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The Real Lincoln Project Scandal

Political grifter Steve Schmidt used homophobia to distract from his own sins—and everyone just let him get away with it

by
James Kirchick
February 19, 2021
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Steve SchmidtJamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Steve SchmidtJamie McCarthy/Getty Images

The most destructive and enduring slander against gay men is that they prey on children. Boys Beware, a 1961 educational film distributed to schools across the country, offers a glimpse of the menacing place which the homosexual occupied in the postwar American public imagination. The film follows a young boy named “Jimmy,” who after a baseball game with his friends hitchhikes a ride home from “Ralph,” a friendly, mustached man in sunglasses. The next day, Ralph waits for Jimmy in the same spot, and buys him a Coke. A week later, Ralph takes Jimmy fishing and shows him a few dirty pictures, piquing the innocent youngster’s curiosity. “What Jimmy didn’t know,” the narrator intones over this ominous depiction of adolescent grooming, “was that Ralph was sick—a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious—a sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual: a person who demands an intimate relationship with members of their own sex.”

In 1978, three years after the federal government rescinded its prohibition on homosexuals in the civil service, a ballot measure to ban gay people from teaching in public schools on the grounds that they “recruited” children into their deviant lifestyle came close to becoming law in California. It was not until 2015 that the Boy Scouts permitted “open or avowed homosexuals” to become leaders within the organization. When the actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey in 2017 of sexually assaulting him decades earlier, and Spacey responded by coming out of the closet, gay men were rightly outraged. Spacey’s belated revelation was not just a cynical distraction from allegedly criminal behavior and a bid for public sympathy. It was a conflation of our common identity with the closest thing we have to a blood libel.

John McCain looks over some documents with John Weaver, his campaign adviser, 2000

John McCain looks over some documents with John Weaver, his campaign adviser, 2000Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

This is the world of shame, repression, and deceit that Republican political operative John Weaver inhabited for 61 years while posing as a truth-teller and a man of conscience. The former John McCain adviser, co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and married father, last month admitted to sending sexual propositions via text and Twitter to numerous young men over the course of several years, sometimes with promises of jobs and professional advancement attached. In every case but one—a 14-year-old recipient with whom Weaver did not communicate anything overtly sexual until he was 18—the lurid missives were directed at legal adults. Regardless, Weaver’s actions were unprofessional and awful—a clear abuse of his position and power.

In the ongoing meltdown of the Lincoln Project, however, it’s not John Weaver whose behavior stands out for being the most morally depraved. That badge of dishonor belongs to fellow Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt, who, precisely at the moment of his former colleague’s personal and professional ruin, decided to revive the calumny associating gay men with pedophilia.

Schmidt’s political judgment and personal ethics can be summed up in his signal contribution to American political life: Sarah Palin. As John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign manager, Schmidt persuaded McCain to select the former Alaska governor as his running mate, only to start disparaging her off the record to reporters once her unfitness became manifest. According to the late senator’s daughter Meghan, McCain “despised” Schmidt and Weaver, and “made it a point to ban” them from his funeral. No one in her family would “spit on them if they were on fire,” she added.

Last Friday, faced with mounting accusations that he and other Lincoln Project leaders had been aware of Weaver’s behavior for months and tried to cover it up, Schmidt announced his resignation from the group’s board—but not before offering his own testimony of personal sexual torment to rival that of his disgraced comrade in arms. “It was just a touch—a light one—and it lasted for only a moment,” begins Schmidt’s statement, entitled “My truth,” which recounts a fateful summer day at Rock Hill Boy Scout Camp nearly four decades ago. A rash of mosquito bites sent Schmidt to the infirmary, where the nurse whose excessively tactile physical examinations had earned him the moniker “Gay Ray” among the other campers asked him to disrobe. “It happened almost precisely like the older kids said it would,” Schmidt writes. “I remember being paralyzed as his hands moved up my body and brushed over my penis.”

Though it was “a touch on a table at age 13 that lasted seconds,” Schmidt says, this moment “has been a defining event in my life.” Indeed, Gay Ray “would immolate” Schmidt’s “faith in the Catholic Church.” Decades later, working in the George W. Bush White House and wracked by spiritual crisis, Schmidt sought counsel from the archbishop of Washington, D.C., who also happened to be the priest who presided over his confirmation: Theodore McCarrick. When accusations of abuse were later leveled at McCarrick, Schmidt’s belief in the Almighty itself was “permanently shattered.” Except not really, because Schmidt has since been able “to find faith again … during the process of my conversion to Judaism.”

What Schmidt’s tale of innocence lost—and ostensibly regained—has to do with the actual matter at hand—namely, his alleged culpability in covering up the improper behavior of a colleague—is a mystery, one he desperately wants the MSNBC executives who gave him a lucrative contributor contract, the political reporters to whom he’s long been a steady source of self-serving bullshit, and the liberal gazillionaires whose generosity (and credulity) in funding the Lincoln Project enabled him to purchase a $1.4 million “Mountain Modern” custom home (which he’s now trying to flip for over twice that amount), to overlook. Or maybe it’s not such a mystery after all.

The purpose of Schmidt’s unnervingly blithe, three-page account of alleged childhood sexual abuse, which ends with a perfunctory announcement of his forthcoming appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, becomes comprehensible once it’s placed within the context of all the other scandals engulfing the Lincoln Project, scandals that cast Schmidt and his associates in a decidedly less admirable light than the halo which media outlets ranging from 60 Minutes to The New Yorker collectively bestowed upon them during the 2020 presidential election.

From its founding, the Lincoln Project has been little more than a slickly produced grift aimed at parting gullible liberals from their money. Schmidt joined the operation after his previous political gravy train, the vanity presidential campaign of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, dissolved like coffee grounds. The Lincoln Project’s “Super PAC” status allowed it to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, and it amassed nearly $90 million in donations last year.

So where did the money go? According to the Associated Press, only a third went toward airing the Lincoln Project’s attention-grabbing television advertisements, which a post-election study found had little effect on swing voters in battleground states despite being extremely popular online. But the standard metric for gauging the effectiveness of a political action committee—persuading persuadable voters—doesn’t apply to the Lincoln Project. Its primary constituency was never middle-of-the-road voters but self-satisfied liberals, and its mission wasn’t defeating Donald Trump but motivating said liberals into writing checks. The group’s ads, distinguished for the way they matched Trump sophomoric insult for sophomoric insult, consistently went viral among people who needed the least convincing that the former president was a demagogue and a disgrace, the people, that is, most likely to donate to the Lincoln Project.

Of the remaining money, nearly all of it—$50 million—was deposited into the coffers of a handful of consulting firms owned by Lincoln Project founders. One of these men, a formerly little-known Florida GOP consultant named Rick Wilson, has since 2016 reveled in his role as Jeff Foxworthy for the #Resistance Wine Mom set, his persona as a cornpone trash-talker suffusing the group and its public profile. Before the Lincoln Project offered Wilson a shot at far vaster chicanery, he raised $65,000 in a GoFundMe campaign for a never-produced documentary based on his illuminating yet subtle work of political theory, Everything Trump Touches Dies. And in his earlier life, Wilson specialized in making the political attack ads that clog the nation’s airwaves every other November. The most infamous of these challenged the patriotism of Democratic Senator, Vietnam War veteran, and triple amputee Max Cleland—an ad that McCain denounced as “reprehensible.”

The lesson to be gleaned from the implosion of the Lincoln Project is the lesson to be gleaned from so much of American public life over the past four years, which is that no individual, political party, ideological movement, or institution has a monopoly on virtue.

Choking on cash, the Lincoln Project announced plans last October—two weeks before the election—to transform itself into a “media business” that would produce podcasts, television shows, documentaries, and feature films. Those ambitions seemed premature, and not just because the election that was the group’s raison d’être—upon which the very survival of American democracy, it kept telling us, was at stake—had yet to transpire. As was eventually confirmed after Nov. 3, 2020, when exit polls showed that Trump increased his support among GOP voters by 6 points, this organization founded by dissident Republicans for the express purpose of persuading other Republicans not to vote for the Republican president failed miserably. No matter. “I believe we built the most successful and politically lethal SuperPAC in history,” Schmidt declares in his statement. Mission accomplished.

Challenged by Bill Maher on its failure to turn Republicans against Trump, Schmidt touted the Lincoln Project’s “streaming services and podcast services.” (Maher also criticized the group for stealing one of his jokes, which alongside its record of plagiarizing tweets, illustrates the extent to which grift permeates its very essence.) When Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—herself an amazingly accomplished online fundraiser—accused the Lincoln Project of operating in “scam territory,” Schmidt ham-handedly responded to the former bartender and progressive star with what he presumably thought to be an olive branch, writing on Twitter, “We disagree on many issues and that is ok in our view. Btw, we don’t look down on waitresses.” Gross.

It was not until January, once the Lincoln Project’s usefulness as a Republican-flagged front organization within the spectacularly large universe of #Resistance vanguard grifting became obsolete, that the mainstream media decided to treat it with the scrutiny they ought to have demonstrated from the moment a group of washed-up and indebted GOP political consultants decided to defile the legacy of our nation’s greatest president in a scheme to pay off back taxes and mortgages. A week after The New York Times published a story revealing that 21 men had accused Weaver of inappropriate communications, a New Hampshire GOP official and Lincoln Project co-founder named Jennifer Horn resigned. Determined to protect his group’s reputation, Schmidt took to Twitter to sow doubt about Horn’s motivations, writing that she had “stated her goal was to ‘establish immediate and long term financial security’ from the Lincoln Project” with demands for a $40,000-per-month consulting fee, a $250,000 signing bonus, and a television show. Unlike Horn, whom he smeared as a money-grubbing fraud, Schmidt and his Lincoln Project colleagues “are in the Democracy fight,” he explained on Twitter.

As with so much else about this organization, Schmidt’s imputation of venality was a case of projection. According to numerous people interviewed by Amanda Becker of The 19th, Schmidt frequently referred to the Lincoln Project as a means of securing “generational wealth.” (In a possible violation of federal law, the Lincoln Project tweeted screenshots of Horn’s private Twitter communications with Becker). Asked by the Associated Press to share his group’s financial data, Schmidt responded that “The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so,” a grown-up’s lame imitation of the childhood taunt “I know you are but what am I?” Topping off these two weeks of terrible press, New York reported that the Lincoln Project leadership had been aware of the accusations against Weaver for months, and that last fall Schmidt and Wilson were telling employees that their colleague was “depraved” and “twisted.”

In light of all this, Schmidt’s retailing his “truth” about the three-second long brush of his 13-year-old penis with the hand of a “gay” man must be understood as a deflection mechanism, a means of evading responsibility for the miasma of vindictiveness, greed and deception in which he’s so deeply implicated. Schmidt has very little to say about these multifarious corruptions, which is understandable given how he and his accomplices treated an outfit they heralded as vital for the defense of American democracy like a personal kitty. But he’s eager to let the world know that not only is his former colleague John Weaver a homosexual pedophile, but a homosexual pedophile in the same league as Gay Ray of Rock Hill Boy Scout Camp—Yimakh shemo.

“John Weaver has put me back into that faraway cabin with Ray, my Boy Scout leader,” Schmidt writes of this mysterious character, who sounds like a cross between the head counselor played by Bill Murray in Meatballs and Uncle Monty from Withnail and I. “I am incandescently angry about it. I am angry because I know the damage that he caused me, and I know the journey that lies ahead for every young man that trusted, feared and was abused by John Weaver.”

Let’s put aside the fact that John Weaver, whatever his many sins, “abused” nobody and nothing—except the trust of his family, who will also suffer the consequences of his pitiful inability to more fully and honestly integrate his sexuality into his life. What Steve Schmidt wants everyone to understand is that Steve Schmidt is a victim here, too. And a victim not only of “Gay Ray” but John Weaver, whom, for the crime of sinking their common grift, Schmidt has transformed from a lecherous closet-case into a criminal pedophile. “I know John Weaver will be a lifelong companion for them in the way that Ray has been for me,” Schmidt declared, accusing Weaver of forcing him to relive his childhood suffering. Far be it from any of us to judge a fellow man or woman on the sensitive subjects of sexuality and personal traumas, but in this case I feel fine making an exception: what blatantly unscrupulous, exploitative, homophobic crap.

The lesson to be gleaned from the implosion of the Lincoln Project is the lesson to be gleaned from so much of American public life over the past four years, which is that no individual, political party, ideological movement, or institution has a monopoly on virtue—and that those who loudly insist otherwise are likely to be guilty of the very things they claim to despise. (Andrew Cuomo, do you feel seen?) That this basic concept, engraved throughout recorded history and in human nature, has been so difficult for so many people in this country to accept, is at the heart of America’s continuing civic and political implosion, which shows no signs of abating even with Donald Trump exiled to Mar-a-Lago.

If the distinguishing feature of American conservatives—the attribute which ultimately inclines one to identify with what is still broadly understood to be the “right”—is anti-elite resentment, for progressives it is an unshakable belief in one’s moral superiority. Exhibit A is Schmidt’s non-apology apology, in which he mainly casts himself as a victim and lashes out at “the rancid collection of liars, thugs and fascists” among the former president’s supporters who have “attack[ed] my character and the character of my friends over John Weaver’s amoral predations.” (According to former Lincoln Project employees, while performing the role of noble Republican dissidents in public, Schmidt and his grifting pals regularly referred to their political opponents as “cocksuckers” and “faggots” behind closed doors). Down to his adoption of the faddish verbal tic “My Truth,” (an impressive demonstration of the lengths to which the political grifter—a breed transcending any simple notions of party affiliation, political ideology, or personal loyalty—will go to bamboozle whichever constituency it is they’re trying to dupe that particular day), Schmidt offers a master class in self-righteousness and blame-shifting. The invocation of child sexual abuse to distract attention from his own serious misdeeds, by a man who helped make Sarah Palin a phenom and today fashions himself a leading opponent of the mindless populism he ushered onto the American political stage, is but the latest act of opportunism in a career defined by them.

John Weaver owes the young men he harassed whatever forms of apology and reparation he is able to make. But the sins he committed in his private life pale next to the “amoral predations” of his erstwhile comrades, Steve Schmidt foremost among them, in the public arena.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.

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