Will blistering populist Steve Bannon replace fiery conservative Sen. Jim DeMint as the next president of the Heritage Foundation? Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham won't say.
Asked by Chris Wallace whether Heritage would be Bannon's "safety net as he's forced out of the White House," Needham demurred on "Fox News Sunday." "I can tell you," Needham replied, "there's a lot of speculation in the room and in the media that never misses a chance to divide and attack conservatives."
With that non-answer, speculation over the fate of Heritage Foundation will no doubt reach a new fever pitch. News of DeMint's ouster has already sent shockwaves throughout the think tank and reverberations through right wing circles in Washington, D.C.
During the entire putsch, Heritage employees have been left in the dark. Many didn't learn that DeMint was being pushed out until Politico published the story Friday afternoon. And as DeMint loyalists clean out their desks and after one board member, Todd Herrick, resigned in protest, Heritage has still issued no official statement.
Less than 24 hours before Needham arrived at Fox News' D.C. studios, Heritage vice president of personnel, Wes Dyck, sent a staff-wide email warning employees not to talk to the press.
"I ask all of you to avoid speculation, especially outside the Heritage family or with the media," a copy of the email obtained by the Washington Examiner reads. "Further public speculation is not helpful to the cause we all share: advancing principled, conservative public politics for all Americans."
When staffers learned on Fox News that Bannon could be their next boss, they greeted the rumor with a mix of hilarity and hysteria. "I have no clue about this," one senior staffer texted, "I'm literally dying right now. No one has heard of this. It's just coming out of left field."
The reactions are understandable. Passions are high and information is low in the ranks of the organization. Employees have watched the story unfold piece by piece in the media and still don't know what to expect when they report for work Monday morning. What's clear is that DeMint's days are numbered.
Back in 2013, the former South Carolina senator resigned mid-term, walked a couple of blocks to the Heritage Foundation's Capitol Hill campus, and has been leading the conservative conglomerate ever since. But DeMint reportedly lost the confidence of the board of directors after tangling with Needham over the activities of Heritage Action.
A source close to the situation explains that DeMint tried "running the place like a Senate office rather than a think tank." There was frustration that research suffered during his tenure, a charge that Heritage Vice President of Research James Wallner dismisses completely.
Needham declined to throw any punches DeMint's way on Sunday. "He's had a courageous career in Washington and the conservative movement are far better because of that," Needham said of DeMint. "The Heritage Foundation that is committed to formulating and promoting conservative policies, that is not going to change."
While Needham didn't clarify much, Wallace's Bannon suggestion at least puts to rest the narrative that DeMint was ousted because Heritage was becoming too political. The former CEO of Breitbart isn't a peacemaker. He's a brawler. That fact makes him seem out of place at the cerebral and stuffy institution. But anything's possible.
Bannon has a close relationship with Heritage board member Rebekah Mercer, the wealthy daughter of a conservative hedge fund manager. Together they helped reshape the conservative political field, backing Trump when others wouldn't. Now they might be preparing to remodel the conservative ivory tower.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.