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Inside The Lincoln Project's Plan to Flip Pro-Trump Veterans
A Q & A with Fred Wellman, the man tasked with casting Trump as the enemy of those who've served
In its short time on this earth, The Lincoln Project has been the subject of at least four score and seven takes by pundits and opinionators. Many of these takes are hot, some are positive, others are not.
What isn’t in dispute is the fact that this crew of of self-described “Never Trumpers” can build and disseminate a message better than many of their peers on the left. Consider, for instance, the viral tweet below from Fred Wellman, an Army veteran whom Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt recently brought onboard as a Senior Advisor for Veterans Affairs:
In fewer than 240 characters, Wellman injected a highly compelling veteran angle into the ongoing scandal of the Trump administration laying waste to the United States Postal Service.
“It’s been hard to find personal resonance in this huge issue around the Postal Service,” Wellman recently told me. “They’re taking away sorting machines, okay, but what does that mean? Well, what that means in very real terms is that a 75-year-old veteran who served in Vietnam is now three weeks late in getting his critical medications. And if he weans off that medicine because it’s not coming, he could die.”
A day after Wellman’s tweet, ace VA reporter Abbie Bennet published a rock solid story that proved without a doubt that Trump’s neglect of the USPS is leaving veterans in crisis. "We already have a suicide problem," one VA official warned Bennet. "Missing antidepressants isn't good.” Another fretted that, “We don't want to see someone get sicker or even die because of mail delays. This is completely avoidable."
Wellman has continued to hammer this issue, and promote Bennett’s reporting. This work has seemingly goosed a number top Democrats into adopting his framing of the story — including Tammy Duckworth, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama.
This transfusion of Lincoln Project messaging into the Democratic body politic culminated on Thursday when the center-left veteran PAC VoteVets released an advertisement highlighting the massive number of veterans who rely on, and work for, the USPS:
The left is largely split over how to feel about the Lincoln Project, and it remains to be seen whether their viral ads will actually swing any hearts and minds.
But for years, Democrats have done poorly at messaging and organizing, especially when it concerns veteran voters, a vital constituency that, in 2016, broke for Donald Trump in a historic way.
There’s conflicting theories over why Trump, and Republicans more generally, score such high marks in the military community. A prevailing theory is that Republicans have put in years of hard work demonstrating their love of country and dedication to those who’ve served — often through acts of militarism.
It seems, however, that many veterans flocked to Trump because of his promise to end the Forever Wars. This evidence was laid out in 2017 by a pair of political scientists in an under-discussed report called “Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat." Among it statistical findings was a “significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.” The piece continues:
If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.
According to this alternative theory, the candidate who wants to win the veteran vote in 2020 must speak compellingly and convincingly to the swing state military families who’ve lost their sons and daughters to a military campaign that’s long appeared lost.
Which tact the Lincoln Project will take is unclear. But un early ad of theirs — cut before Wellman arrived — was spoiling for a fight. It featured a retired Navy Seal faulting Trump for not “stomping the living shit” out of the Russians after it was revealed they’d put bounties on American soldiers. (It should be noted here that a number of the Lincoln Project’s top dogs helped get us into Iraq in the first place.)
Wellman spent much of his 22-year Army career in Iraq, first as a helicopter pilot in the Persian Gulf War then in Iraqi Freedom as a senior officer serving various roles, including as a Public Affairs Officer for General’s David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey. Wellman lost two men in Desert Storm when their helicopter went down, and has since watched many more service members, along with close Iraqi friends, killed in the region. Wellman is far from a dove, but he’ll today acknowledges missteps and frustration with the protracted Pentagon conflicts he helped defend.
Over two conversations, Wellman came off as genuinely radicalized by Trump’s presidency and overwhelmingly focused on prosecuting Trump’s failures on the home front, not the battlefield. His disdain for the main in charge was almost certainly hardened in his previous six-week stint as the Administrative Chief of Staff for a COVID-10 field hospital in New York City staffed by military special operations veterans.
Whether Wellman can create the secret sauce to peel off Trump’s veteran supporters remains to be seen. But because Republicans have for so long mastered the messaging to this community, I’d put a bit of money on Wellman’s chances. While his veterans intiatitave has yet to launch, he told me it will be agressive and unsparing. He also said the project will involve more than flashy ads, but wouldn’t get into more details.
In the interview below, I ask Wellman about his vision for the Lincoln Project, the left's long-lasting problems with exciting military families, and whether his new employer is nothing more than a trojan horse to take over the Democratic party. (The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
Battle Borne: How did your gig at the Lincoln Project come to be?
Fred Wellman: When I recently ended ScoutComms, I reached out to my mentors, and [Lincoln Project Co-Founder] Steve Schmidt’s been a mentor for many years. We met 15 years ago in Iraq’s Green Zone when he was on a fact-finding mission for [then-Vice President] Dick Cheney. More recently, he had called me and cheered me on when I was working at the hospital in New York, which was kind of him.
And so I called him and left a message saying, “Hey, I could use some advice on what to do next. Call me when you can.”
He calls me back on a Saturday night at 10 p.m. and says, “I didn’t listen to your voicemail, I know you closed the company, you’re coming to work for us. We need help with veterans.”
I was like, “Okay!” — and I was hired.
The great things is, I asked Steve: “What’s my left and right limit?” and he said, “There isn’t any.”
I asked: “Whats my ability to leverage staff?” and he said, ‘They’re yours. Go.”
I’ve been given the keys to the kingdom to organize our veterans and military community to get President Trump out of office.
BB: In 2016 there were a whole bunch of consultants and politicians trying to cast Trump as anti-veteran. They highlighted his disparaging remarks towards John McCain and the Kahn family, they focused on his draft dodging, they invoked comments where he described vets with PTSD as weak. But none of it really worked.
In fact, Trump earned a historic margin of veteran voters in 2016 — he actually more than doubled McCain’s 2008 margin with vets. My question is: Why do you think Trump was able to brush off those attacks and how do you plan to break through his protective Teflon layer?
FW: I would argue that the Teflon has worn out in a lot of ways. If you look at the latest Military Times polls, his support within the military and veterans’ community has fallen dramatically.
I think at the beginning there was this pretty strong belief among many conservatives, many veterans and service members, that the Obama administration didn’t like us. That’s why the military wasn’t getting enough money, some thought, when the truth was that sequestration [in 2013] was an effort between both parties of assholes.
And then Trump comes in, talking tough, and you know our community — we want to be muscular, we are very agressive, we want to be funded, we want to be supported, we want to be appreciated — and Trump offered that message, and it resonated.
But then Trump’s bad words and actions came in to play. I left the Republican party — to be candid I never liked Trump anyway — but my turning point was the McCain thing, when Trump got on stage and said, “I like people who weren’t captured.’
I have a book here on my desk by Col. Nick Rowe — a lot of people don’t know him. He was an Army Green Beret captured by the Viet Cong who spent five years not in the Hanoi Hilton, but in tiger cages in the jungle. He only escaped one day when an American helicopter flew over and he broke away from his captors and was rescued. West Point grad, class of 1960. He was later killed in the Philippines in 1989 helping the government fight the guerillas. So that’s who I think of when I think of a POW. He’s a heroic man who gave everything for his country. So for Trump to smear any POW is offensive.
When I saw my peers shake what Trump said off about McCain and POWs, I knew we were in trouble.
That said, five years later, after everything Trump’s done, you’ve got a lot of veterans questioning whether Trumpism is really conservatism and whether the president really supports them or it’s all smoke and mirrors. Trump doesn’t support the troops, he just says he does. Actions speak louder than words.
BB: I know you haven’t fully rolled out the veterans-specific elements of the Lincoln Project yet. But can you tell me what you’ll be focusing on once it’s live?
FW: Without giving away too much, we’re now building a diverse coalition of peers from across the country that really reflect the military-connected population. I’ve got retired Generals, I’ve got retired Junior Officers, enlisted men. I’m bringing in some Gold Star moms, some caregivers, some wounded warriors. We’ll be rolling their voices out mid-month and then we have a tentative plan for a veterans town hall on September 1st. That night we will launch, in an agressive way, our veterans’ activation, which will take us through the election.
Our plans now are to truly activate the community. I can’t get into details yet because I’m still building it. But it will be more than just sending out videos, the veteran community will participate in a very real way.
BB: If you were brought in as a consultant for the Democratic Party right now and given the mandate to assess their efforts since 9/11 to entice veteran voters, what would your main thesis be? What have they done wrong? What would you urge they focus on today?
FW: Wow. That’s a big question. I’m not sure if i have an answer for that right now, that’s not my hat right now.
You know, when Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden launched Joining Forces shortly after coming into office I was very skeptical. I thought it was bullshit to get the ticket re-elected. I was sure it would go away after the 2012 election. But it didn’t. It actually grew after that, it got better, so good, even, that I hired its Deputy Director when the Obamas left office. It was a wonderful program and they did a great job of convincing many of us in the community that they truly cared about us. But the larger Democratic coalition never really tapped into those good feelings.
The thing with the Democrats as a party is, lets face it, they are much more diverse, a circus tent. Everyone is welcome in the circus tent. And that’s fine. Unfortunately, sometimes the louder voices overwhelm the messaging.
I like AOC, she’s terrific, she’s a powerhouse. But she kinda stepped on a mine the other day saying we shouldn’t allow recruiters in high schools because they’re enticing young impressionable kids to join the military. Yes! Yes they are. And by the way, statistically it’s better for them to do it that way. Thousands of kids have been lifted up out of poverty from honorable service in the military and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So you have these sorts of self-inflicted wounds that happen every now and again on the left that undermine the larger message of the good things they’re doing.
BB: Shifting to the Republicans, I wonder if you’re at all worried about some in the party embracing a new type of hyper-militaristic veteran that some in the community feel misrepresents those who served. I’m thinking of people like Eddie Gallagher or Erik prince — folks who have been credibly accused of war crimes. Is that a problem? Does it damage the Republican brand?
FW: Yes. But again, the thing about being in the veteran and military community is that they are a reflection of the American society. And therefore we are going to have people like Eddie Gallagher, we are going to have those louder, more militant voices. Jack Posobiec is a veteran, don’t forget.
These louder voices are part of our community, just as they are a part of larger society. But what is unusual that over the last four years the party that claims to be the party of values, of honor and integrity, of law and order has pardoned people who have admitted to war crimes, people whose behavior was well documented and prosecuted. For Trump to elevate these people as heroes is a big part of why we now have an opening to convince conservatives that Trump doesn’t promote Republican values.
I have peers who’ve told me “I was lost on Trump after Clint Lorrance.” Clint Lorrance is the absolute worst. He’s the worst of us. And what his soldiers — read Greg Jaffe’s article — have gone through in coming out against him is horrifying. These were good soldiers who did their duty and went by the rules. But they have been ostracized and are paying a heavy price for doing the right thing. Same with Gallagher’s teammates.
BB: Do you believe the Lincoln Project would have been established had a more progressive nominee, like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, emerged victorious?
FW: I don’t know. I can’t speak for the founders. Keep in mind I’m the last guy to join. I think many of the founders and myself have realized that Trump has taken over the Republican party in a way that’s against everything we stand for. All of these values have been thrown out the window which are compassion, christianity, honor, law and order.
In the end I’m not sure it mattered who the Democrats ran. What mattered is Trump, he needs to be pushed out of our political sphere.
BB: What is your general take on how the Democratic Party has reacted to the Lincoln Project? I think there are many breathing a sigh of relief that there’s now some savvy Republicans who know how to craft a message and can be agressive in pushing it out, which the left has long struggled to do. But there’s also some who view the Lincoln Project as a trojan horse effort for Republicans to take over the party. What’s your response to that charge?
FW: It’s funny, I’ve had some conservative friends kinda turn on me. (Laughs) Because I’ve become more and more progressive — and open about it — over the last four years.
Anyways, I would echo what the founders have said in other venues, which is very simple: the Lincoln Project’s goal is to get Mr. Trump out of office and defeat Trumpism at the ballot box. We’ve also made it clear that after Biden wins the election we will support his agenda and defend him from Trumpist attacks. We’ve been very clear.
Obviously I understand Democrats, they’re reasonable to be worried about these former GOP operatives who fought against them for years. But I can tell you honestly I know Steve Schmidt, I’ve now gotten to know Rick [Wilson] and George [Conway]. I can tell you in my interactions that everything I’m seeing is genuine. The public face and the private face is exactly the same.
I had a discussion with one of my friends who is a transgender veteran and I told her very directly, “I understand your concerns, all I can do is let my actions speak for themselves and my actions will show we are defeating Trump and will support whatever president Biden and vice president Harris decide to do.”
And if the Republican Party sits out in the woods, in the dark, in the valley — for four, eight, ten years — hopefully they’ll figure their shit out. But if they don't, then they don’t belong back.
BB: As the Lincoln project structures its ads and ethos, it seems clear that y’all are taking an agressive approach, which has worked out in spreading some powerful messages.
But I wonder if you see some limits, some lines that you don’t want to cross. I know, for instance, one of the co-creators, Rick Wilson, got into hot water a number of years ago for an ad that attacked Max Cleland. Some felt Wilson’s spot unfairly attacked the man’s patriotism, even though he lost limbs in Vietnam.
Some today clearly feel that political ads have gotten too poisonous. Do you worry at all about that in crafting ads for the LincolnProject?
FW: From what I’ve heard from the founders, they regret a lot of the things they did. Times have changed, and people evolve. I’ve evolved.
And I can say that the stuff I’ve participated in has a very clear goal. For example, the most recent spot I was involved in was a reminder of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It was just the three-year anniversary. We really wanted to remind people that this horrible thing happened, a woman was murdered, Neo-Nazis descended on an American city. When the President of the United States was faced with a very clear mandate to condemn them he said there were “very fine people” on both sides.
So, we’re not in a traditional time. The president said Nazis who killed a woman are very fine people. At some point, you have to make clear Mr. Trump doesn’t give a damn about us. So yes, the ads can be pretty harsh. But in the end, the founders and the staff believe we are on a mission to be very clear about who Donald Trump and his supporters are, and the danger they face to American Democracy. That’s where we are at.
I know some still want to believe we are in normal times. That theres a both-sides to racist attacks on a perfectly legal candidate like Mrs. Harris. The President himself took to the White House podium and floated the idea that she is not even eligible to serve as president. Doubting birth right citizenship is not normal. There was an openly bigoted, racist statement made at that podium. And by trying to normalize or ignore that by writing nice policy ads is not going to work.
BB: I’m interested in your thoughts on the current politics around the Forever Wars. We’ve seen some bipartisan coalitions building to end these entanglements. I wonder if you think that politicians risk damage in pulling out of the region? Is that a smart idea? As someone who served in the Bush administration, have you come to re-evaluate these conflicts?
FW: Obviously my feelings have evolved since 2003. And even more so since my own son-in-law was there in 2012 for the last [Operation Iraqi Freedom] rotation. He did convoys out of Iraq in 2012. I think the Forever Wars have gone on to long. The fact that my family, and many others, have fought a multi-generational war is just patently ridiculous.
Somewhere between the military leadership, and the congressional leadership, and the presidential leadership — everyone gave up their job of supervising and managing these wars. It became — we were the for whatever reason.
And Trump is a a perfect example. What makes him so frustrating is he’ll sometimes do the right things for the wrong reasons. And he’ll do it the wrong way.
I did believe we needed to draw out of Iraq, we did need to lighten our footprint in Syria, I do believe we have to get out of Afghanistan — I also believe we need to do it smartly and strategically rather than willy nilly numbers set for a date because Trump made a random promise..
We’ve reached a point now where the same military families keep going to war while our constitutionally designated supervisors fail to do our jobs. Congress has not done oversight in any real way in years. We are still working off the Authorized Use of Military Force from 2001. Anyone who has half a brain knows the wars we are fighting don’t have a damn thing to do with Al Qaeda attacking New York.
I’m not a general, I don’t claim to know what to do. But I will say this: I do know there are people whose job it is to do this work right and nobody is doing it.