There are two narratives being spun about the current turmoil at the Heritage Foundation. Last week, Politico reported that the non-profit conservative foundation’s board planned to permanently oust former Sen. Jim DeMint, who was appointed president of the organization in 2013.
The narrative Politico offers, supported by quotes from a single anonymous board member, is that Heritage is in disarray as a result of DeMint’s decisions since taking over several years ago. DeMint destroyed the organization’s brand as an esteemed think tank, prioritized politics over research, and mismanaged the institution’s assets after taking control. As a result, according to this narrative, Heritage Foundation’s executive committee had no choice but to remove DeMint pending a full meeting of the board, which is scheduled to take place on Tuesday morning. DeMint’s five-year contract with Heritage runs out at the end of the year.
That’s the public narrative. The narrative offered independently by multiple sources with intimate knowledge of the ongoing turmoil, several of whom are not particularly sympathetic to DeMint, is quite different. According to these sources, the actual story is the exact opposite of what has thus far been peddled in the media, and it all starts with Ed Feulner’s creation of Heritage Action in 2010 and his decision to let Mike Needham, a brash former Rudy Giuliani operative, control the new operation. Contrary to the media narrative floated last week that DeMint needlessly politicized Heritage and turned it into a brass-knuckle political combat group instead of a policy-focused think tank, these sources say Needham bears much of the blame for politicizing Heritage.
Rather than pushing to make Heritage more political and less focused on producing high-quality policy research, DeMint actually tried to rein in Heritage Action in recent years, as the 501(c)(4) group began racking up enemy after enemy on Capitol Hill without actually putting any congressional policy points on the board. Multiple sources told The Federalist that Needham bristled at DeMint’s repeated attempts to assert control over the splinter organization and began plotting to overthrow DeMint once it became clear that the former South Carolina senator had no desire to outsource control of the think tank to the 30-something political operative with no policy background. At one point, a high-placed source told The Federalist, Needham personally confronted DeMint and his team and told them that DeMint was done, that Needham himself would be taking over the organization.
To be sure, nobody thinks DeMint was blameless. Sources indicate he was slow to develop relationships with board members, arguably reorganized the building too quickly, and didn’t see the threat that Heritage Action posed to the Heritage brand until it was too late. While there is much blame to go around for the failure of Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare, some critics wished Heritage had a successful plan ready to go when the 115th Congress convened.
On Monday afternoon Feulner, who regained effective operational control of Heritage late last week, placed James Wallner, the widely respected head of research at Heritage, on administrative leave after Wallner publicly defended Heritage researchers and the organization’s research projects in the wake of last week’s coup rumors going public. According to a senior official in the Heritage human resources department, Wallner was told to leave the premises immediately and was never given a reason by Heritage brass for its decision.
As Wallner’s ouster demonstrates, the narratives allegedly pitched to the foundation’s board by DeMint’s detractors — that their only goal was to preserve the integrity of the organization’s policy research — are at direct odds with the narratives they sold to mainstream media sources last week. If DeMint made the Heritage Foundation too political, then how will replacing him with the head of Heritage’s purely political 501(c)(4) organization, as is rumored, make things any better? (Sources close to Needham insist he’s not seeking DeMint’s job.)
If Heritage needs to focus on its research and leave the politics to others, then how does firing its head of research, who often clashed with demands from Heritage Action to only publish papers that reached predetermined conclusions, improve the organization’s image? If Heritage’s 501(c)(4) employees were meddling too much with the work of the 501(c)(3) employees, how will removing non-political researchers and placing the remaining ones under the authority of the current head of the organization’s political arm remove the influence of politicos from the building’s policy research activities?
One source familiar with Heritage Foundation’s finances told The Federalist that donors have begun asking questions about the future of the think tank following news last week that DeMint was being ousted. Millions of dollars in previous pledges and commitments have been rescinded, the person said.
Despite all the media attention surrounding DeMint’s potential permanent ouster, multiple sources inside the building at 214 Massachusetts Avenue say the vote tally that will determine Heritage’s future is anything but certain at this point, with the two factions currently lacking the votes to win any battle outright. Feulner’s and Needham’s staunchest allies on the board include its chairman Tom Saunders, former Allied Capital CEO Bill Walton, and Nersi Nazari, who also serves on the Heritage Action board. Several sources told The Federalist that the coordinated anti-DeMint media push last week was orchestrated to give fence-sitters on the board the impression that the momentum was all in one direction.
The push to boot DeMint comes as Heritage has re-established itself as the most powerful and influential think tank on the conservative side of the political spectrum.
“The Heritage Foundation might be the biggest winner of 2016,” the Washington Examiner noted after Trump was elected last November. “While others turned their nose up at Trump, they were the ones reading the electorate.”
The New Republic referred to Heritage as “the D.C. think tank behind Donald Trump” in a profile of the institution last February and noted that it was the Heritage Foundation’s political arm — Heritage Action — which had “dismissed Trump as a distraction”:
The Heritage-Trump alliance is one of the more improbable developments in an election season that was full of them. A year ago, Heritage’s political arm dismissed Trump as a distraction, with no track record of allegiance to conservative causes. Today the group’s fingerprints are on virtually every policy Trump advocates, from his economic agenda to his Supreme Court nominees. According to Politico, Heritage employees acted as a ‘shadow transition team,’ vetting potential Trump staffers to make sure the administration is well stocked with conservative appointees. At a Heritage event shortly after the election, John Yoo, author of the notorious Bush-era memos authorizing torture, trotted out a series of one-liners about the foundation’s influence. ‘I’m surprised there are so many people here, because I thought everyone at Heritage was working over at transition headquarters,’ Yoo joked. ‘I asked the taxicab driver to take me to Trump transition headquarters, and he dropped me off here instead.’
In an article about Heritage posted last December, CNN encouraged readers to “Meet Donald Trump’s think tank,” while The Hill noted that the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts “hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation[.]”
Rather than allowing political operatives to take over Heritage’s operations, as the anti-DeMint narrative goes, DeMint actually stood firm against desires the political staff at the 501(c)(4), developed a relationship with Trump’s team, and as a result ended up turning Heritage into the de facto policy arm of the new Republican administration. What more could a conservative think tank’s donors ask for than the freedom to research and recommend conservative policy and the ability and influence to see it adopted by a new president?