A group of staffers loyal to ousted Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint stepped down from the organization in the wake of DeMint’s resignation on Tuesday, capping a vicious “power struggle” that has roiled the flagship conservative think tank.
On Tuesday shortly after 4:30 p.m., Heritage officially announced that DeMint was out—to the dismay of tearful staffers and crestfallen allies of the now deposed Heritage president. At an all-hands meeting after the announcement, the group’s interim leader, former president Ed Fuelner, announced the departure of a number of Heritage’s top staff members, according to two sources in the room.
The staffers who resigned included executive vice president Bret Bernhardt, vice president of communications Wesley Denton, vice president of policy promotion Ed Corrigan, and Cameron Seward, DeMint’s chief of staff.
Less than an hour later, all four were removed from the Heritage website’s staff list. A source familiar with the situation said they tendered their resignations at the request of Heritage leadership.
Chairman Thomas Saunders announced on Tuesday afternoon that the board had unanimously voted to remove DeMint from the helm of the organization. He cited “significant and worsening management issues” under DeMint’s reign, and said it would “conduct a thorough search” for a new president.
“While the organization has seen many successes, Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve [significant] problems,” Saunders continued. “This was a difficult and necessary decision for the Board to take.”
DeMint released a statement shortly thereafter disputing the board’s characterization and calling Saunders’ statement “puzzling.”
“The board of trustees has praised our work for four years and approved performance bonuses for the entire management team each year for a job well done,” DeMint wrote. “It also stands in stark contrast to the independent review by the University of Pennsylvania which publicly recognized advances in Heritage’s scholarship, management and integrity over the last 4 years, and improved Heritage’s rankings in virtually every category. In fact, Heritage was recognized as the 13th Best Managed Think Tank in the world in 2016.”
Nevertheless, DeMint’s overthrow had been anticipated for days, with staff aligned with him considering various shows of solidarity.
His removal ends days of speculation at the think tank, but the uncertainty remains.
On Tuesday morning, three sources with knowledge of the situation said that the eventual number of DeMint allies resigning could climb as high as 30, though it was not clear when additional resignations would be tendered. One senior staffer, vice president of research James Wallner, had already been placed on “administrative leave” on Monday and led out of the building in what one Heritage staffer described as a “perp walk.”
Another source described the ongoing internal drama at Heritage as a “bloodletting”—and that the initial failure of Trumpcare was the last straw in bringing the civil conflict within Heritage into full public view.
Denton, a longtime DeMint aide and confidant who moved to Heritage with the former Senate Republican firebrand when DeMint took the reins at the think tank in 2013, was among the staffers who was told to resign under threat of firing, sources say. As he left organization’s headquarters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning, Denton smiled and shook hands—but declined to discuss the situation at Heritage. He was seen back at the building later that morning.
Multiple current and former Heritage staffers described DeMint’s ouster, and the departure of his allies in senior roles in the organization, as the culmination of a leadership struggle with a faction led by Mike Needham, who helms 501(c)(4) advocacy arm Heritage Action for America.
The struggle has played out behind the scenes and in sporadic leaks to the press.
The result has been conflicting narratives that emerged in different news reports in recent days, and a state of confusion among longtime staff, several of whom told The Daily Beast that they had to learn about Heritage’s recent internal disruptions by reading the news. Some painted the current state of affairs as a brutal power grab by Needham and his allies—with Needham and his allies having for a full year backstabbed and trash-talked DeMint to fellow conservatives and board members across the country, two sources said. Others stressed another complicated picture that involved long-standing internal and donor frustrations with DeMint’s “shambling” management style, another said.
“This whole sob story about Needham caring about the organization, he literally has been orchestrating this for a year,” one staffer said. “The guy is just a crazy dilettante with power hungry aims. He’ll cut everybody who stands in front of him.”
As internal tensions flare, two current employees said Heritage leadership had offered employees nearly no information, even as many staffers feared for their jobs, and downplayed or outright denied the impending purge of DeMint allies.
On Monday, Rob Bluey, the vice president of publishing at the Heritage Foundation and the editor in chief of media arm The Daily Signal, assured his staff that Denton had not been ousted and was simply taking a couple days off, two sources said.
Needham and DeMint did not respond to requests for comment.
One source described leadership’s handling of the internal dispute as “Kafkaesque.” There was “no staff wide communications except for ‘everything’s fine, don’t talk to the press,’” the staffer added, referring to an all-staff email sent on Saturday by vice president of personnel Wes Dyck that urged staff not to share information “outside the Heritage family.”
But the organization didn’t give its staff much else to go on, leaving them wondering about the fate of their own employer. “No one knows who’s in charge, not even the people who work here,” one source said on Tuesday morning.
Heritage’s board convened at 9:30 on Tuesday morning, with a scheduled vote on its leadership change at 10:30. According to one Heritage source, that vote was abruptly delayed on Tuesday morning until the afternoon, leaving DeMint, who was seen sitting with his wife awaiting his fate, in temporary limbo. Sources described the atmosphere at the meeting as tense and accusatorial, with members unable to reach a consensus on the group’s future.
Some members of the board had already met in DeMint’s absence at a dinner the night before, two sources said.
The two main Heritage factions, represented by DeMint and Needham, have effectively warred since Politico reported late last week that DeMint, a former Tea Party senator, would be stepping down after four years at the group’s helm. Two of the staffers who spoke with The Daily Beast said they believed Needham leaked the news in an effort to undermine DeMint, who planned to keep his move under wraps until Heritage found a replacement, and to convince recalcitrant board members that his ouster was a foregone conclusion.
The initial speculation about a DeMint successor reached a fever pitch on Sunday, when Needham declined to definitively rule out the possibility that White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon would replace DeMint, telling Fox News host Chris Wallace only that he wouldn’t “add to the speculation and rumor.”
Staffers say the resulting rumors were laughable.
“I’m making a list of every conservative thought leader or journalist who even vaguely entertained that Bannon might be the next Heritage president because they should be reminded of it and humiliated for it forever,” one said.
The tension is a microcosm of long-standing concerns over the role of Needham’s often aggressive lobbying shop. After DeMint signed on as president, he moved to house more of its government relations work in a new department under its 501(c)(3) umbrella. Dubbed Policy Services, the department aimed to put a more palatable face on Heritage’s relationship with congressional Republicans, which soured considerably as a result of Heritage Action advocacy.
Policy Services appears to have been a casualty of the ongoing leadership fight. A Twitter account associated with it, titled Heritage on the Hill, deleted all of its tweets over the weekend. “They hated Policy Services,” one source familiar with the department’s work said of Heritage Action and its allies in the organization.
This dispute between Heritage’s advocacy arms came amid a stark disagreement over Trumpcare-related tactics that exacerbated existing tensions within the marquee conservative think tank, multiple sources confirmed to The Daily Beast.
On March 28, just four days after Republicans pulled the plug on the first incarnation of Trumpcare, Heritage held a conference call for its members to discuss the bill and the diminished Obamacare-repeal prospects. Heritage Action had actively campaigned against the original Trumpcare bill as at best a capitulation to the progressive premises of President Obama’s signature legislative victory.
According to a Heritage member who was on the call and took notes, DeMint and Needham were both chairing the conference call—and their stark differences were on full display. DeMint was busy trying to calm down the callers who were angered that Heritage’s advocacy arm helped sink Trump’s first real Obamacare-repeal push. Needham, alternatively, was aggressively defensive of Heritage Action’s campaign to kill the effort, and emphasized that it was the right course of action.
One caller, who described himself as Jim from Maryland, according to the source on the conference call, said he was “worried about strategy” because “sometimes it seems the conservative side is so involved with our beliefs, we can’t think beyond that point, and we lose [to the liberal side].”
“There was a strategy, and the result last week was the right result,” Needham said, as he began raising his voice at “Jim,” the member recounted.
DeMint, meanwhile, had assured callers and members that Heritage was still good “friends” with President Trump and his administration.
As of Tuesday evening, DeMint and several of his high-profile loyalists at Heritage had fallen victim to a purge.
“You’ll likely bear witness to a massacre,” one Republican source had concluded, bluntly, on Tuesday morning.
Disclosure: Lachlan Markay is a former employee of the Heritage Foundation. He left in January 2013, before DeMint officially became president.