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Former Michigan GOP party leader flips sides. Now he's working to defeat Trump

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/10/2020 Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
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Jeff Timmer used to be a key Republican operative in Michigan, the state party’s executive director, the smart guy who helped draw legislative and congressional districts that still make Democrats crazy. He spent three decades linked to a party fighting for abortion controls, limited government, free-market policies.

But he couldn’t bring himself to support Donald Trump in 2016.

Four years after he and 75,000 other Michiganders sat on the sidelines in that election, Timmer is back, though not so much as a Republican: On Twitter, he excoriates Trump and mocks him and the president’s allies in the starkest of terms. As an adviser to the Lincoln Project — a group of former Republican consultants from across the U.S. who want to defeat Trump and elect Joe Biden — he is part of what has been one of the most trenchant and recognizable opposition brands in the 2020 campaign.

a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a brick wall: Jeff Timmer. © Jeff Timmer Jeff Timmer.

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“It’s a burn-it-down, Molotov cocktail-throwing army,” Timmer called the Lincoln Project, saying it’s there to “bruise Trump every day and get him off message” in hopes of beating him, especially in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that turned the election in 2016.

For Timmer, it goes all the way back to the beginning of Trump's first campaign in 2015, when he chastised Ford Motor Co., said Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers to the U.S. and declared the American dream "dead." He later suggested a federal judge had a conflict of interest overseeing a civil suit involving Trump's for-profit university because of the judge's Hispanic heritage. "I felt I couldn’t support him when he came down the escalator (in 2015)," said Timmer, referring to Trump's entrance in June 2015 at Trump Tower. “I thought, ‘This guy is a circus clown show and he’s not serious.' "

a person standing in front of a crowd: Developer Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife Melania Trump, is applauded by his daughter Ivanka Trump, right as he's introduced before his announcement that he will run for president of the U.S., on June 16, 2015, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. © Richard Drew, Associated Press Developer Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife Melania Trump, is applauded by his daughter Ivanka Trump, right as he's introduced before his announcement that he will run for president of the U.S., on June 16, 2015, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York.

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"I came into (politics) idealistic and somewhere along the way I got caught up in the winning and the losing … but with Trump, I thought … ‘Why am I doing this?’ ”

It’s not a question he asks himself now. As with the other key members of the Lincoln Project — consultants like Rick Wilson, John Weaver, Steve Schmidt and Stuart Stevens, who played key roles in the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and John Kasich, as well as George Conway, the Never-Trump lawyer whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, is one of Trump’s most trusted advisers — Timmer delivers his opprobrium for Trump with an exuberance and acerbic elan that, to supporters at least, seems appropriate to the moment.

They range from the direct to the deeply sarcastic. On Thursday, when Trump tweeted "PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT" in response to the Supreme Court's ruling he doesn't have absolute immunity from a subpoena for his tax records, Timmer responded, "I see someone woke up on the gibbering barking madness side of the bed today."

When in late June, it became apparent that several cases of coronavirus were linked to a bar in East Lansing, he tweeted, "Wow. A virus immune to both people's stupidity, boredom, and political ideology. If only there were medical science to guide us. Alas." When Trump attracted a far smaller crowd than expected for a rally in Tulsa last month, Timmer said he'd seen '70's tribute bands get bigger audiences.

Some, including several national columnists, believe it all goes too far, arguing the Lincoln Project members are embittered consultants more in it for themselves than any political end. Some suggest they are raising money and producing ads to keep themselves relevant, line their own firms' pockets and take some measure of credit if Trump loses.

Timmer, though, says his own conversion has come at some personal cost, resulting in him being “excommunicated” from the Republican Party, which is fine by him. As of this time, he considers himself an independent.

“It’s hard to resist the persuasion of your friends and your colleagues and your tribe,” said Timmer, who noted there are some Republicans and former allies who refuse even to talk to him. “(But) I saw Trump from the get-go as someone completely without any moorings in ideology or morality. … I thought … I’m not going to help or endorse someone who I think is wrong. … I’m going to speak out about what I think is wrong and what I think is right.” 

Whatever the motivation,  the Lincoln Project's ads, some of which have appeared on TV and others online, have bloodied some noses already.

  • In the committee’s ad, “Truth,” Trump is taken to task for saying in Tulsa last month that he wanted testing for coronavirus to be slowed so more cases weren’t uncovered. “Slow the testing down?” the ad asks. “Slow down our chance to save tens of thousands of lives?” Trump and his administration later said he may have not been entirely serious, but the president could have cleared that up at the time and didn’t. As it was, he allowed his own words to be used against him.
  • Another ad, tweeted this week by Conway, depicts Trump as the victim of a whisper campaign, saying, "Why do you think you're losing, Donald? It's because you've got a loyalty problem," then suggesting — without evidence — that even some members of Trump's own family may be the source of leaks about his behavior. 
  • In another controversial ad, the Lincoln Project packaged video of Trump seeming to have trouble walking down a ramp at West Point and using two hands to take a drink of water, suggesting there might be something wrong with his health — in a way reminiscent of Trump’s own attacks on others, such as calling Biden “sleepy” and questioning Hillary Clinton’s “mental and physical stamina” in 2016. While other campaigns might not be so quick to adopt Trump’s playbook, the Lincoln Project is clearly unbothered doing so. The ad even showed Trump walking the stairs to Air Force One, with what appeared to be tissue paper stuck to his shoe.
  • Then there are the ads that look to draw a distinction between Trump’s behavior and that of other presidents, such as one comparing Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s drafting a speech, never delivered, in which he planned to take responsibility if the D-Day Invasion failed to Trump’s saying he didn’t take any responsibility for his administration’s slow rollout of testing for coronavirus this spring.
  • In another, “How a President Leads,” video shows Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama delivering poignant messages of hope at times of crisis; Trump is shown talking of deploying American military forces to “dominate” protesters in the streets. It then switches to shots of a smiling Biden, saying, “It’s time to pick up our heads and remember who we are.”
  • One ad, “Mourning in America,” which in itself played off a 1984 ad associated with Reagan’s reelection campaign, blamed Trump for the deaths and economic fallout from the virus, resulting in Trump posting a series of tweets calling them “loser types” and saying they “don’t know how to win.” He attacked Conway directly saying, “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.” Facebook labeled the ad as "partially false" — based on a PolitiFact fact-check that noted legislation approved by Congress and Trump provided funding for small businesses — but by making his own comments, the president guaranteed the ad a much larger audience. In June, after the Trump reaction, fundraising picked up and Weaver told NBC the group had 110 million video views. On Twitter, the organization has 1.2 million followers.

Social media followers don’t necessarily mean votes, though, and polls show voters who identify as Republicans overwhelmingly support Trump. But as the president continues to struggle with independents and Democrats — and trails badly in polls in Michigan and other battleground states — Timmer and the Lincoln Project believers are more than happy to continue sticking their fingers in the commander-in-chief’s eyes.

In some cases that means running ads on FOX News in Washington, D.C., for no other reason than Trump himself is likely to see it.

Writing for the website Politico, Joanna Weiss, editor-in-chief at Experience magazine at Boston’s Northeastern University, rhetorically asked how “one renegade super PAC managed to trigger Trump and his allies so thoroughly?

“Part of it is surely frustration that a group of Republicans would issue a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden. Part of it is skill: The Lincoln Project ads are slick, quick and filled with damning quotes and unflattering photos,” she wrote. “But part of it might just be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats.”

Many of those kinds of ads over the years have been aimed at Democrats — such as the infamous 1988 ad used by supporters of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush against Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis in his race for president that critics said stoked racist fears by showing a photo of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while part of a furlough program in that state.

Days before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump himself tweeted out a web video of a Mexican man who had been deported but returned to the U.S. and was convicted of killing two California deputies with the false message, “Democrats let him into our country. Democrats let him stay.” The ad was intended to stoke fears of immigrants.

This time, however, the target is Trump. 

Lincoln Project involvement grew out of Amash effort

Timmer readily acknowledges he’s not on the “Mount Rushmore” of Lincoln Project founders, like Wilson, a longtime Republican strategist who also is editor-at-large of the Daily Beast website; former California Republican political director Mike Madrid or former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Jennifer Horn. But he’s known and worked alongside many of those consultants for years. 

As an adviser, his expertise is at the state, grassroots level, meaning he can help navigate what sort of messages or strategies might play best in the Midwest and, especially, in Michigan.

Like a lot of people, he didn’t expect Trump to win in 2016 and had been part of the failed effort to lift former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Unlike most other Republican officials, he never came around to embracing the new president, however. He says he knows other consultants who don’t care for Trump, either, considering him, in his words, a “toxic, dangerous clown.” 

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist during an election night rally on Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. © Evan Vucci, Associated Press President-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist during an election night rally on Nov. 9, 2016, in New York.

“But they’re getting checks from the RNC (Republican National Committee) so they keep their mouths shut,” he said.

Then in 2019, he, Wilson and Weaver, who worked for McCain and Kasich’s campaigns, launched a political action committee to push reelecting U.S. Rep. Justin Amash after Amash, a former Republican, called for Trump’s impeachment, abandoned the party and declared himself an independent.

That effort, said Timmer, “went off the rails” when Amash, now a Libertarian, weighed running for president. But it directly led to Timmer’s involvement with the Lincoln Project. 

That’s not to say Timmer was always a fan of Amash’s — like many other Republicans, he disagreed with him on some policy issues, as Amash has often been seen by critics as someone who rejects government having much of a role in anything. But Timmer, who lives in Portland, in Amash’s district, thought, “When he was willing to say I’m against Trump and you should be too, I thought that was something we had to support.”

And while Timmer, 53, readily admits he has become somewhat more liberal as his children have gotten older — he’s got five, including an adopted child from Ethiopia — and now, for instance, believes in same-sex marriage, he still considers himself “a small ‘c’ American conservative … for fiscal sanity, free trade, strong defense. … A John Engler conservative” who nonetheless is supporting Biden this year.

“I’m sure on most matters of major policies (like taxes and spending) I won’t agree with a lot of what Biden will do if he embraces Medicare for All, the Green New Deal. … That’s nowhere near where I am. … I am not going to be a Democrat.” But he said those are arguments for the future, once Trump and what Timmer calls his “outrage politics” are turned out of office.

He considers Trump supportive of white supremacists, an enemy of equality. Last November, amid the U.S. House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of Trump, with Republicans trying at every turn to frustrate it, he wrote a piece for the online platform Medium declaring his intentions, saying, “Supporting Democrats goes against my political DNA. … Yet after 30 years earning my living in Republican politics, a Democratic candidate needs to demonstrate just one thing to win my vote — a pulse.”

 “I define Trumpism as the Festivus eve from ‘Seinfeld,’” Timmer said recently. “It’s the airing of the grievances 365 (days a year). … It’s against-something politics. I don’t think it stands for anything, and if it stands for anything, it’s the wrong thing.”

Group has been criticized by some for its campaign

It’s not difficult to find criticism of the Lincoln Project. As more stories about the group’s campaign began to circulate in the media, more people — both pundits and allies of the president’s — began to fire back at the group.

Conservative columnist Amanda Devine, writing for the New York Post, called the effort “the brainchild of embittered former GOP grifters who failed to anticipate the Trump phenomenon and were not talented enough to overcome their miscalculation.” The conservative Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth put out an ad calling it a “Democrat PAC” and saying the members were only interested in lining their own pockets and denigrating ordinary Americans.

There also have been pieces noting that much of the spending done by the Lincoln Project through March — covering the period of the last financial disclosure by the group — showed it going to firms run by the board’s members for video production and media buys. The Center for Responsive Politics noted that campaign finance expert Rob Pyers found that the group seemed to be spending more than most PACs on those production costs.

While a new report on the Lincoln Project’s finances through June won’t be out until later this month, it’s clear it has ramped up production of ads going after Trump. As of July 7, according to independent expenditure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, it had spent more than $3 million targeting Trump.

And while some may raise questions about where the money is going, it is seldom crystal clear in campaign spending exactly how much is going to which firms and for what, what subcontractors and other vendors are being paid and in what time frame. Both parties take advantage of rules that often obscure sources of campaign money; a pro-Trump group previously detailed far more in political activity than it had reported to the FEC.

More to the point may be questions from other commentators. At the Atlantic magazine, Andrew Ferguson chided the group for ads “personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious and trip-wired with non sequiturs,” saying they’d be better to “leave Lincoln out of it.” Others have raised doubts as to whether ads such as theirs can really move voters.

“I know they’ve made some interesting buys. … (But) Are they just trying to throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks?” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the political handicapping site at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “They do get a lot of (web) hits but I wonder how plugged in the voters really are.”

Chris Gustafson, spokesman for the Trump campaign efforts in Michigan, put it this way: “Disgruntled losers looking for a quick buck do not concern us.”

Aim is to motivate voters against Trump

Reed Galen, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project and a political consultant who has worked for President George W. Bush, McCain and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the motivation is simple: to identify and ultimately motivate disaffected voters who backed Trump four years ago to vote for Biden or not cast any ballot in 2020.

He also readily admits that as an independent group, it’s liberating to have the kind of freedom they do “which is impossible in the context of a national party or the structure of a campaign.” 

“We have one goal,” he said. “How are we going to beat Donald Trump today.” Sometimes that means an ad buy. Sometimes it means posting something on Twitter, watching the views jump, and seeing it spread across the Internet. Timmer, he said, is a key part of that effort at the state level, understanding “at a granular level … how to identify and target voters.”

For his part, Timmer isn’t certain what will happen to his former party, he just knows he’s not welcome.

And that he’s not done burning bridges. 

“I‘ve been called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by people who were never part of the Republican Party,” he said. “I don’t know if the brand can or should be saved. … It’s going to be like the Enron of politics. I think there will be a center-right party eventually, but I don’t know if it will be the Republican Party.”

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House June 1, 2020. © Patrick Semansky, Associated Press President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House June 1, 2020.

He recalled a retweet by Trump in June of a split-screen display with one side showing Trump holding a Bible just moments after peaceful protesters were forced out of a public square in Washington by law enforcement and military using pepper spray and another showing Biden kneeling with Black church leaders in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality sparked by it. The tweet said, “Leaders lead. Cowards kneel.” 

“That tells you the embodiment of Trumpism … commemorating the death of George Floyd is somehow cowardly,” Timmer said. “That underscores the battle we’re in.”

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Former Michigan GOP party leader flips sides. Now he's working to defeat Trump


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