WASHINGTON — George Conway, a prominent conservative critic of President Trump and the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, had a wild theory that he could singlehandedly get Donald Trump to “trash” Jesus Christ.
His plan? Run an ad on cable news networks in Washington, D.C., that said, “‘Jesus says love thy neighbor, but Donald Trump doesn’t.”
“You could see Trump coming out and saying, ‘Well, Jesus never had to put up with the abuse I have!’” Conway joked in a recent podcast interview with the other founders of his super PAC.
It was out of this instinct to troll the president — and Conway’s knowledge that Trump, as an eager consumer of cable news, would be tantalizingly easy to reach — that the Lincoln Project was born. The super PAC, which was founded in December by Conway and prominent “NeverTrump” current and former Republican political strategists including Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, and Jennifer Horn, didn’t take long to hit its mark.
“They’re all LOSERS” Trump responded a little before 1 a.m. on Twitter in May after seeing one of the group’s ads unfavorably compare his coronavirus response to Ronald Reagan. “RINO losers … I BEAT THEM ALL!” he followed up the next day, using the acronym for Republicans In Name Only.
Now, Democrats have also begun paying attention to the Lincoln Project’s relentlessly negative election-year assault on the president, and the way in which the super PAC rapidly creates ads that are designed to enrage and distract Trump and hyper-targets them onto his TV screen.
“These are the best ads on television. They’re absolutely devastating,” said former presidential candidate and Vermont governor Howard Dean, who complimented the group’s founders on the “controlled rage” that fuels their spots.
The Lincoln Project hasn’t pursued the Jesus ad prank. But whether they’re making fun of Trump for (allegedly) being ripped off by his campaign manager, for looking shaky while walking down a ramp, for bungling the nation’s coronavirus response, or even for the size of his hands and the crowd at his recent Tulsa rally, the Lincoln Project is willing to go places that Democratic groups haven’t. And that is drawing attention — and even money — from liberals.
“I am thrilled by the Lincoln Project’s impact, their substance and also their messaging, which is so compelling,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and fund-raiser, who said he’s heard other Democrats say they’re donating to the group. “Quite frankly, Democrats, activists, and patriots should be grateful for their involvement and there shouldn’t be any competition.”
The Lincoln Project’s “Mourning in America” ad, which prompted Trump’s angry tweets, featured images of worried-looking Americans in hospital wards or waiting in long lines paired with somber violin music. A narrator warns that Trump has made America “weaker and sicker and poorer” as the slickly produced ad contrasts Trump’s performance on coronavirus to Ronald Reagan’s hopeful “Morning in America” reelection slogan.
More recently, the group has bought ads that stalk Trump as he travels around the country. One that aired in Tulsa before his June rally compared Trump’s rhetoric to the segregationist George Wallace, splicing Trump’s image with that of Wallace and tiki torch-toting white supremacist protesters. Another airing in South Dakota, where Trump visited on Friday, features the somber words of the nation’s presidents who are carved into Mount Rushmore. Trump’s image then pops up and a narrator warns, “America’s worst president will neither be remembered nor revered.”
The Lincoln Project is the most high-profile of several Republican anti-Trump groups vowing to spend money to defeat him. Its founders, who also include Reed Galen, Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, and John Weaver, bring extensive political pedigrees to the task. Schmidt worked on the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain and George W. Bush and was integral in pushing McCain to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate. Wilson was a veteran of George H.W. Bush’s campaign and later became a Republican ad maker. Weaver also worked on McCain’s presidential bid. Horn is the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
The group’s founders have their share of critics: Republican operatives who see them as traitors, the president who has ranted about them, and Democrats who question whether their trolling of Trump and thus-far limited budget will really influence voters in the handful of swing states that decide elections.
So far, the Lincoln Project’s ad buys have paled in comparison to those of big Democratic super PACs and the campaigns themselves. Unite the Country, which supports Biden, announced a $10 million ad buy in May, for example. That is many times more than the Lincoln Project raised in its entire first quarter of existence. The group raised only $2 million in the first three months of the year, according to Federal Election Commission filings, but received a fund-raising boost when Trump attacked them on Twitter in May. (A Lincoln Project spokesman would not reveal details of its fund-raising since then but said the average contribution is $40, which is unusually low for a super PAC.)
But the Lincoln Project’s relatively modest output so far, including some ads that seemed solely aimed at an audience of one, is racking up millions of views on social media, their reach amplified by the subsequent response from the president and related news coverage.
“When he started going after us directly, it highlighted and magnified his incompetence,” said Horn. “A president who is awake at 1 o’clock in the morning using a teenager’s medium to go after political operatives for saying something that he perceived to be mean about him? It is such a reflection of him being weak.”
There’s also an aspect of psychological warfare at play, as the strategists hope the more the president engages with their ads, the less he has time to focus on a reelection message. Wilson has a running gag on Twitter that he and Conway are living “rent free” in Trump’s head.
“It throws him off the message that he should have been on … and it also shows how nuts he is,” Conway said on the podcast.
The Lincoln Project also constantly needles Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale, in what appears to be an attempt to destabilize his campaign operation. “Your campaign manager told you 1 million people” were going to show up to the rally in Tulsa, one ad mocks. “Is @bradparscale ok?” the Lincoln Project’s Twitter account asked after the rally, which drew only some 6,000 and left most of the arena empty. Another ad alleged Parscale got rich off of Trump’s 2016 campaign, showing images of fancy cars and a yacht filled with bikini-clad women.
The Trump campaign recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the solidly Democratic Washington, D.C., market to advertise, which some see as a response to the president’s anger at the Lincoln Project ads.
Sam Nunberg, a former top aide to Trump, said the GOP campaign’s recent $400,000 ad buy in D.C. was a “waste of money.”
Nonetheless, he disparaged the Lincoln Project’s efforts as inconsequential.
“These are troll ads, that’s all they are,” Nunberg said. “It’s consultant inside baseball nobody cares about.”
The Lincoln Project has made other enemies in the Republican Party. Galen said on the group’s podcast that the GOP had “fundamentally changed” and that Trump’s “enablers” in the Senate need to be “washed out of the system as well.”
This kind of talk — and the super PAC’s spending against vulnerable Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Cory Gardner of Colorado — have caused great animus among other Republican operatives, even those who have been critical of Trump.
“They’re not just going after Trump, they’re going after Republican senators,” said Ryan Williams, a former top aide to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential run. “These aren’t Republicans disaffected with the president. They’re just Democrats now.”
Privately, Democratic strategists and donors have wondered what’s driving the Lincoln Project to campaign against Republicans more broadly. Are they planning on rebranding as centrist Democratic operatives if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the White House, given some of the founders, including Schmidt, have already left the party? Or do they genuinely hold out hope the Republican Party will be transformed if Trump loses, and that future Republican candidates will want to hire the operatives who helped defeat him?
“These guys helped enable this, they helped create this over years,” Ian Russell, the former head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said of the Lincoln Project operatives. “The Republican Party has flirted more and more with the outright crazy we’re seeing right now. Trump just broke the wall down.”
But the Lincoln Project’s founders say they were driven by conscience to do whatever they can to deny Trump a second term, after witnessing what they said is his disrespect for the rule of law. At the group’s launch event in February, Wilson said he’d watched former colleagues and bosses “abase themselves and abandon their principles” and could not stand by any longer.
Occasionally, the Lincoln Project appears to alienate some liberals who follow them on social media, underscoring the still shaky alliance between centrist “Never Trump” Republicans and the left. “Dick Cheney … welcome to the resistance,” the group tweeted last week, featuring a photo of the former vice president, who is reviled by liberals for his role in the Iraq War, wearing a coronavirus face mask. “This tweet should have never been sent,” replied one Democrat.
In the meantime, an uneasy peace reigns, as Democrats welcome anyone who can help them defeat Trump in 2020. The Lincoln Project recently released a pro-Biden ad that will be airing in Midwestern swing states. It portrayed Biden speaking inspirationally along with clips of other presidents comforting the nation at times of crisis, juxtaposed with Trump’s comments showing a lack of empathy for people protesting racism and police brutality. Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe called the ad “stirring.” Future spots will focus on persuading Republicans to abandon Trump, the strategists say.
“I appreciate the success that we’ve achieved so far, but honestly we have barely begun,” said Horn. “Donald Trump should not expect a good night’s sleep in the White House ever again. If he was upset with us at 1 a.m. — then just wait.”