Lincoln Project backers consider cutting off donations after misconduct allegations as co-founder Steve Schmidt quits board

In this Jan. 20, 2016 file photo, John Weaver is shown on a campaign bus in Bow, N.H. The Lincoln Project was launched in November 2019 as a super PAC that allowed its leaders to raise and spend unlimited sums of money.

Charles Krupa | AP

The Lincoln Project, the group of conservative operatives that made a splash with viral ads targeting former President Donald Trump, is at risk of losing financial support after one of its founders was accused of sexual misconduct.

Several wealthy donors are considering cutting off their backing for the political action committee, according to people close to these financiers. They are paying especially close attention to the results of an external investigation into whether other leaders knew about allegations that co-founder John Weaver harassed several men, these people added.

Shortly after this article was published, Steve Schmidt, another co-founder of the group, resigned from the board after controversy over the public disclosure of a private Twitter direct message between former Lincoln Project co-founder Jennifer Horn and a reporter.

“That direct message should never have been made public. It is my job as the senior leader to accept responsibility for the tremendous misjudgment to release it,” Schmidt said.

In a letter announcing his resignation, Schmidt apologized to Horn, who recently quit the group, and revealed he had been sexually molested by a medic while a 13-year-old boy at a Boy Scout camp.

Schmidt, who has denied previously knowing about the allegations against Weaver until recently, said “John Weaver has put me back into that faraway cabin with Ray, my Boy Scout leader. I am incandescently angry about it. I am angry because I know the damage that he caused to me, and I know the journey that lies ahead for every young man that trusted, feared and was abused by John Weaver.”

Several of the people close to the group’s donors declined to be named because they were concerned about retribution by Lincoln Project leaders and their allies.

Despite numerous reports to the contrary, The Lincoln Project — whose original members include late Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign boss Schmidt, author and former George H.W. Bush campaign advisor Rick Wilson and conservative lawyer George Conway — has denied it was aware of any allegations of misconduct against Weaver until recently. The group condemned Weaver’s behavior on Jan. 31.

Weaver told The New York Times in January that he was a closeted gay man and that he’s “truly sorry to these men and everyone and for letting so many people down.”

The Lincoln Project said Thursday that it is “retaining a best-in-class outside professional to review Mr. Weaver’s tenure with the organization and to establish both accountability and best practices going forward for The Lincoln Project.”

The FBI is investigating the allegations against Weaver, as well, according to independent journalist Yashar Ali, who cited sources claiming to be contacted by agents.

The Lincoln Project did not respond to CNBC’s follow-up requests for comment.

The group will need continued financial support if it intends to keep pursuing its stated mission to target pro-Trump politicians and the former president. Reportedly, the group has been looking to form a media business. It already has a live online show called “LPTV.” A representative from United Talent Agency, which reportedly had been in talks to build out the group’s media presence, did not respond to a request for comment.

The PAC raised over $87 million, much of it from several Democratic megadonors. Leaders of the organization were so confident in their fundraising prowess that some organizers told CNBC in May that they were planning to approach billionaire and former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg for a donation. Records show that Bloomberg did not end up contributing.

A large portion of The Lincoln Project’s spending went toward paying vendors owned by its leaders. The group was founded in December 2019.

Donor Jen Pritzker, a member of the wealthy and influential Pritzker family, suggested that she may stop giving money to the group in light of the allegations against Weaver. Pritzker contributed to President Joe Biden’s joint fundraising committee and other Democratic groups.

“I believed in the Lincoln Project’s mission and supported its efforts aimed to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump,” Pritzker told CNBC in a statement. “As a donor, I trusted that my gift would be used to further support the organization’s objectives. Sexual misconduct is something that cannot be tolerated by any organization. Anyone can be a victim and these allegations should be treated with respect for the law, and human rights.”

A spokeswoman for Pritzker’s Tawani Enterprises said Pritzker hadn’t made a decision yet on whether she will contribute in the future.

Pritzker gave $100,000 to The Lincoln Project in October, Federal Election Commission records show. John Pritzker, another member of the family, also gave the group $100,000. He did not respond to a request for comment.

When asked by CNBC whether Jeffrey Katzenberg would stop giving to The Lincoln Project, an advisor for the Hollywood power player didn’t rule it out. “Not our focus,” the advisor said in an email. Katzenberg gave $100,000 to the PAC in August, records said. Katzenberg was also a major Biden bundler.

Meanwhile, CNBC has learned that two previous Lincoln Project vendors won’t be working with the group again.

Aaron, Thomas & Associates, which calls itself a specialist in political direct mail, received over $90,000 from the group in September, records show. The firm’s work with the group had ceased before the Weaver allegations arose, but the company has decided not to accept further business from The Lincoln Project.

“Absolutely not,” founder Fred Thomas said in response to CNBC’s inquiry about whether it would work with The Lincoln Project again. “When we quoted doing this work, we were not even aware of what it was or who it was for. We ended up brokering it out to someone else anyways,” he added, noting that his company “don’t care to produce negative mail.”

Anedot, a campaign donation processor that was used by The Lincoln Project in the last election cycle, is closing its account with the group, according to a company representative who declined to be named.

“Anedot has recently been made aware of certain incidents that caused our Accounts team to notify the account holder that the account would be closed,” the representative said.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says Anedot was paid over $3 million in fees during the 2020 cycle. The Anedot representative said it does not disclose reasons for closing accounts.

As for The Lincoln Project building its media business, CNBC reached out to Zeldavision, a livestreaming production company that received over $1 million from the group. The business promotes a partnership with the PAC. According to Zeldavision’s website, it also appears to be helping produce The Lincoln Project’s live content.

The firm did not respond when asked whether it will stand by the PAC going forward.

Tara Setmayer, who labels herself on her Twitter page as a senior advisor and who has hosted an LPTV show, declared that she was “dismayed & disappointed” by recent events surrounding The Lincoln Project.

“It cannot be tolerated. More to say soon,” Setmayer added.

—CNBC’s Dan Mangan contributed to this report.

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