Republican resistance squads launch anti-Trump barrage

As Donald Trump prepared to fly to Mount Rushmore to celebrate the July 4 Independence Day holiday, a small group of critics who have trolled him online for months aimed a harsh message at the 45th US president.

“Four of America’s greatest presidents are carved into the living rock of South Dakota’s Black Hills. They are a memorial to those who served with honour,” the narrator says in a video posted on Twitter, before adding: “America’s worst president will neither be remembered nor revered.”

Critics of the most polarising president in modern US history are common. But the video is unusual because it was created by the Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans who worked for former presidents George Bush and George W Bush but are now trying to help Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, beat Mr Trump in November’s presidential election.

“We are like the French resistance. We are blowing up the supply lines,” said John Weaver, a veteran Republican political consultant and one of the co-founders of the group, which is named after President Abraham Lincoln.

While Mr Trump still enjoys high approval ratings among Republican voters, some in the GOP establishment are unhappy at his actions in office, including his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and stoking of racial tensions in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

The Lincoln Project is one of several anti-Trump Republican groups to emerge ahead of the election. Others include Republican Voters Against Trump, which includes several former top aides to ex-governor Jeb Bush, and “Right Side”, founded by Matt Borges, a former Ohio Republican party chairman to persuade Republicans in key swing states to back Mr Biden. But it has captured the most attention after its videos triggered an angry reaction from Mr Trump.

Its founders include Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire Republican party chief, and Reed Galen, who worked for former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The group has not released its second-quarter fundraising numbers, but according to the Federal Election Commission, it raised more than $2.5m by the end of March.

Mr Weaver said he had hoped politicians would lead the charge against Mr Trump but lost hope. “We had been to confabs where conservatives would wring their hands and sip Chardonnay and say that the constitution was being ripped up, but nobody was doing anything about it,” he said.

The Lincoln Project employs about 25 people who are able to respond rapidly to events because they do not answer to a candidate or campaign team.

When Mr Trump came under fire this week for ignoring intelligence that Russia was paying the Taliban to kill Americans in Afghanistan, the group promptly released two videos suggesting he was a puppet of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

In May, they successfully got under Mr Trump’s skin with “Mourning in America”, a video that accused him of ignoring Covid-19, which had then killed 60,000 people in the country. It was a play on the optimistic “Morning in America” advert that former president Ronald Reagan used in his successful re-election campaign in 1984.

The attack so riled Mr Trump that he lashed out at the founders by name on Twitter in the middle of the night and described the entire group as “Rino losers” — a disparaging moniker that stands for “Republican in name only”.

The Lincoln Project has created 30 videos to try to persuade Republicans to abandon Mr Trump. These racked up 120m views in June on Twitter.

Mr Weaver said the group’s activity on Twitter was “the tip of the iceberg”. It also uses other traditional ways to reach voters who might switch. But he said the platform allowed it to needle an “audience of one” in Mr Trump, a prolific Twitter user. Mr Weaver said they wanted “the reptile brain to react to something he hates or fears” in the hope of provoking an incendiary response that would help them fundraise.

Other strategies include taking out advertising on local TV networks when the president travels outside Washington, knowing he watches a lot of television.

After releasing “Mourning in America”, it spent $5,000 to air the video during a Fox show called Tucker Carlson Tonight that the president watches. According to Mr Weaver, the Lincoln Project raised $2m after a clearly agitated Mr Trump responded furiously on Twitter.

“If this was a campaign, he would be our biggest donor and we would name him ambassador to Slovenia,” he joked.

Mr Borges of Right Side said he reluctantly voted for Mr Trump in 2016 in the hope he would be more measured in office than on the campaign trail, but he has concluded the president is “a lot worse than people feared”. “The idea that there would be guardrails around him was completely blown out,” he said.

Right Side, which includes Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, aims to raise $10m and is close to reaching its first million, Mr Borges said.

His research showed a significant number of Republicans were interested in an alternative to Mr Trump, and the Democrats’ choice of Mr Biden over a progressive such as Bernie Sanders made it easier to convince them to back the rival party candidate, he said. Recent polling shows Mr Biden leads Mr Trump in practically all the swing states the president won four years ago.

“I have to take a crack . . . to get the cancer out of the White House,” said Mr Borges.

Lincoln Project also plans to keep up the pressure. “We have some things in the missile silo that we haven’t launched,” Mr Weaver said. To remind Mr Trump, the group this week tweeted: “Current location: The United States of America. Current activity: Trolling the president.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi