Senator DeMint predicts Haley will make Senate pick today

Former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint

WASHINGTON — Amid speculation and finger-pointing, the Heritage Foundation board voted Tuesday to remove Jim DeMint as president of the storied conservative think tank.

In a unanimous vote by the Heritage Foundation’s Board of Trustees, the members asked for and received DeMint's resignation as president and CEO, board president Thomas A. Saunders III said in a media statement.

Saunders said the decision to oust DeMint was made "after a comprehensive and independent review of the entire Heritage organization," which determined there were "significant and worsening management issues that led to a breakdown of internal communications and cooperation."

He called the move "difficult and necessary." 

"While the organization has seen many successes," Saunders continued, "Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve these problems."

Saunders did not describe what the problems were. 

While he said he regretted that "the media ran with speculation about this story before the facts could be disclosed," he neither confirmed nor denied any of the accounts that led to DeMint's departure.

In his own statement Tuesday evening, DeMint called Saunders' explanation "puzzling given that 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 went on to list myriad accomplishments during his tenure as president of Heritage, concluding "this is a record of which I am very proud, on behalf of myself, my management team and the many dedicated Heritage staff and members nationwide."

As a Republican U.S. senator from South Carolina, DeMint was a conservative firebrand who helped spur the tea party electoral wave of 2010. He resigned from Congress at the end of 2012 when Heritage offered him the job. 

While his political style rubbed many of his previous colleagues the wrong way, he was loved by his friends on the far right who rallied around him after news broke Friday he was being eyed for removal. Dozens of House and Senate Republicans signed a letter praising DeMint's service to the conservative movement, including South Carolina U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and Joe Wilson and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who was appointed to replace DeMint in 2013 and has since been reelected on his own merits.

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee who helped collect signatures, said he was "disheartened" by Saunders' unsentimental statement.

"There was no appreciation shown in the letter. It was pretty harsh," he said. 

Walker added he didn't know why DeMint was ousted. "Maybe somebody felt like it was time for Jim to go. I don't know." 

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told The Post and Courier on Tuesday evening he was "shocked as anybody," and that he owed DeMint a phone call.

"I thought Jim did an outstanding job... I don't know what 'flaws' they're talking about" he said of Saunders' letter.

The news has been particularly stunning due to the fact DeMint is widely credited with giving Heritage its clout in President Donald Trump's inner circle. He ensured the group got in on the ground floor of the 2016 campaign, and from there the think tank was able to influence many of Trump's hiring decisions, Cabinet appointments and policy platforms. Nearly two dozen Heritage employees now work inside the administration.

But DeMint clashed sharply with the administration he had helped build in late March when he urged House Republicans to oppose a deal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. At the time, Trump called the group out on Twitter for helping sink the legislative effort. But a month later Trump praised DeMint at a campaign rally.

Some reports indicated trouble for DeMint had been a long time coming, in part because the Heritage Foundation's board was irked by DeMint's efforts to turn the longstanding scholarly think tank into a hyper-partisan operation. Other reports said DeMint was the subject of a coup because he was not partisan enough.

There has been speculation DeMint will be replaced by Mike Needham, the president of the think tank's political advocacy arm — Heritage Action, which has in the past been directly accused of undermining Capitol Hill Republicans' legislative agenda.

There also were rumblings over the weekend the job might go to Steve Bannon, Trump's controversial chief strategist, appearing to confirm yet another narrative that the Heritage Foundation wants its next president to work hand-in-hand with the Trump administration.

Saunders said that former Heritage president Ed Feulner would be leading the organization on an interim basis while a search is conducted for DeMint's permanent successor.

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.