unseen and unheard in an organization that I started. … I just know that he is a liar and a predator, and I wish our paths never crossed.”

He said his seat on The Lincoln Project board should be filled by a woman, and he announced “some much-needed time off” for himself. 

Then, silence.

Two months passed, and aside from an occasional “liked” tweet, Schmidt was off the grid. In mid-April, however, he burst back into the spotlight, not missing a beat — as if nothing had happened. He jumped back into tweeting, podcasting and arguing on The Lincoln Project’s YouTube channel. He’s now as visible as ever — without an official place on The Lincoln Project board, but still heralded as a founder and arguably its most recognizable face.

In recent months, I reached out to The Lincoln Project and Schmidt multiple times, with no response. In June, as mentioned, Schmidt called back. When I asked for a sit-down interview, he hesitated. “Can I think about it for a day or two?” he asked. I never heard back despite additional attempts to reach him.

In late May, he was on ABC Radio, speculating about the future of the Republican Party. He spoke out regarding the former president’s influence within the GOP. “Trump is powerful. His words will surely kill again,” he tweeted. The Hill, The Independent and Business Insider all reported on it. A recent tweet from @ProjectLincoln shifted the crosshairs from Trump to the GOP as a whole: “Our mission is clear: Destroy the Republican Party.”

His Twitter feed is vibrant as ever, launching near-daily attacks on Trump, the politician some think he helped create. But no longer is he ducking battles or dodging punches. In a 2012 interview, he reminisced, “I’m not sure I want to spend the rest of my career waiting to pounce like a cat the moment the other side says something stupid.” It seems that remorseful side of Schmidt is once again gone.

But, as Politico editor John Harris wrote, “A willingness to stoop to Trump’s level, in fact, was a basic premise of The Lincoln Project — they would rally opposition and get in his head by practicing the politics of personality and insult just like he does.” The difference, Harris notes, is that Schmidt and his allies were viewed as the “good guys.”

But this year’s revelations make that image much more complicated. Schmidt fully embraced the rough-and-tumble tactics of his sworn enemy. In November, at the ballot box, some might say it worked. But it cost Schmidt relationships and credibility. And when the questions around money and scandal and secrecy started to paint the organization in a bad light, Schmidt — 2,000 miles away from Mar-a-Lago, perched in his Park City palace — seemed to follow a script taken from the former president he so vehemently opposed.

Lay low, wait out the storm, and then heave one more rhetorical harpoon.