The Lincoln Project has a lot to explain about what it knew of co-founder John Weaver’s sexual harassment and when it knew of it. The Associated Press reports this morning that they may need to explain where their money went, too. According to their sources and data, more than half of the group’s $90 million fundraising went to firms controlled by its founding members:
Despite the early warning, the group took no action against Weaver and pressed forward with its high-profile work. For the collection of GOP consultants and former officials, being anti-Trump was becoming very good for business. Of the $90 million Lincoln Project has raised, more than $50 million has gone to firms controlled by the group’s leaders. …
Since its creation, the Lincoln Project has raised $90 million. But only about a third of the money, roughly $27 million, directly paid for advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable, or appeared online, during the 2020 campaign, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures and data from the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.
That leaves tens of millions of dollars that went toward expenses like production costs, overhead — and exorbitant consulting fees collected by members of the group.
“It raises questions about where the rest of the money ultimately went,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “Generally speaking, you’d expect to see a major super PAC spend a majority or more of their money on advertisements and that’s not what happened here.”
Steve Peoples and Brian Slodysko dig into the personal finances of the founders and found them to be … refreshed during their Lincoln period. Co-founder Steve Schmidt bought a custom home in Utah, while Weaver paid off some longstanding debts and back taxes that stretched over a decade. This, the two reporters suggest, puts a new light on why The Lincoln Project buried their Weaver problem:
But as money flowed into the group, multiple people with direct knowledge said allegations against Weaver were repeatedly raised inside the organization, long before leaders acknowledged them publicly in late January. Those with knowledge insisted on anonymity in order to disclose private communications.
The implication is that having Weaver exposed risked bringing the money train to a screeching halt. That could be a little bit of a stretch, as the group might have done better in the long run to quickly disclose the issues with Weaver and kick him out. In the post-Weinstein era, that kind of fast response can build credibility — although they then might have had to explain why the founders ignored rumors of Weaver’s predatory behavior going back decades in the first place.
At the very least, that kind of exposure could have slowed down their income, at a time when they would have expected to maximize it — in the 2020 general election. With the potential end of their raison d’etre coming in January 2021 if Trump lost, perhaps they might have preferred to make hay while the sun shined. That would explain the timing of their disclosure too, just as the market for their business model had come to an end.
Schmidt gave a typically defiant response when asked about what happened to the money, and not necessarily entirely wrong either:
“We fully comply with the law,” Schmidt said. “The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so, explaining the cash flow of the nearly $700 million that flowed through their organizations controlled by Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner.”
If the only issue here is transparency, then Schmidt’s right. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, in other words. But that’s not the only issue here, and Schmidt has to know that. He and his partners started The Lincoln Project to supposedly counter the corruption they saw around Trump and convinced people to send them money to oppose him. If they spent only a third of their money on those activities and put more than half of it into their own pockets, then the issue isn’t transparency — it’s the grift. And the hypocrisy.
So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps just that we should be skeptical when people pitch themselves as saviors of democracy (or drainers of swamps) while trying to pick our pockets, especially when those “saviors” don’t open their books. In those cases, we can feel free to hate both the game and its players.