They make an unlikely pair: an uncompromising conservative giant of the tea party movement and the one-time Democrat who wrote “The Art of the Deal.”
But former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint has forged a relationship with President Donald Trump and his administration anyway, and as the new presidency gets underway, he enjoys a position as one of the most influential conservatives in Trump’s Washington.
After playing central roles in Trump’s search for a Supreme Court justice and then in his presidential transition, DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation think tank, is now quietly working as a conduit between conservative members of Congress and a less traditionally conservative White House pushing policy priorities that he considers achievable now that Republicans are running Washington.
“One of the roles we play at Heritage is to try to build consensus among conservatives, players in the White House, the House and the Senate,” DeMint told McClatchy. Those are the decision-makers, he stressed, not Heritage. "But oftentimes--because it’s surprising that the House and the Senate and White House don’t always talk-- if we understand where they are all coming from, we can find that sweet spot, that consensus point, in how they can move ahead together.”
“It’s a shuttle diplomacy role that we often play to facilitate the process,” he added.
As part of that effort, he’s trying to keep a president with little conservative experience--and a populist streak-- focused on conservative principles.
“President Trump is interested in things that work,” DeMint said. “He’s not really ideological or very political, and it’s our job to convince him that conservative ideas like education choice or limited government are going to ‘make America great again.’”
Through private dinners and public conferences, Capitol Hill briefings and New York retreats, DeMint and his organization are working to encourage the administration and congressional Republicans to take a deeply conservative line on several hot-button issues, starting with tax reform and the health care law, which DeMint wants to see repealed immediately.
Those issues, which are very much up for debate even within the Republican Party, were top of mind at Heritage’s conservative member retreat, held earlier this month at Carnegie Hall in New York. The event drew around 60 conservative members of the House, plus administration officials including Paul Teller, Trump’s congressional conservative liaison, and Paul Winfree, who is the deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council and the director of budget policy, said a senior Heritage staffer.
“Heritage is a convener,” the staffer said, adding, “there is a role for organizations like Heritage, people like Sen. DeMint, to use the relationships they have to help facilitate the conversations and dialogue around these issues.”
It doesn’t hurt that the administration is stacked with Heritage alums.
Heritage, whose political arm was highly skeptical of Trump at the beginning of the presidential campaign, went on to be intimately involved in Trump’s search for a Supreme Court justice nominee, and Trump personally thanked Heritage for its help in developing a list from which he ultimately made his selection, Neil Gorsuch. And it was also people with ties to Heritage who helped build out key teams within the White House during the presidential transition.
Now, many have taken on roles with Trump.
The list of powerful Heritage veterans now at the White House includes Winfree, who held several prominent posts at the Heritage Foundation, and Rick Dearborn, now the White House deputy chief of staff for policy. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family, Republican mega-donors from Michigan, have also long been close to the organization.
“It’s very helpful,” DeMint said, when asked about the Heritage diaspora. Lightheartedly, he continued, “We often say they still work for us but somebody else pays them. We’ve got a lot of our alumni on the Hill, we train up a lot of folks, we’re happy for them to get jobs that give them more influence. We’ve lost a lot of good people but we’ve gained a lot of good contacts.”
Many from that network are now in a position to put forward conservative guidance to a president who is increasingly pushing a populist line that is sometimes at odds with Heritage, which has historically embraced more traditional conservative views, in staunch support of free trade, for instance, along with opposition to big spending and pushing for a tough line on Russia.
At a personal level, DeMint also has longstanding relationships at high levels of the administration. He and Vice President Mike Pence served in the House of Representatives together; and he shares South Carolina ties with United Nations Amb. Nikki Haley and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
“Am I sure that Heritage is still being consulted? Yes,” said Ken Blackwell, a longtime conservative activist and former Ohio secretary of state who led Trump’s domestic transition team (and has also served as a fellow at Heritage). “Am I sure nobody would be so foolhardy to engage Heritage and not engage DeMint? It just follows, with Heritage being such a touchstone, that its leader would figure prominently in that consultancy.”
But certainly, relationships throughout the administration may only go so far in the Trump era: Washington is dealing with a White House in which significant power is concentrated in a small group of people close to Trump, who have already been known to make decisions without the standard buy-in processes, as was the case when the administration blindsided Congress and much of the country with a stringent travel ban.
“I’ve watched transitions ebb and flow, and what a transition usually does is inherit personalities of everyone around them in setting up a government, then after the transition is over, the administration gets its own personality, and that’s still being done by the Trump administration,” said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, adding that so far, “there isn’t a lot for conservatives to complain about.” But, he added, “How much longer [DeMint] stays engaged with them will be up to the White House.”
And DeMint is not one to overstate his relationship with the president. When asked how often they spoke, he replied, “Not regularly,” and repeated multiple times throughout the interview that it’s the White House and Congress that are the decision-makers, not Heritage.
“I’ve seen him at the White House, I’ve been at meetings with some of his people periodically, we don’t call and chat very much,” he said.
But there might soon be much more to discuss. Trump is expected to lay out his policy agenda in greater detail before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, touching on issues including health care and infrastructure.
DeMint and his allies, who have long clashed with more centrist Republicans, are insistent that Obamacare can be repealed even if there is not yet a replacement ready—a plan that strikes some other GOP members, facing heat at town halls, as politically perilous. And Trump himself signaled last month that he would like to see a replacement implemented “very quickly” after repeal (though his timeframe on such an effort has shifted around). His messaging Tuesday night could more clearly define the contours of the health care debate, in which Heritage is already intimately involved.
It’s not clear that a congressional debate over infrastructure would come up anytime soon, though that could also be a source of disagreement. Previously both Trump and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, have expressed eagerness to spend big on infrastructure (“The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” a gleeful Bannon said shortly after the election in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter), and Heritage’s political arm has already expressed opposition to such an approach.
In the interview, DeMint said that tax reform and health care needed to be top priorities: “It’s the only way we end up with enough revenue to begin to solve other problems the president has talked about, such as infrastructure,” he said.