The crisis engulfing the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project deepened on Friday when Steve Schmidt, a co-founder, resigned abruptly from the board and former employees renewed demands to be released from nondisclosure agreements in order to provide more information about the organization’s handling of harassment allegations against another co-founder, John Weaver.
Mr. Schmidt will remain with the organization in an executive capacity after he takes a temporary leave. He stepped down from the board to quell a growing furor around the Lincoln Project, but had only joined the board after the November election.
In an extraordinary statement Friday evening, Mr. Schmidt described being sexually assaulted as a teenager, evoking his own experience as he sought to explain his widely criticized response to the allegations against Mr. Weaver.
“I am incandescently angry about it,” he said of Mr. Weaver’s actions, which involved unwanted sexual messages to numerous young men. He added, referring to the man he said assaulted him, “I am angry because I know the damage that he caused to me, and I know the journey that lies ahead for every young man that trusted, feared and was abused by John Weaver.”
Mr. Schmidt reiterated his claim that he had not known of Mr. Weaver’s behavior until last month. However, a former Lincoln Project employee told The New York Times that Mr. Schmidt had known by October 2020 at the latest. The former employee described being in the room when Mr. Schmidt spoke about it.
Mr. Schmidt issued his statement Friday night after a lawyer for a third co-founder, Jennifer Horn, sent the Lincoln Project a notice instructing it to preserve documents in anticipation of a lawsuit, according to a person familiar with the communication.
The turmoil this week has been deeply damaging to the Lincoln Project, which emerged over the last year as the leading group of Republicans opposed to the presidency of Donald J. Trump. It skewered Mr. Trump with mocking ads and drew a large following on the left.
But the group’s leadership has fractured since the election. Two board members, Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, left in December. George T. Conway III, another key figure, has also departed. Ms. Horn recently resigned, issuing a scathing statement, and on Thursday, the group tweeted her private Twitter messages with a reporter.
Those tweets were subsequently deleted, and Mr. Schmidt said in his statement: “That direct message should never have been made public. It is my job as the senior leader to accept responsibility for the tremendous misjudgment to release it.” He apologized to Ms. Horn, calling her “an important and valuable member of our team.”
Also on Friday, the host of a program on the group’s media arm resigned after less than one week. And a top international affairs expert, the prominent anti-Trump conservative Tom Nichols, said he was stepping down as an unpaid adviser to the group.
The backlash against the Lincoln Project began with the revelation last month that Mr. Weaver had repeatedly harassed young men and at least one minor. It intensified on Thursday with published reports that leaders had known about the harassment last year and failed to act, the demand by former workers to be released from their N.D.A.s, and the unauthorized posting of Ms. Horn’s Twitter messages.
Top Lincoln Project officials said on Thursday night that they were hiring an outside investigator to review Mr. Weaver’s tenure, promising transparency and saying that Mr. Weaver’s conduct “must be reckoned with.”
Ms. Horn, who resigned from the Lincoln Project last week, said in a statement Thursday that she had recently learned that other leaders of the group had ignored warnings about Mr. Weaver’s conduct. In addition to the former employee who said Mr. Schmidt had known by October, several other people who worked for the group have said leaders knew even earlier.
The young men Ms. Horn spoke with were “hurt that their experiences were being denied, angry that they had been used and lied to, and fearful that they would be targeted again,” she wrote in her statement. “When I spoke to one of the founders to raise my objections and concerns, I was yelled at, demeaned and lied to.”
More disclosures could be imminent. Eight former employees and associates — six on Thursday night, and two more on Friday — have now signed the letter asking for release from their N.D.A.s. The signers have not yet spoken publicly, but they provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times, and their identities are known to The Times.
They said they were not comfortable contacting the organization directly to be released from their N.D.A.s, as Lincoln Project leaders suggested in a statement.
“Expecting victims and those close to victims to contact and engage the people and organization accused of protecting the very predator at issue is absurd, unreasonable and insensitive,” they wrote.
Further controversy erupted late Thursday night when the Lincoln Project posted screenshots from Ms. Horn’s Twitter account, revealing her direct messages with a reporter, and then quickly took them down. Unauthorized access of a social media account can be illegal, depending on the circumstances.
Those posts were the last straw for Mr. Nichols, an international affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College, who announced on Friday that he was ending his ties to the organization.
“I have been thinking about whether to continue my association for a while,” Mr. Nichols said in an email to The Times. “I was upset by John Weaver’s despicable behavior and concerned about the ongoing public conflict among the principals, but I made my final decision yesterday when Jennifer Horn’s personal messages were published. I’m glad they’re bringing in an outside adviser to help them sort through everything, and I hope there is accountability for what happened with Weaver.”
Mr. Nichols said that as a volunteer, he had no insight into the group’s internal governance.
Mr. Weaver, 61, is a longtime Republican presidential campaign adviser who gained prominence during John McCain’s runs in 2000 and 2008 and also worked for John Kasich in 2016. The Times reported last month, based on interviews with 21 young men, that Mr. Weaver had for years sent unsolicited and sexually provocative messages online.
The youngest person The Times interviewed was 14 when Mr. Weaver first contacted him; the messages became overtly sexual after he turned 18.
On Thursday, The Associated Press and New York magazine, citing unidentified former employees, reported that Lincoln Project leaders knew about Mr. Weaver’s behavior last summer, which Mr. Schmidt has continued to deny. Mr. Weaver took a medical leave from the group in August and announced last month that he would not return.
In its statement on Thursday, the Lincoln Project said that Mr. Weaver had “betrayed all of us” and that it was bringing in “a best-in-class outside professional” to “establish both accountability and best practices going forward.”
At the same time, the group’s leaders have repeatedly dismissed reporting about when they learned of Mr. Weaver’s behavior, and about Ms. Horn’s resignation, as hit jobs from supporters of former President Donald J. Trump.
The eight former employees and associates expressed anger at that in their open letter. To insinuate that their efforts constituted a right-wing attack, they wrote, “is not in keeping with the values we signed up to uphold, and resembles the tactics and behavior we joined the Lincoln Project to defeat.”