Normally, breaking news doesn't leave staffers hysterical at the Heritage Foundation. But when junior-level employees read Politico during their lunch break Friday, several broke down in tears. Their boss, current Heritage Foundation president and former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, was being forced out.
Politico first reported that DeMint had fallen out of favor with the organization's board of directors over the political activity of the conservative think tank. Shortly after, the Washington Examiner confirmed that Heritage co-founder, Ed Feulner, would take the helm.
Quickly after the putsch became public, storm clouds gathered inside the organization's Capitol Hill campus, as staffers began drawing battle lines on an otherwise sunny day.
"It's shameful how all this is being handled," an irate department director said. "I just can't believe Heritage brought DeMint in from the Senate, then stabbed him in the back. I guarantee they purge his people next."
So far, though, Heritage hasn't issued an official statement. Communications staffers have been warned not to speak with media. And after multiple interviews with current and former Heritage employees speaking on condition of anonymity, a prevailing narrative has emerged:
DeMint lost his job, in large part, for crossing Heritage Action CEO, Mike Needham.
Dismissing reports that DeMint was ousted for being too political, the department director argued instead that "basically this is one big Mike Needham power play." According to the source, Needham has been "trying to take over Heritage forever" and will use Feulner "as proxy to control the place."
Needham, who served as Feulner's chief of staff, did not respond to requests for comment.
While both men tend to agree on ideology, they disagree on method. A senior policy expert complained that DeMint wanted to remake Heritage in his own image, pointing to the policy services and outreach department as well as the organization's media arm, the Daily Signal (where I used to work).
"Basically he treated the place like it was his giant Senate office," the policy expert said. "That ended up being a significant departure from the vision set out by the board and Feulner."
While Needham helped bring DeMint to Heritage in 2013, their relationship began to fray during the presidential election. It reached a breaking point, two separate sources confirmed, after DeMint suggested making major changes to Heritage Action or abolishing it altogether.
"That really wasn't a smart move," the policy expert explained, "because Needham is Feulner's guy."
When the board asked DeMint to step down last weekend, the fiery conservative refused and has tried lobbying board members to keep his job. If he doesn't go quietly into the dark, the board can vote him out as soon as Tuesday when they convene in Washington, D.C.
Spokesmen for Heritage and Heritage Action did not return requests for comment.
Located just blocks from Capitol Hill, Heritage casts a long shadow over the city. It first sprang to prominence during the Ronald Reagan administration by supplying much of the policy that would make up his legislative agenda. But the organization has become increasingly political with the passing of each presidential administration.
Heritage fell out of favor with many establishment Republicans when Needham and Feulner founded Heritage Action For America, the 501(c)4 lobbying arm in 2010. At the head of a grassroots army, those politicos lobby Congress to ensure ideological purity. And they operate according to a single paradigm: "If you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."
A testament to Heritage's political clout, the report quickly shook right wing circles throughout Washington. It's not clear what the shakeup will mean to the Obamacare overhaul or spending fight, debates Heritage was deeply involved in.
But the news has already shaken Heritage's most stalwart allies in Congress, the conservative House Freedom Caucus. "Inconceivable," Rep. Dave Brat said of DeMint's looming departure. And while the Virginia Republicans didn't cry like some Heritage staff, Brat doubted that the next Heritage president "could connect Trump, GOP leadership, the grassroots community, or Heritage's legacy better than Jim."
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.