A Republican operative identified himself Wednesday as the man who filed a January lawsuit alleging sexual battery and defamation against Matt Schlapp and his wife Mercedes, two prominent Republican insiders in Washington, DC. The two are a conservative power couple at the intersection between traditional movement conservatism and the MAGA wing of the GOP.
Carlton Huffman alleges Schlapp groped and propositioned him while he was working on Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign. Schlapp had come to Georgia in October 2022 to appear at events for the Georgia Republican. The incident, first reported by the Daily Beast, was promptly reported to senior officials on the Walker campaign, which Vox has been able to confirm. Huffman came forward in an interview with the Washington Post after a judge ruled that his lawsuit could not proceed with the Republican making his claims anonymously.
The lawsuit not only targets Schlapp for what is described as “aggressively fondling [the plaintiff’s] genital area in a sustained manner,” but for what it describes as an organized effort by Schlapp and his wife to discredit and defame the accuser. The lawsuit also alleges that the accuser was defamed by Charlie Spies, Schlapp’s lawyer, and Caroline Wren, a Republican operative involved in the infamous January 6, 2021, rally in Washington, DC, in addition to the Schlapps. The lawsuit includes a text that Mercedes Schlapp sent to a neighborhood group chat that falsely described the accuser as “a troubled individual who has been fired for lying.”
Schlapp’s legal team has pointed to past racist blog posts by Huffman to discredit him. The blog posts were resurfaced in late January in an anonymous email sent to statehouse reporters in North Carolina, where Huffman had just started a new job. The job quickly ended and Huffman distanced himself from his posts in an interview with local television station WRAL, saying his views were “ugly” and that he was “ashamed” of them.
Who is Matt Schlapp?
Schlapp is at the center of the conservative establishment in Washington. The former political director in the George W. Bush White House, in 2014 he became head of the American Conservative Union (ACU), the right-wing group that puts on the annual, highly influential Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) conference. Schlapp’s prominence grew during the Trump administration when he became a vocal ally of the former president, appearing regularly on Fox News, and Mercedes Schlapp became a top staffer inside the Trump White House. At the same time, Schlapp, a father of five, maintained an active lobbying presence through his firm Cove Strategies and raked in millions during the Trump administration. As authors Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng described them in their critically acclaimed book Sinking in the Swamp, “the Schlapps have carved out a niche for themselves as a Trump-era power couple, wielding influence in the president’s inner circle and translating that influence into lucrative lobbying deals.”
Why does he matter?
Schlapp matters because of the ACU and CPAC. There are a lot of well-connected Republicans inside the Beltway, and certainly a number of Trump allies, who have tried to leverage their connections with the former president into becoming right wing media personalities. But what separates Schlapp from your average Tom, Dick, or Seb Gorka is his control over CPAC. The conference is the annual measuring stick of the conservative movement’s id and has followed the right’s drift into Trumpism as figures once banned from the conference as extremists now are featured speakers. It’s the place that establishment politicians appear when they need to woo conservatives and where conservative politicians show up to get noticed.
CPAC also is a profit-making center where sponsors try to get the conservative movement to embrace their policy goals. In the Trump era, traditional corporate sponsors have backed away for more MAGA-inclined groups and companies. The fights over what topics are and aren’t discussed at CPAC are heated. Most recently, traditional social conservatives complained that abortion had been sidetracked in favor of MAGAworld favorites like targeting big tech and “wokeism.”
Finally, CPAC is a scene. It draws Republican officeholders, aspiring officeholders, operatives, consultants, grifters, and just plain weirdos from across the country. It’s a place where attendees show up dressed as George Washington, a disgraced Congress member has a hot tub party, and where a lot of the sausage-making of Washington networking gets done. While other conservative groups like TPUSA have held buzzier events with high-profile speakers as well, CPAC still maintains a unique convening power on the right.
The suit raises questions about whether Schlapp will be able to retain his highly prominent role as head of the ACU and comes only weeks before CPAC’s annual conference in early March, which typically draws international attention. The conference has partnered with conservative LGBT groups in the past, like GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans, although it also hosted speakers like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who denounced same-sex marriage on stage at last year’s conference in Texas.
What happens now
In a statement to Vox, Tim Hyland, a lawyer for Huffman, said: “Our client is the victim of a sexual assault by Mr. Schlapp ... Mr. Schlapp has not directly denied our client’s allegations and with good reason — they are unmistakably true and corroborated by extensive contemporaneous evidence. Instead, he has through his friends and associates started a whisper campaign and leveled social media attacks spreading lies about our client.
“We intend to keep a singular focus to demonstrate that Matt Schlapp is a sexual predator who assaulted our client. Because Mr. Schlapp has refused to own up to his behavior, this suit aims to make Mr. Schlapp and those who lie for him accountable for their actions.” The suit asks for at least $9.4 million in damages.
In a January statement posted by Schlapp on Twitter, Spies said: “This anonymous complaint demonstrates the accuser’s real agenda, working in concert with [the] Daily Beast to attack and harm the Schlapp family. The complaint is false and the Schlapp family is suffering unbearable pain and stress due to the false allegation from an anonymous individual. No family should ever go through this, and the Schlapps and their legal team are assessing counter-lawsuit options.”
Neither Schlapp nor Spies responded to follow-up requests for comment from Vox.
Update, March 8, 2:40 pm: This story, originally published January 17, has been updated with news of the campaign staffer’s identity.