The Lincoln Project is, on the surface, vehemently against Donald Trump ever becoming president of the United States again. The left-wing PAC founded by disgruntled ex-Republicans has called him a coward, a loser, an authoritarian, a clear and present danger to national security, and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
So co-founder Rick Wilson's expressed desire in a recent interview to see him be the Republican nominee in 2024 has some people befuddled, particularly with polls showing Trump with a solid chance of ousting President Biden in a rematch. Some see it as more of a scam from an organization that's attracted some praise for its aggressive tactics but also derision from the right and left for allegedly abandoning conservative principles and soaking liberal donors. It's still smarting from the embarrassing John Weaver sexual harassment scandal and its flop in the Virginia governor's race where it attempted a viral smear to paint Glenn Youngkin supporters as White supremacists.
"It begs the question, why? What's their motive? What's their motivation? And I can understand why a lot of people would say it has to do with money," one network insider and political commentator told Fox News Digital.
The Lincoln Project boasted to CNN about its ad airing this week in Trump's town of Palm Beach, Florida, that's meant to annoy him about the rising political star of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, a Republican, is allied with Trump but could be a potential rival 2024 contender.
"We want Trump to kill his own babies," Wilson said. "We believe if we narrow the field and it's only Trump in 2024, it's an easy choice for Americans to say 'no.'"
Former Lincoln Project executive director Sarah Lenti, who left the group this year, is disgusted by that stance.
She remains thoroughly opposed to Trump and joined the organization in 2020 because she believed he was dangerous, and she recalled the New York Times op-ed penned by co-founders Weaver, Wilson, Steve Schmidt and George Conway announcing the Lincoln Project's formation.
"As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character," they wrote.
Fast forward to today, she told Fox News Digital, and it feels like that mission has been abandoned.
"Wait, what happened to their higher calling?" she said. "If Trump was damaging to the country in 2019, why wish that on the American people today? If the democracy was and is truly at stake … why play with fire? Their goading of Trump is reckless, disgustingly unpatriotic, and utterly desperate. And, like Trump, their greed and desire to be relevant supersedes what is best for America."
Lenti said she was aware of the Weaver allegations in May 2020 and was accused by one of his harassment victims of brushing him off. Lenti said there was no truth to that whatsoever. She also said earlier this year that several co-founders were aware of the Weaver allegations as early as March of last year.
When Trump was president, times were good for the Lincoln Project. It brought in $90 million in 2020, winning media adoration and Democratic accolades for its trolling ads and vitriolic anti-Republican commentary. That former GOP hatchet men were working to oust a sitting GOP president delighted the liberal press to no end, but despite its ostensible commitment to more Bush-era Republicanism, it raised eyebrows as it tried to oust even moderates like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Since the calendar flipped and Biden took office, it's been a nightmarish year. The Lincoln Project was left humiliated by Weaver's resignation over his yearslong online harassment of young gay men, reports that higher-ups knew of the allegations months before they were claimed, accusations of financial mismanagement and a toxic work environment, and a nasty split with lone female co-founder Jennifer Horn culminating in the publication of her private messages with a reporter.
Then came its thud last month in the Virginia governor's race, when it admitted to orchestrating a widely panned race hoax meant to liken Youngkin supporters to tiki torch-wielding White supremacists. The stunt was blasted across the political spectrum, with the Charlottesville (Va.) City Council and the Terry McAuliffe campaign both condemning its actions, and Youngkin went on to victory the following week. Even Schmidt distanced himself from the disaster, calling his own organization "recklessly stupid."
Even as the Weaver scandal devastated the organization, there were already concerns about the group's actual effectiveness in persuading Trump-skeptical Republicans to support Biden, and whether co-founders were enriching themselves in the process. In the 2020 cycle, according to OpenSecrets, the Lincoln Project paid $27 million to co-founder Reed Galen's consulting firm, Summit Strategic Communications. Another $21 million went to co-founder Ron Steslow's Tusk, which did its digital advertising, according to the New York Times.
After its success in 2020, The New York Times reported Schmidt and its other leaders had designs on creating a billion-dollar global media empire out of the Lincoln Project. Then came the Weaver story and a flood of brutal headlines that had even former members calling on it to dissolve. It has staggered on, however, with figures like Schmidt and adviser Stuart Stevens still enjoying airtime on liberal cable news outlets MSNBC and CNN.
Journalist Ryan Girdusky, whose reporting helped break open the floodgate of sexual harassment allegations against Weaver, called the Lincoln Project a "wounded animal."
"Its fundraising numbers are down, the stint against Glenn Youngkin went belly up, and their cofounders are having breakdowns on Twitter," he told Fox News Digital. "They have one game plan; they think they can run again, get Trump to run and win the presidency in 2024 so they can restart the money machine. Getting feeble-minded liberal wine moms who believe everything Rachel Maddow tells them to donate again."
The Lincoln Project's intentions also raise questions about whether it will receive as much media adulation in the future. MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, an ex-Republican herself and one of the Lincoln Project's most fervent boosters, didn't reply to a request for comment on its tactics. Schmidt and Wilson have appeared on her program "Deadline: White House" dozens of times.
Wilson appeared to hear the chatter online about his comments to CNN, firing off a tweet Sunday fuming at anyone who doubted the Lincoln Project's intentions.
"The people who think we want Trump back in 2024 for any reason other than killing off his vile, repugnant cult and driving it into the dustbin of history display the same failure of imagination they always have," he wrote.
Wilson and Schmidt didn't return requests for comment.
The political commentator who spoke to Fox News lauded the Lincoln Project for doing with its advertising what Democrats have never been able to effectively do in presidential campaigns. But its desire for Trump to stay on the scene is nonsensical, he said, saying the next GOP nominee has a "great shot" at being the next president.
"If you believe that Donald Trump is bad for the conservative movement, the Republican Party, and America, you want this guy living out his life in Mar-a-Lago and on his golf courses across the world where he can't do damage," he said. "Given how badly the Democrats are managing things right now … why in the world would anybody who believed Donald Trump was a risk to Western democracy, why would anybody want that person within a thousand miles of the White House?"