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Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals

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Mr. Trump’s outburst gave the Lincoln Project a flood of attention it could have only hoped for. Fund-raising surged. In June, the billionaire investor Stephen Mandel donated $1 million, while Joshua Bekenstein, a co-chairman of Bain Capital, and David Geffen each donated $100,000; Mr. Geffen has since given $500,000 in total. (David Dishman, the executive director of the David Geffen Foundation, said that Mr. Geffen’s donations were “specific to their work around the 2020 election cycle.”)

It was the start of a wave of contributions, not all from financial powerhouses like Mr. Geffen. The Lincoln Project raised more than $30 million from people who gave less than $200.

A hiring spree began, and the organization spread its wings, creating a communications shop, a political division, podcasts and political shows for its website. It went from “eight or 10 people on the first of May, to like 60-plus by late or early July,” Mr. Galen said. “We scaled up enormously quickly.”

Initially, the project operated much like a pirate ship. Typical workplace management practices were lacking. The organization has no chief executive. Two of its largest contractors, who were billing the Lincoln Project, were given seats on the three-member board of directors, a breach of normal governance practices.

The executive structure was malleable: The two contractors on the board, for instance, Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, who were each involved in reaching voters through digital advertising and data targeting, were also referred to as co-founders. So were Mr. Conway and Jennifer Horn, a former head of the Republican Party in New Hampshire who joined early on and played a leading role in outreach to independents and Republicans.

“This thing was literally a pop-up stand,” said Mr. Conway, an unpaid adviser who had no real operational role before stepping away from the organization last summer. “It was an organization that got big really fast, and more money came in than anyone could have imagined. It was just catch as catch can.”

Amid the rapid growth, it was the core group of original founders, led by Mr. Schmidt, who wielded operational control. “I had zero decision-making power,” Sarah Lenti, a Republican political consultant who at one point served as the group’s executive director, said in an interview.

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