The controversial president of The Heritage Foundation, former Sen. Jim DeMint, will soon be out of a job, following a dispute with board members about the direction of conservative think tank, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.
Some Heritage board members believe that DeMint has brought in too many Senate allies and made the think tank too bombastic and political — to the detriment of its research and scholarly aims.
There’s also a sense that he’s made the institution too much about himself. “He has been a congressman and senator. They are solo performers. When you are in the Senate, life is all about the senators,” said one board member, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about DeMint’s situation. “CEO skills are different than senator skills. I think it boils down to attributes. I don’t think it is particularly personal.”
DeMint has been in contract negotiations, which are expected to be cut short, the sources said. An announcement about his future at Heritage is expected to come within the next few days. His contract is up at the end of 2017, according to one board member.
A handful of Heritage staffers close to DeMint, who came over from the Senate with him, are also expected to leave the think tank in what two sources called a “purge.”
A GOP operative who works closely with Heritage said DeMint’s removal as president was imminent and that more changes are expected to follow. “There’s massive turmoil over there right now,” the operative said.
Amid all of this, President Donald Trump praised DeMint by name during a speech to NRA members on Friday, calling DeMint “amazing” and “a real friend.”
DeMint could not immediately be reached for comment. Reached by phone, the chairman of the Heritage board, Thomas Saunders, said he was too busy at the moment to talk.
Former Heritage president Ed Feulner is expected to take over as interim president, according to one House Freedom Caucus member. Feulner did not respond to requests for comment.
Researchers and policy experts inside Heritage have not been clued in to the possible leadership change, according to interviews with a handful of them, though there has been a sense inside the building that something is afoot.
“If Heritage pushes Jim DeMint out, it was because a few board members, who are close to the Republican establishment, never wanted him to be president and have been working to push him out ever since,” said one operative who has worked with Heritage. “DeMint is one of the most respected and selfless conservative leaders in the country and pushing him out would be a big mistake.”
In recent months, DeMint has raised the profile of the think tank by closely aligning it with President Donald Trump. Last July, DeMint met with Trump transition officials for several hours and made it clear that if Trump won, he wanted to have a close working relationship with the administration.
DeMint allowed the think tank’s employees to join the Trump transition team while keeping their day jobs. Many did, and they fed policy ideas to an ideologically flexible, fledgling administration.
A handful of Heritage policy wonks took White House jobs, including budget expert Paul Winfree, now No. 2 at the Domestic Policy Council. Winfree helped to write Trump’s first budget proposal, which called for deep cuts that mirrored an earlier Heritage policy plan.
One board member stressed that a number of Heritage officials, not just DeMint, have deep ties to the administration.
DeMint has injected Heritage into a number of high-profile, high-stakes policy wars in the first 100-days of the Trump presidency.
However, DeMint insisted that Heritage was not political in an interview with POLITICO in late February. “We see ourselves as a resource. We’re not really decision-makers. We’re not lobbying or driving a process here. But our hope is to influence lawmakers in a way that moves the country in a positive direction.”
On tax reform, DeMint and his team came out against the so-called border adjustment tax, a key plank of the House GOP plan touted by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). They have been relentless in critiquing the House health care legislation, blasting the Hill for not repealing Obamacare immediately — sometimes, Capitol Hill staffers have said, to the detriment of negotiations.
“Jim brought everyone in from the Senate to Heritage and made it hyper-political,” said one board member. “Heritage is also about civil society and culture. He’s taken that off of the table.”
Yet none of this is particularly surprising to anyone familiar with DeMint’s tenure on Capitol Hill, where he behaved in an equally aggressive fashion. DeMint, who served three terms in the House before his election to the Senate in 2004, approached his service with a single mission: to pull the Republican party to the right.
To that end, he encouraged a new generation of conservatives to launch primary challenges against incumbent lawmakers — an undertaking that, at the time, was virtually unheard of but would come to serve as a model for tea-party groups in the Obama era. Through his Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint funneled money to candidates including Utah’s Mike Lee, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’ Ted Cruz, all of whom defeated establishment-backed candidates or knocked off incumbents in their races.
In many ways, he laid the groundwork for the internecine warfare now playing out within the Republican Party, often saying publicly he preferred losing while standing on principle than winning if it meant striking a compromise. “I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters,” he said in 2010.
DeMint cut short his second term in the Senate, resigning in 2012 to take the reins at Heritage.
DeMint clashed frequently with party leaders during his time in the Senate, especially now-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Their feud over spending earmarks was legendary.
After DeMint left the Senate and took the reins of Heritage, the group’s advocacy arm, Heritage Action, was converted from a policy-driven vehicle into an aggressive political outfit that waged attacks against House and Senate leaders.
DeMint earned a salary of $1.1 million in 2015 from the Heritage Foundation, according to the organization’s tax filings.
A DeMint ally who’s worked with Heritage and the Trump administration on policy proposals said the timing of the push to oust DeMint “is ironic, because I don’t think Heritage has been more relevant than they are right now. They were deeply enmeshed in the transition and in a lot of policy in the Trump administration.”
Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, Andrew Restuccia and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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