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How Lincoln Project anti-Trump Republicans got into his head. Spoiler alert: It was easy.

With clever ads and searing social media attacks, the group has drawn notice. But what that means for the election is up in the air.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald Trump at a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 24.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Seeking to defend President Donald Trump from questions over whether he actually reads his daily intelligence briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters last week that "the president does read" and "is the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats we face."

Within an hour, the Lincoln Project, a super PAC run by a host of so-called never-Trump Republicans, tweeted a six-second edited video of the moment out to its more than 1 million followers in its latest attempt to troll the president.

"This is CNN breaking news," the video begins, playing a quick cut from the network, followed by McEnany saying, "The president does read."

The anti-Trump group has become ubiquitous on social media in recent weeks as the president is bogged down by the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest. Its members include George Conway, husband of top White House official Kellyanne Conway, and prominent Republican operatives like John Weaver, Reed Galen, Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson and Stuart Stevens, who have worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and John Kasich.

Founded in December, the group's stated mission is to "defeat Trump and Trumpism" in 2020.

Weaver said the Lincoln Project seeks to provoke a Trump response with its ads and social media ventures while targeting white voters who may traditionally vote Republican but are uneasy about the president.

He said the group tries "to do it in such a way, as Republicans, that they're used to seeing when we would go after Democrats with the same type of language and symbolism."

During the Lincoln Project's first few months, nothing much took off. But then came the coronavirus outbreak, and the group released a pandemic-themed ad titled "Mourning in America," playing on President Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election ad.

“Under the leadership of Donald Trump, our county is weaker and sicker and poorer,” the ad states. "And now, Americans are asking, 'If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?'"

The group spent a few thousand dollars to place the ad on Fox News in the Washington media market in early May hoping Trump would take the bait.

He did.

In a four-part tweetstorm sent just before 1 a.m. ET on May 5, Trump said the "group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me, a political first timer, 4 years ago" are "doing everything possible to get even for all of their many failures." (RINO is shorthand for "Republican in name only.")

The president then called out members of the group individually, adding, "They're all LOSERS, but Abe Lincoln, Republican, is all smiles!"

It was the never-Trumpers, however, who were all smiles after Trump's lengthy attack, particularly as fundraising increased. Weaver said that ad alone got more than 30 million views, adding that in June the group had more than 110 million video views on its ads.

"By attacking us, he's become our biggest financial bundler," Weaver said. "If we were an administration, we'd probably make him ambassador to Slovenia or something, because he's raising so much money for us."

Through the end of March, the group raised had about $2.6 million and spent a little less than $1.4 million. It had spent about $223,000 against Trump as of early May. The number had increased to more than $2 million as of late June.

The group has particularly targeted Washington and swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It has also spent hundreds of thousands against Republican Senate candidates in states like Arizona, Iowa and Montana.

June was its biggest month by far for expenditures in the 2020 cycle, with the group spending more than $1.46 million. Its largest donors through March included the hedge funder Andrew Redleaf, Walton family heir Christy Walton and venture capitalist Ron Conway.

"Trump is his own worst political enemy at times," Weaver said. "And there's no doubt that he has given us rocket fuel by engaging with us. I mean, it's hard to claim we're irrelevant if they're constantly attacking us."

While the group isn't one of the better-funded PACs, it has been able to take advantage of the members' large combined social media followings and prevalence on cable news.

Galen said the Lincoln Project sees itself as "a pirate ship" that, because it isn't aligned with any party, is able "to be extremely nimble" and is not subject to "a lot of hemming and hawing" over decision-making.

Recent ads mocked Trump for his smaller-than-promised crowd at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma; ridiculed him over the latest controversy over Russian bounty intelligence; and lampooned his handling of the coronavirus response.

The group also cut a spot hitting Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale over lavish spending, which included purchasing a Ferrari.

Since Trump put a bull's-eye on the Lincoln Project, Republicans and GOP-aligned groups have taken aim.

The conservative super PAC Club for Growth Action recently released an ad exclusively on Fox News in Washington ripping the Lincoln Project and accusing its members of hating Trump supporters and pocketing contributions.

Over the July 4 weekend, meanwhile, the Lincoln Project shared another user's video of Trump's Independence Day remarks that Twitter deemed "manipulated." The video made it seem as if Trump said Operation Desert Storm took place during the Vietnam War when in reality, the president had tripped up in reading his prepared remarks.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement that Trump "has the support of a record number of Republicans and leads a united party." He continued, "Every shred of evidence proves that Republicans enthusiastically support President Trump, so any efforts by disgruntled former Republicans are doomed to fail."

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group, called the Lincoln Project a "Democrat-funded group that is doing the bidding of the left by trying to flip the Senate."

"Their 'strategy' of trying to make Trump see their ads is absurd and strategically useless," he said, adding, "But I'm sure the operatives are getting paid."

The Trump campaign has called the Lincoln Project a "scam PAC," accusing members of "lining" their pockets. In response, Lincoln Project spokesman Keith Edwards said, "No one here is buying a Ferrari."

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that Trump enjoys 91 percent approval among Republicans, although his numbers are slipping with some key voting groups as former Vice President Joe Biden opens up a lead nationally.

Democrats have welcomed the group's efforts, although whether it would have influence on a potential Biden administration is an open question.

Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist, said the Lincoln Project was "not really my cup of tea, but to the extent that they can focus on Trump voters and let the Biden campaign focus on motivating the Democratic voters who stayed home in 2016, then I'm all for it."

Jesse Ferguson, a top staffer on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, said the Lincoln Project is "telling a powerful story about the soul of this nation — not about a political party, but about the character of the country versus the character of Trump."

"Defeating Palpatine even required getting Darth Vader to switch sides," he said, referring to the "Star Wars" franchise.

Lincoln Project members say they don't feel as if their mission will wrap should Biden pull off a November victory.

"From the moment that we launched back in mid-December, we said that job one is to defeat Donald Trump," Galen said.

"But from our position," he continued, "the job is not done until Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. And even after Joe Biden is elected and sworn in, there's a whole bunch of Trumpism left in the system."