Lincoln Project Scandals Highlight The Role Of Lawyers As Donors
The Lincoln Project is facing rising allegations of ignoring sexual harassment claims against co-founder John Weaver, profiteering on donations, and even violating federal law in posting private messages by another co-founder. Now, in an effort to show that it is addressing the Weaver allegations fully and openly, the Project announced that it has retained a law firm to do an independent assessment of the controversy. However, the Project selected Paul Hastings, which has leading members (including a managing partner) who supported the Project financially. The support of lawyers for the Project is particularly troubling given its campaign to harass other lawyers to get them to drop Donald Trump or the Republican party as clients in election challenges.
Recently disclosed FEC filings highlighted several lawyers at Paul Hastings who contributed thousands of dollars to the group during the 2020 election cycle. One is Gregory Nitzkowski who is listed as a managing partner at the firm. Also included is Elena Baca who is listed as one of the firm’s “global chairs.” There are also partners Steven Marenberg, Sam Alavi, and Joe Profaizer.
What is surprising is the level of legal support for an organization that actively targeted fellow bar members and their clients to intimidate and harass any attorney who was representing the former president or his campaign.
The calls by various groups to deter such representations later morphed into a demand for the disbarment of dozens of lawyers and members of Congress. Notably, this campaign has not extended to Democratic lawyers like Marc Elias who was accused of lying about the Clinton campaign’s funding of the Steele dossier, including reportedly being present when a denial was given to congressional investigators. After Democrats called for the disbarment of lawyers challenging the election for the Republicans, Elias challenged a New York election for the Democrats (including alleging that the computer voting systems flipped or negated votes). Crickets. No harassment. No doxing. No calls for disbarment.
The Paul Hastings partners are not alone. The donors list is full of attorneys funding the Project. One notable name is Randall Eliason who writes for the Washington Post. (For full disclosure, I have previously criticized Eliason for columns claiming strong criminal allegations against Trump based on interpretations long rejected by the Supreme Court. He has been equally critical of my writings).
Eliason wrote a column that I previously criticized that supported the campaign against other lawyers. What Eliason did not mention in the column was that he was a donor supporter of the Lincoln Project, something that most newspapers want disclosed. Eliason is a “professional lecturer” at the school (where I teach on the full-time faculty and he is listed with his employer as “George Washington University.” While Eliason notes briefly that the Lincoln Project was suspended on Twitter for doxing Trump lawyers and says such abuses are “never appropriate,” he does not mention that he is one of the donors of the group that carried out such abuses.
In his column, Eliason made a convenient distinction that it would be wrong to run such a campaign against lawyers in criminal cases but not in civil cases. Of course, that ignores that many civil cases involve unpopular clients in cases in defense of civil rights, the First Amendment, and other constitutional rights.
The date is July 4, 2020. The date of the Washington Post column is November 12, 2020. Yet, in his column, “Yes, going after Trump’s law firms is fair game,” Eliason dismissed the notion that attacking a person’s lawyers, rather than his positions, is beyond the pale: “Law is a profession, but these mega-law firms are also big businesses. Like any business, they can be held accountable by the public — and by their other customers.”
After his column on the Lincoln Project, I wrote:
“Eliason justifies such harassment by saying the Trump campaign and Republican groups ‘have filed lawsuits that appear to contain baseless allegations of fraud and that seek to have lawful votes rejected.’ Note the word ‘appear.’ Eliason did not know when he wrote the column because he has not seen the evidence. Neither have I. We only began to see underlying evidence (or the lack thereof) this week as courts held hearings into pending motions. It is the difference between wanting something to be true and knowing something to be true. That is generally what courts determine.”
We now know Eliason was speaking not just as a defender but a donor for the Lincoln Project. While the money was hardly consequential for the Project and it was made before the campaign against other lawyers, it did not matter to Eliason who gave a full-throated endorsement of the campaign against other lawyers for their representation. Indeed, the criticism of lawyers funding the project was a criticism of Eliason’s own status as a donor. It is akin to a columnist writing in support of the National Rifle Association after it was accused of wrongdoing without revealing that he is an NRA member or donor.
Putting aside the failure to disclose his status as a donor, my main objection remains the same. This Project has carried out a disgraceful campaign to intimidate and even dox lawyers to coerce them to drop their clients. The Lincoln Project was not alone. The campaign was highly successful as clients were pressured to drop firms unless they agreed not to represent Trump or the party in the election challenges.
It seems that our rage addiction has taken hold of lawyers who now justify and even help fund attacks on fellow bar members for doing their jobs as counsel for unpopular clients. Many have found a type of license to abandon core values and to attack others. I have spoken to lawyers who have been the targets of these campaigns with violent threats, harassing calls, and efforts at intimidation. An associate at Kirkland & Ellis (which was opposing the Trump campaign in court) reportedly called counsel for the former president to harass her. While she reported that she was not aware that her firm represented a party in the case, there did not appear to be any ethical concerns about harassing another lawyer because she was representing an unpopular client.
Some have taken more direct action like the recent vandalism of the home of one of Trump’s impeachment lawyers. The Lincoln Project and others like Eliason did not call for such action. I do not believe Eliason or these other lawyers would support vandalism or violence. However, the Lincoln Project and its legal donors helped create an environment of intimidation and coercion for other lawyers. It is not surprising that some might find the line between harassment and vandalism to be a fine one in an environment where attacking lawyers for being lawyers is both the proof and the prerogative of the righteous.
Note: Before posting this column, I reached out to Eliason for confirmation but received no response.