The crisis engulfing the anti-Trump group, the Lincoln Project, worsened on Friday when Steve Schmidt, a co-founder, abruptly resigned from the board and former employees renewed their demands for release from nondisclosure agreements to provide more information on the organization’s handling of allegations of harassment against another co-founder, John Weaver.
Mr. Schmidt will remain with the organization as an executive after taking temporary leave. He resigned from the board to quell growing fury around the Lincoln Project, but only joined the board after the November election.
In an extraordinary statement Friday night, Mr Schmidt described being sexually assaulted as a teenager, referring to his own experience as he sought to explain his widely criticized response to the allegations against Mr Weaver.
“I am extremely angry about this,” he said of Mr Weaver’s actions, which involved unwanted sex messages to many young men. He added, referring to the man he claimed had assaulted him: “I am angry because I know the damage he has done to me, and I know the journey that awaits every young man who trusted, feared and abused by John Weaver. “
Mr Schmidt reiterated his claim that he only learned of Mr Weaver’s behavior last month. However, a former Lincoln Project employee told the New York Times Mr Schmidt knew about it by October 2020 at the latest. The former employee described being in the room when Mr. Schmidt mentioned it.
Mr Schmidt released his statement Friday evening after a lawyer for a third co-founder, Jennifer Horn, sent the Lincoln Project a notice directing them to keep the documents in anticipation of a trial, according to a person familiar with the communications .
This week’s turmoil has been deeply damaging to Project Lincoln, which has emerged over the past year as the main group of Republicans opposed to the presidency of Donald J. Trump. He skewered Mr. Trump with mocking ads and drew a large following to the left.
But the group’s leadership has fractured since the elections. Two board members, Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, left in December. George T. Conway III, another key figure, is also gone. Ms Horn recently resigned, making a scathing statement, and on Thursday the group tweeted their private Twitter messages with a reporter.
Those tweets were then deleted, and Mr Schmidt said in his statement: “This direct message should never have been made public. It is my job as a senior leader to accept responsibility for the enormous error in judgment that led to his release. He apologized to Ms. Horn, calling her “an important and valuable member of our team”.
Also on Friday, the host of a show on the group’s media branch resigned after less than a week. And a leading international affairs expert, prominent anti-Trump conservative Tom Nichols, has said he is stepping down as an unpaid adviser to the group.
The backlash against Project Lincoln began with the revelation last month that Mr Weaver had repeatedly harassed young men and at least one minor. It escalated Thursday with published reports that executives were aware of last year’s harassment and failed to act, the demand of former workers to be released from their NDAs and the unauthorized publication of the Twitter messages from Ms. Horn.
Senior Project Lincoln officials said Thursday evening they were hiring an outside investigator to review Mr Weaver’s tenure, promising transparency and saying Mr Weaver’s conduct “must be considered.”
Ms Horn, who resigned from Project Lincoln last week, said in a statement Thursday that she had recently learned that other leaders in the group had ignored warnings about Mr Weaver’s conduct. In addition to the former employee who said Mr Schmidt had known him in October, several other people who worked for the group said executives knew even earlier.
The young men Ms. Horn spoke with were “hurt that their experiences were denied, angry that they had been used and to whom they had lied, and fearful of being targeted again,” she wrote in his statement. “When I spoke to one of the founders to share my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, belittled and lied to.
Further disclosures could be imminent. Eight former employees and associates – six Thursday night and two more Friday – have now signed the letter requesting the release of their NDAs. The signatories have not yet spoken publicly, but have provided a copy of the letter to the New York Times, and their identities are known to The Times.
They said they were not comfortable contacting the organization directly to be released from their NDAs, as Project Lincoln executives suggested in a statement.
“It is absurd, unreasonable and insensitive” to expect victims and their loved ones to contact and engage the people and organizations accused of protecting the very predator in question.
Another controversy erupted Thursday night when the Lincoln Project posted screenshots of Ms Horn’s Twitter account, revealing her direct messages with a reporter, then quickly deleted them. Unauthorized access to a social media account may be illegal, depending on the circumstances.
These positions were the last straw for Mr. Nichols, an international affairs expert at the US Naval War College, who announced Friday that he was ending his ties with the organization.
“I have been considering whether to continue my association for some time,” Nichols said in an email to The Times. “I was shocked by the contemptible behavior of John Weaver and concerned about the ongoing public conflict between the directors, but made my final decision yesterday when Jennifer Horn’s personal messages were released. I’m glad they are hiring an outside advisor to help them sort it out, and hopefully there will be accountability for what happened with Weaver.
Mr Nichols said that as a volunteer he had no idea of the internal governance of the group.
Mr Weaver, 61, is a longtime Republican presidential campaign adviser who rose to prominence in John McCain’s races in 2000 and 2008 and also worked for John Kasich in 2016. The Times reported on last month, based on interviews with 21 young men, whom Mr Weaver had for years sent unsolicited and sexually provocative messages online.
The youngest person the Times interviewed was 14 when Mr. Weaver first contacted him; the messages became overtly sexual after she turned 18.
The Associated Press and New York Magazine on Thursday, citing unidentified former employees, reported that Lincoln Project executives were aware of Mr. Weaver’s behavior last summer, which Mr. Schmidt continued to say. deny. Mr Weaver took medical leave from the group in August and announced last month that he would not be returning.
In its statement Thursday, the Lincoln Project said Mr. Weaver had “betrayed all of us” and called in “a top notch outside professional” to “establish both accountability and best practices at the ‘to come up”.
At the same time, leaders of the group have repeatedly dismissed reports of when they learned of Mr Weaver’s behavior and Ms Horn’s resignation, as jobs hit by supporters of former President Donald J. Trump.
The eight former employees and associates expressed their anger over this in their open letter. To insinuate that their efforts were a right-wing attack, they wrote, “is not in line with the values we are committed to upholding, and is like the tactics and behavior we joined Project Lincoln to defeat.”