John Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist and co-founder of the prominent anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, has for years sent unsolicited and sexually provocative messages online to young men, often while suggesting he could help them get work in politics, according to interviews with 21 men who received them.
His solicitations included sending messages to a 14-year-old, asking questions about his body while he was still in high school and then more pointed ones after he turned 18.
These messages from Mr. Weaver, 61, who helped run John McCain’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008 and John Kasich’s in 2016, did not lead to physical encounters except in one consensual case, and none of the men accused Mr. Weaver of unlawful conduct. Rather, many of them described feeling preyed upon by an influential older man in the field in which they wanted to work, and believing they had to engage with his repeated messaging or lose a professional opportunity.
Mr. Weaver sent overt sexual solicitations to at least 10 of the men and, in the most explicit messages, offered professional and personal assistance in exchange for sex. He told one man he would “spoil you when we see each other,” according to a message reviewed by The New York Times. “Help you other times. Give advice, counsel, help with bills. You help me … sensually.”
Lincoln Project leaders, in their first extended comments about Mr. Weaver, said they had not been aware of such allegations until this month, when a magazine article and an open letter on Twitter from a data analyst named Garrett Herrin accused Mr. Weaver of grooming young men online.
Steve Schmidt, a co-founder of the group, said its leaders had learned last summer from social media posts that Mr. Weaver, who has a wife and two children, might be involved in relationships with men, but emphasized, “There was no awareness or insinuations of any type of inappropriate behavior when we became aware of the chatter at the time.” Mr. Weaver denied the claims, Mr. Schmidt said.
In mid-January, after the allegations gained public attention, Mr. Weaver issued a statement acknowledging he had sent “inappropriate” messages and apologizing “to the men I made uncomfortable,” while saying he had believed all of his interactions to be consensual. He said he would not return to the Lincoln Project from a medical leave that began in the summer.
Interviews with the 21 young men, as well as a review of screenshots of dozens of messages he sent them over the last five years, show that his online behavior was in many cases aggressive and unwanted.
Cole Trickle Miele was 14 when he followed Mr. Weaver on Twitter in 2015 and quickly received a direct message from him. At first, he did not think anything was amiss.
“I remember being a 14-year-old kid interested in politics and being semi-starstruck by John Weaver engaging in a conversation with me,” said Mr. Trickle Miele, now 19. At the time, he supported the Republican Party and was a fan of Mr. Kasich, the Ohio governor whom Mr. Weaver was helping prepare to join the presidential race.
But as the messages kept coming, he became uncomfortable.
In June 2018, Mr. Weaver asked, “Are you in HS still?” — referring to high school — and Mr. Trickle Miele said that he was, and that he would be 18 the next spring. “You look older,” Mr. Weaver replied. “You’ve gotten taller.”
In March 2020, when Mr. Trickle Miele was 18, Mr. Weaver wrote, “I want to come to Vegas and take you to dinner and drinks and spoil you!!,” and in a follow-up message used a term that in sexual banter refers to one’s body: “Hey my boy! resend me your stats! or I can guess! if that is easier or more fun!”
Mr. Weaver, in response to questions about specific allegations, reiterated his statement from earlier this month and said: “I am so disheartened and sad that I may have brought discomfort to anyone in what I thought at the time were mutually consensual discussions. In living a deeply closeted life, I allowed my pain to cause pain for others. For that I am truly sorry to these men and everyone and for letting so many people down.”
Mr. Weaver was one of a handful of veteran Republican operatives who formed the Lincoln Project because, they said, they considered Mr. Trump a danger to the country. With mocking ads that often went viral, the group became a highly visible opponent to the Trump presidency.
Mr. Schmidt said in an interview that the Lincoln Project did not have an office when Mr. Weaver was involved, so the founders and staff were not together. He said the group was “outraged and horrified” to learn of Mr. Weaver’s behavior.
Last year, when Cody Bralts was a recent college graduate looking for a job in politics, he replied to one of Mr. Weaver’s tweets and, to his surprise, received a direct message from him. After Mr. Weaver said he traveled to Chicago sometimes, they discussed meeting to talk politics; at one point Mr. Weaver asked what Mr. Bralts did in his free time.
When Mr. Bralts said he ran marathons, Mr. Weaver replied, “At least I know that whatever we end up doing, you could do it multiple times in a row,” with a winking emoticon.
“It just seemed like he was exploiting his power,” Mr. Bralts said. “He was someone very important and high up in a field I want to go into.”
Kyle Allen, 23, said that from 2016 to 2018, Mr. Weaver asked about his height, weight, what he was wearing and whether he was circumcised. He also pushed repeatedly for an invitation to speak at the University of Ottawa, where Mr. Allen was studying, using sexually explicit language to express his eagerness to visit.
“I would try to veer the conversations toward politics, and he would always find a way to bring it back to sexual stuff,” Mr. Allen said.
In at least two cases, Mr. Weaver offered young men work with the Lincoln Project while sending suggestive messages.
One of those men, Anthony Covell, 22, said Mr. Weaver had begun messaging him in July 2019. That exchange petered out, but on Dec. 3, 2019 — two weeks before the Lincoln Project was publicly announced — Mr. Weaver invited him to join the new initiative.
“He said he was looking for young people who were creative and invested in this upcoming election,” Mr. Covell said, adding, “I was obviously interested.”
Mr. Weaver suggested that Mr. Covell “post a thirst trap” or “send me a pic,” then asked him to call for more details on the project.
“Something inside me was saying, ‘No, don’t do this, he seems kind of sketchy,’” Mr. Covell said.
He decided not to call.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
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