Inside The Controversy At The Lincoln Project: Sexual Harassment, 'Toxic' Workplace Culture, And More

Photo: lincolnproject.us
Lincoln Project

Anti-Trump Republican political action committee The Lincoln Project rapidly rose to prominence last year with its popular ad campaigns, television appearances, and viral social media activity. But in recent weeks, the organization has been facing a rapid and catastrophic decline.

Last month, sexual harassment allegations surfaced against political consultant John Weaver, a co-founder of the committee. 

In the wake of this revelation, further complaints against the Lincoln Project have come to light. 

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Parties with knowledge of the project have alleged that its leaders had prior knowledge of Weaver’s conduct, and did not come forward or take sufficient action to intervene.

Many have referenced rampant sexism, homophobia, and verbal abuse within the organization, and said that its leadership was fraught with internal conflict.

Conflicting statements have stoked the flames of political disputes, and internet users and the media are rushing to uncover who knew what when.

Amidst the developing controversy, the once-powerful PAC is floundering, and several of its senior members have stepped down. 

So what, exactly, happened at the Lincoln Project? Here’s what we know so far about the allegations against Weaver, reports of workplace corruption, and claims that the committee conspired to conceal it all.

The allegations against John Weaver emerged in mid-January when the American Conservative published an article referencing firsthand accounts of predatory interactions with the public figure. 

Numerous men have since claimed that Weaver reached out to them, offering advice and assistance in their political aspirations, only for the conversation to devolve into unwanted sexual comments and queries. 

Weaver reportedly sent numerous unwanted sexual messages to the men, including explicit images of his genitalia. 

One accuser was only 14 when Weaver began to communicate with him, including asking inappropriate questions about his body, and escalating after he reached legal age.

Many recipients felt obligated to endure the powerful man’s advances in order to avoid missing a career opportunity or even being blacklisted.

University of Texas graduate Alex Johnson told Intelligencer that Weaver sent him inappropriate messages, and got him an internship at the Lincoln Project. The harassment continued, but Johnson was afraid to speak out.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if I say something wrong, they’re gonna let me go or get rid of me,’” he said.

“It just seemed like he was exploiting his power,” another alleged victim told the New York Times. “He was someone very important and high up in a field I want to go into.”

While Weaver has not been accused of any physical assaults or unlawful conduct, many of these contacts accused him of grooming them, a process in which predators condition potential victims who are young and impressionable by slowly and methodically normalizing their advances. 

Linda Yael Schiller, MSW, LICSW, trauma expert, and author of Modern Dreamwork: New Tools for Decoding Your Soul’s Wisdom (Llewellyn, 2019) and forthcoming book, PTSDreams: Transforming Nightmares into Healing (pub. pending 2022, Llewellyn) explained the dangerous mechanics of grooming. 

“It is like the story of how to cook a frog,” Schiller allegorized. “If you put a frog into boiling water it will hop out, but if you put a frog into lukewarm water and gradually turn the heat up till it is boiling the frog will not notice until it is too late and boil to death.”

Weaver admitted to the interactions in a statement on January 15th.

“The truth is that I’m gay. 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,” Weaver said.

“To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you.”

The statement shows that Weaver did not clearly admit to abusive conduct, but rather apologized for how recipients felt about his actions, which reads as potentially dismissive.

Since the allegations against him were in an early stage of exposure, Weaver may have been attempting to minimize their true extent.

But although it is often considered a minor offense, remote sexual harassment like Weaver’s can have a harmful long-term impact on its recipients. 

Schiller also said that “long-lasting effects” of unwanted sexual advances “can include an ongoing sense of shame, worry that they were somehow to blame,” and “feeling silenced and unable to speak up for and defend oneself,” which “can carry over to their personal relationships if not addressed and healed.”

Workplace harassment specifically, she says, is known to cause “ongoing workplace difficulties for the victims if they carry the fear of power, and sexualized misuse of power with them to other workplaces.”

RELATED: How To Know If You're A Victim Of Sexual Harassment At Work (& What To Do Next)

Weaver’s promises of mentorship and career advancement, and practice of granting job opportunities to his targets in return for sexual compliance, probably further contributed to their psychological trauma. 

According to Ph.D. candidate, Psychotherapist and Founder & CEO of ME-Therapy Emy Tafelski, “this type of behavior is harmful because it breaks down the power and confidence of the abused individual.”

“It confuses the idea of where worth comes from,” Tafelski explained.

The Lincoln Project released a statement on Jan. 31 in which the group categorically denied prior knowledge of Weaver’s behavior, saying the former co-founder “led a secret life.”

“We are absolutely shocked and sickened,” the statement read.

Committee co-founder and acting leader Steve Schmidt stepped down from his board position on Friday, Feb. 12, amidst the growing controversy. Schmidt says he was unaware of Weaver’s misconduct until last month.

In a shocking statement, Schmidt revealed that he was himself a survivor of sexual abuse, having been molested by a summer camp counselor as a young boy.

Schmidt called the experience “a defining moment in my life,” and said it left him permanently plagued by feelings of “anger, shame and depression.”

The political strategist maintained that he had been unaware of Weaver’s misdeeds.

“I have said on the record that I learned about John Weaver’s misconduct this past January,” Schmidt wrote. “I know this is true, and I have certainty that the Lincoln Project independent investigation into John Weaver’s conduct will validate this.”

He referred to Weaver as “a liar and a predator.”

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However, sources connected to the organization have contended that Schmidt, among other committee members, was informed of the allegations several months before the story came to light.

The 19th reported that, according to informants, “In June, multiple members of the Lincoln Project’s senior leadership team were told in conversations and in writing about allegations that Weaver had sexually harassed young men.”

“By August, nearly all of the co-founders still with the project were aware.”

It was around this time that Weaver apparently suffered a heart attack and left the Lincoln Project, leading many to question his purported medical emergency. The information also directly refutes Steve Schmidt’s public comments.

Schmidt’s statement also included an apology to fellow co-founder Jennifer Horn, who resigned from the organization in early February.

Following Horn’s resignation, the Lincoln Project Twitter account shared a statement claiming that she had left because of financial demands that were denied by the organization.

The account also tweeted a series of screenshots from Horn’s private messages that were apparently accessed without her permission and accused her of conspiring in a “smear job” against the committee.

The thread was quickly deleted after co-founder George Conway, who left the organization last August, pointed out that it seemed to be in “violation of federal law.” 

Horn has since revealed that she experienced gender-based discrimination as the only female co-founder of the organization.

In a statement given to the New York Times, Horn wrote, “Despite my co-founder status, I was never part of, or included in, the Lincoln Project’s inner circle, which maintained tight operational control of the organization.”

She also claimed that she was “yelled at, demeaned and lied to,” after objecting to the organization’s response to the allegations against Weaver, which she said was published “without my knowledge or input.”

When she demanded that the group further investigate the situation, Horn said, her “suggestions were rejected outright.”

She was not alone in alleging unfair conditions at the Lincoln Project.

According to the accounts of multiple other employees and contractors who had worked with the committee, women were scarcely recruited. Those who were involved, including Horn, were kept out of leading roles.

Over twenty current and former associates of the Lincoln Project reportedly described a tense and “toxic” work environment.

RELATED: 5 Damaging Effects Of A Toxic Work Environment On Your Body & Mind

The sources cited frequent infighting, wage discrepancies, and disputes over PR appearances and the allocation of funds.

Many claimed that sexist language and homophobic slurs were commonplace among senior members of the PAC, causing discomfort among its younger staff.

The majority said they were afraid to speak publicly, as leaders were inclined to “go nuclear” when confronted with threats to the committee’s image.

The New York Times published an open letter from six former Lincoln Project employees who demanded to be released from the nondisclosure agreements that prevented them from commenting on the Weaver case.

They criticized the committee’s Feb. 11 statement that anyone who wished to be released from their agreement should “contact The Lincoln Project” directly.

“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,” the letter stated. 

Its authors further expressed “reasonable fear of retaliation" from the Lincoln Project, citing Schmidt’s public attacks against Horn and others, as well as the committee’s denial of prior knowledge of the allegations.

In cases such as this one, such reservations are common and often well-founded. Victims of workplace sexual harassment often have a “sense of being trapped,” Schiller says, because “success in the field is threatened if they complain or do not comply.”

The Lincoln Project officially released its current and former staff from their NDAs on Monday, Feb. 15.

Since then, more claims have been made regarding committee leaders’ knowledge of Weaver’s misconduct.

The Lincoln Project’s managing partner and former executive director, Sarah Lenti, confirmed that some of the committee’s founding members had been clued in to the situation as early as March of last year. 

Several informants said that Schmidt was among them, further refuting the co-founder’s recent statements.

We don’t know the whole story – yet.

The investigation at the Lincoln Project is ongoing, and official findings have yet to be released. The law firm Paul Hastings has been retained by the Lincoln Project to investigate the allegations against Weaver and to perform a "comprehensive review" of the PAC’s inner works. 

However, it has recently been reported that partners in the firm have previously donated to the Lincoln Project.

Reactions to the scandal have been polarized.

Many have come out in defense of the Lincoln Project, including committee member Stuart Stevens, who announced on Twitter that its dissolution would benefit former-President Trump and urged his audience to “pick a side.”

Considering the political nature of the Lincoln Project, there are motives to be questioned on both sides of the controversy, and reactions to the developments have blurred the lines between legitimate exposé and smear campaign. Voices both for and against the organization are loud and angry, and practically everyone involved has been accused of spreading lies.

The swift rise and fall of the Lincoln Project highlights the deep divide among the American people and shows just how willing we have become to toss aside personal values in favor of attacking the Other.

“I’ve been fighting for a long time,” Steve Schmidt wrote in his statement. “I’m tired.”

What do you think about the Lincoln Project controversy? Let us know in the comments below.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual harassment and/or abuse, you are not alone. Visit RAINN.org for resources or call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). 

RELATED: The Full List Of 25 Women Accusing Donald Trump Of Sexual Assault — And The Details Of Each Claim

Allie McGlone is a writer who covers a variety of topics for YourTango, including pop culture and entertainment.