Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt eviscerated his organization as “recklessly stupid” Wednesday after it planted fake White supremacists as Glenn Youngkin supporters in the waning days of the Virginia governor’s race.
Schmidt, who resigned from the disgraced left-wing PAC’s board in February amid myriad scandals but didn’t separate himself entirely, told longtime Democratic operative Robert Shrum he was infuriated. He distanced himself from the stunt, claiming to have been largely uninvolved with the group since January.
“I learned about it on the news like everybody else and had no involvement with it and have not been involved operationally, strategically at all in the Virginia campaign or really in the day-to-day with the Lincoln Project since the Georgia special elections,” he said. “On the 1-to-10 scale of being very angry, internally I clocked in at about a 57, and I expressed my opinions internally.”
Schmidt said he did not speak out publicly at the time because he worried it would be a distraction for Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who Schmidt and the Lincoln Project supported in a losing effort.
“I thought the action was recklessly stupid, it was dishonest and cheap. It is exactly the wrong way to approach the fight against a real fascist movement, against extremist elements,” he said. “It showed appalling judgment by the day-to-day leadership, management of the Lincoln Project. Somebody could have gotten beat up … could have incited violence.”
In the latest misstep for the disgraced PAC, the Lincoln Project copped to sending five tiki-torch-wielding people – one of them a Black man – to a campaign event in Charlottesville on Oct. 29 wearing white shirts and ballcaps, all claiming to be Youngkin supporters. The imagery brought back memories of the horrific events in the city in 2017, when violent clashes around a “Unite The Right” rally that included White supremacists culminated in the killing of a young woman.
While many observers were immediately skeptical of the situation, McAuliffe staffers and supporters spread the falsehood that the tiki-torch wielding group was legitimate.
“The Unite the Right rally was one of the darkest days in the Commonwealth’s history. This is who Glenn Youngkin’s supporters are,” McAuliffe spokesperson Christina Freundlich tweeted.
But after widespread suspicion from Twitter critics that it was orchestrated by Youngkin opponents, the Lincoln Project took ownership of what it called a “demonstration.” It released a statement saying it was meant to remind Virginians that Republicans embraced the values of those in Charlottesville, although the stunt’s chief organizer sent a tweet pretending to be shocked by the scene at the time.
The group was condemned by McAuliffe and across the political spectrum for using the Charlottesville tragedy for political ends, in addition to attempting to smear Youngkin. McAuliffe went down to defeat the following week as Republicans recaptured full control of the state for the first time since 2009.
While Schmidt claimed no ownership of the stunt, the Charlottesville city council still addressed a scathing letter to him personally and the group for its actions.
“Tiki torches wielded by young men in white polo shirts and khakis mean one thing in Charlottesville – we are under attack,” the council wrote. “For many of our residents who confronted the Nazis and white supremacists on our streets … seeing your operatives in white polo shirts and khakis carrying (even unlit) tiki torches caused a PTSD flashback to those traumatic days.”
Schmidt disappeared from view in February after resigning from the board amid scandals over co-founder John Weaver’s online harassment of young, gay men, a suspected cover-up of Weaver’s behavior, questions about the Lincoln Project’s finances and funneling of donor money to co-founder firms, posting the private messages of co-founder Jennifer Horn with a reporter investigating the group, and accusations of a toxic and sexist work environment. Co-founder George Conway and current Democratic adviser Kurt Bardella called on it to disband.
Yet Schmidt reappeared April and said the Lincoln Project would be back “fully operational,” and he continues to make frequent MSNBC appearances bashing his former party. Schmidt, who was chief strategist for John McCain in 2008 after working in the George W. Bush White House, left the Republican Party over disgust with President Donald Trump in 2018 and is now a registered Democrat.
The PAC, founded by disgruntled ex-Republicans in late 2019, was successful at raising money in 2020 and posting viral ads meant to poke Trump, but it was largely ineffective at persuading moveable voters. Schmidt reportedly said the Lincoln Project was his vehicle to achieve “generational wealth” and had visions of launching a full-fledged media empire before scandals rocked the group.
Fox News’ Brandon Gillespie and Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.