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The Grift: What did Rick Wilson do with the $64,766 he raised for a film he never released?
The Profits of Never Trump
The Media helped create a monster.
It’s early in the Biden Administration and the media coverage is fawning, a preview of a four-year honeymoon. You won’t find reporting on the Hunter Biden investigation or whether John Durham will be allowed to continue as Special Counsel. But we have seen pieces on Kamala’s Converse All Stars and the White House dogs, and we’ve heard from reporters asking if President Biden will change the color scheme of Air Force One.
This stands in stark contrast to the media’s allegations in the early part the Trump Presidency. Claims that they colluded with Russia, that Trump was installed by Putin, that a reckless maniac with control of the nuclear codes was in the White House. Even those on the right believed the early reporting and were convinced that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Some will never be convinced otherwise.
The hot air of controversy – a creation of the press and their allies in the government – continued for the entirety of the Trump Presidency, and presented the perfect opportunity for a political grift. It’s easy to fundraise when your opponent is an an alleged fascist controlled by a Cold War enemy.
One of the most successful of all the grifts is the Lincoln Project, a super PAC co-founded in late 2019 by “conservative” political operatives Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver (and others). Playing off an unhinged media, they (along with anti-Trump lawyer George Conway) announced the Lincoln Project’s formation in a December 2019 New York times opinion piece, appealing to “American values” and promising to help defeat “the scourge of Trumpism.”
Moderates, disaffected conservatives, and many on the left took the bait. The Lincoln Project was a financial juggernaut. According to OpenSecrets.org, the Lincoln Project raised just over $87 million from 2019-2020. They raised money from billionaires and small donors, from corporations and members of the government. Business was good. Apparently it still is, despite the troubling allegations against John Weaver, one of their founders recently accused of sending suggestive messages to a 14 year-old boy.
This money funded hard-hitting, factually deficient, and morally questionable advertisements against Trump. They criticized President Trump for being greedy, crass, and morally bankrupt, and the Lincoln Project took on many of these same traits. For example, one advertisement alleged that President Trump being “complicit” in Russia’s alleged bribes to the Taliban to kill American soldiers, despite these allegations never being verified. Those are the worst type of allegations, even in the world of politics. For the Lincoln Project it was just another Tuesday.
Even with their huge war chest of other peoples’ money, the effectiveness of the Lincoln Project in the 2020 election has been questioned by a number of media outlets and observers. Perhaps they didn’t care. Why change minds when you can be viral within your own audience and rack up those fundraising dollars?
There is something to that question and the underlying profit motive. Karl Evers-Hillstrom, writing for OpenSecrets.org, observed the Lincoln Project “has come under scrutiny for funneling money to its advisory board members and spending relatively little airing political ads to influence voters.”
Consider whether the con started before the Lincoln Project was created.
Enter Rick Wilson.
Rick Wilson, a founder of the Lincoln Project and a frequent guest on cable TV, has always reveled in the fight against Trump. You might have seen him mocking the accents and intelligence of Trump supporters on CNN as Don Lemon giggled. He’s also known for his tweet suggesting his desire that Melania Trump would catch coronavirus.
Wilson was engaged in the fight against Trump well before the Lincoln Project was created. On August 7, 2018, he released Everything Trump Touches Dies, a boring and repetitive screed against Trump and his supporters in politics and the media. A book written to a rabid anti-Trump audience and no one else. Credit Wilson for knowing his audience and what they want, I guess.
Rick Wilson’s GoFundMe Campaign
The broader project – “Everything Trump Touches Dies” – had been in planning long before the book was published in 2018. Back on September 20, 2017, Wilson announced he was making a documentary on the subject:
But to make the film happen he needed the public’s support. You see, Wilson didn’t have a good financial history. According to records obtained by the New York Post, there was a $389,420 federal tax lien filed in 2014 for unpaid taxes. His bank moved to foreclose on his property in 2016. He had been taken to court by American Express for a $25,729 credit card bill.
And so he created a GoFundMe page, setting a funding goal of $85,000 and making a promise of a January 2018 premiere to his prospective financers:
As the January 2018 premiere date approached, Wilson gave periodic updates on the progress of the film on the GoFundMe page and continued asking for donations:
The money kept coming in. By January 22, 2018, he was allegedly “deep” into his “pre-production work” on the film. The anticipated debut of the film was not going to be met. In a January 29, 2018 update, Wilson stated they were “almost there” and “want to get this project completed.”
By March 2018 it appeared that the film was imminent. Wilson announced that they were in the “Final stretch,” that the film was “in production.” All they needed was to finish fundraising so they could “focus completely on filming and post-production.” He even tweeted that they were “shooting and in production.” He told a supporter that the film was coming “Soon!”
After those updates there was silence on the GoFundMe page for nearly a year. Wilson reemerged on February 5, 2019, crawling out from his hole in the ground, blinking into the sun, and telling his financial backers that the film “is still happening!”
But there was one small change. The film would now be expanded in scope “to truly tell the story” of the Trump administration. But don’t worry, they were “more committed to the project than ever.”
It has been almost two years since Wilson wrote that update. His GoFundMe page has been silent since then. No film. As of January 31, 2021, Wilson raised $64,766. But by now his focus is likely on a more lucrative project: the Lincoln Project.
All of this leads to an interesting question. Supporters paid Rick Wilson $64,766 for a film he never released. Did Rick Wilson commit a crime?
The law that jumped off the page when looking over Rick Wilson’s GoFundMe was the federal wire fraud statute (18 USC § 1343). To summarize, this statute makes it a crime to defraud another out of money using interstate wire communications.
As to the potential crime, I’ll answer that question like a lawyer: I don’t know. We don’t have enough facts to answer either way.
We have seen federal charges involving fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns recently. Recall the case of Mark D’Amico, a New Jersey Man who used a fake story about a homeless veteran on GoFundMe to solicit donations to enrich himself and others. D’Amico faces 16 total federal charges, including wire fraud and money laundering. His two alleged conspirators have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in the same scheme.
With Rick Wilson, there is smoke of nearly $65,000 raised by a man with financial troubles for a film that was never released. Is there fire? This is what we need to know:
Did Wilson obtain the funds under false pretenses?
To be more specific, did Wilson provide any false status updates on the film, whether through Twitter or on the GoFundMe page, in order to encourage donations?
What happened to the money?
Did Wilson spend the funds on expenses not related to the film?
The public deserves answers to these questions. If not from Rick Wilson, then maybe from federal and state authorities.
Or perhaps we can get to the the truth on our own. We can always make a documentary. Anyone up for a GoFundMe?
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