President Donald Trump’s official super PAC is shopping around opposition research to members of the media on the Lincoln Project, a political group founded by Never Trump Republicans who have run millions of dollars in ads this year attacking Trump and vulnerable Senate Republicans.
America First Action, an ostensibly independent outfit supporting the president’s re-election, recently circulated a memo to “interested parties” breaking down the Lincoln Project’s ad spending and the data it’s reported to the Federal Election Commission. The memo, titled “Lincoln Project discrepancies,” purports to demonstrate the exorbitantly high fees that the group’s principals have pocketed as it buys television ads through their consulting firms.
While the memo does not include sweeping condemnations of the group based on its findings, the implication is clear: that the people running the Lincoln Project are in it to enrich themselves. It’s a charge leveled at the group by a number of prominent Republicans this year. But it also shows the extent to which the Lincoln Project’s broadsides against Trump and his congressional allies have rankled the president’s political machine—and consumed time and resources that might otherwise go towards the immediate goal of re-electing Trump in three weeks.
The Lincoln Project has publicly stated that its role this cycle is to antagonize their former Republican colleagues. The group prides itself in, and measures its success by, the degree to which it’s gotten under the president’s skin. It’s done so in part by airing many of its television ads in the Washington, D.C., media market, where Trump, an avid cable news consumer, is most likely to see them.
In that respect, the America First memo is a testament to the group’s approach, even as it seeks to raise questions about whether it’s engaged in self-dealing.
According to the memo, which compared spending data reported to the FEC with the values of the group’s ad buys as compiled by the ad tracking service Advertising Analytics, Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen’s firm has taken commissions on those ad buys averaging about 27 percent.
According to metadata in the document, which was not pitched to The Daily Beast and was obtained through a third party, it was created by America First communications director Kelly Sadler. She did not respond to inquiries about it.
Reached by email on Tuesday, Galen told The Daily Beast, “It’s a garbage memo and false.” He did not respond to more specific questions about the data presented by America First.
The extensive business that the Lincoln Project has provided to its principals’ consulting firms, including Galen’s Summit Strategic Communications and co-founder Ron Steslow’s Tusk Digital, has drawn persistent allegations of self-dealing from Trump supporters who allege the group amounts to a “scam PAC.”
The numbers that America First put together are indeed eye-popping, and, if accurate, would mean that Galen’s firm has pocketed more than one of every five dollars the group has reported spending on its broadcast ads. But the memo also tries to raise questions about basic strategic decisions, portraying The Lincoln Project’s strategy of advertising in the D.C. market as a means of messing with the president’s psyche, as a simple vanity project designed to do little but funnel more ad buys through Galen’s firm.
“Roughly 18.6% of their presidential ad spending has been spent in the DC media market, which based on the results of the 2016 Presidential election, is the most Democratic area of the country,” the memo notes. Left unsaid is that the president’s campaign has also devoted significant resources to advertising in the D.C. area, and for largely the same reason—to ensure that Trump himself sees the ads.
While the Lincoln Project has succeeded in getting the president’s attention—and that of political obsessives who marvel at its aggressive anti-Trump efforts—the effectiveness of its strategy in actually persuading voters to turn against Trump is very much in dispute. In general, studies have found that television advertising on its own is not particularly effective at political persuasion.
While the Lincoln Project’s focus on triggering the president makes it a unique case among political advertisers, it’s also expanded its campaign to attack not just Trump but a number of Republican Senators facing difficult reelection contests next month, including Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Maine’s Susan Collins, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, and Arizona’s Martha McSally.
That down-ballot advertising campaign has fueled criticism from some conservatives who say it’s no longer a “Never Trump” group, it’s a “Never Republican” one. The criticism doesn’t appear to have deterred them.
“By the way, message back to America First,” Galen told The Daily Beast in his email on Tuesday. “We are expanding our buys to defeat as many Republican senators as possible and contribute to the complete and total collapse of Trump and Trumpism.”