WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump is not your typical Heritage Foundation Republican. But that hasn’t stopped Trump or the Heritage Foundation from cozying up to each other.
Technically, any think tank that exists as a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) charitable organization can’t engage in campaign activity. And for many right-leaning organizations ― the American Enterprise Institute, for example ― that legal firewall is welcome this election more than any other.
But for the Heritage Foundation ― and its cousin political operation, Heritage Action for America, which can more actively engage in political activities ― Donald Trump presents a rare opportunity: a politician without policies.
The thought seems to be that Trump, in the absence of having real, intractable ideas himself, will just defer to the ideas of groups like Heritage.
And the thing is: Heritage might be right.
Trump has shown some willingness to take the outside conservative group’s suggestions. On Monday, during his much-ballyhooed economic speech in Detroit, Trump name-checked Heritage in citing some energy statistics, suggesting that at least someone on his team is reading those policy papers Heritage so neatly binds in spiral coil.
Far more significantly, in May, Trump took Heritage’s list of eight suggested Supreme Court justices and put five of them on his list of 11 potential replacements.
According to the Heritage fellow who came up with that list, Trump taking Heritage’s Supreme Court suggestions may have been a watershed moment.
“There was obviously significant overlap between the Supreme Court list that Heritage put out, which I compiled and which was available to all the candidates who were running, and the list Donald Trump put out,” John Malcolm, senior legal fellow at Heritage, told The Huffington Post on Monday. “I was glad to see it. As a research and educational institution, The Heritage Foundation promotes sensible conservative public policies, and I am always heartened whenever policymakers across the political spectrum look to Heritage for guidance.”
It was heartening for many other conservatives, too. It was a signal to Republican loyalists that, while Trump may not be one of them, maybe he’ll listen to them.
At least, that was the message Trump seemed to want to send, choosing one issue where Republicans truly believe the GOP nominee would be better than Hillary Clinton.
Trump knows there’s a contingent of Republicans who will support him purely because of the Supreme Court, making that argument ― in his own Donald Trump-y way ― when he told an Iowa crowd in late July that Republicans “have no choice” but to vote for him.
“If you really like Donald Trump, that’s great, but if you don’t, you have to vote for me anyway. You know why?” Trump asked. “Supreme Court judges, Supreme Court judges.”
“Have no choice,” Trump continued. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. You have no choice.”
Of course, Republicans do have a choice, as do groups like Heritage, which, despite its supposed nonpartisan status, has warmed up to Trump.
Jim DeMint, the former firebrand senator from South Carolina who is now president of The Heritage Foundation, was reportedly the only think tank leader to attend a Trump meeting with Capitol Hill Republicans in March.
At the time, a Heritage spokesman passed that off as routine work to promote conservative policy solutions.
For this story, DeMint issued a written statement that read, in part: “Heritage staff members have met with numerous candidates for all levels of public office in the last year, including the Trump campaign, in an effort to promote conservative policy recommendations that provide opportunity for all Americans.”
DeMint went on to say that Heritage has laid out recommendations on a nonpartisan basis. “Heritage does not participate in any political campaign in support of or in opposition to any candidate for public office,” he said.
It’s true that Heritage’s policy recommendations are available to any candidate. But it would be difficult to ignore that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to embrace many of those ideas.
For Heritage Action, which is technically a separate entity but is housed in the same building as Heritage, the freedom to engage more directly in the election is an opportunity to call balls and strikes for the two candidates ― with a pro-Trump (or maybe just more anti-Clinton) slant.
Heritage Action now has a website where you’ll find articles like “Clinton Wrong on Tax Reform,” which offers some praise for Trump’s tax plan and bashes Clinton’s, and, among others, another piece titled “Trump’s Praise of Florida’s Zika Efforts, Explained,” which manages to offer Trump some cover for his comments deferring Zika decisions to Florida Gov. Rick Scott while also stating that handing federal emergency funding decisions to state and local officials is “not a good governing principle.”
It’s an odd role for Heritage Action to play nice with ideas they disagree with just because it’s a Republican sharing them.
On Capitol Hill, Heritage Action has gained a reputation as an organization unafraid of taking on Republicans ― so much so that, if you let GOP leadership aides go on background to comment on Heritage Action embracing Trump, they’ll happily take the opportunity to call out the group for hypocrisy. (No one would go on the record, for fear of incurring the group’s wrath.)
“Is it really surprising that Heritage Action would use a sliding scale of conservatism?” one GOP leadership aide asked. “Not in the least. But hey, anything to raise a buck. Sad.”
Another GOP aide said, “Aligning with Trump is further proof that Heritage Action is not about promoting or protecting conservative principles. They are only obsessed with being against the ‘establishment’ ― even if it means destroying the values The Heritage Foundation was founded upon.”
“Maybe this is just an effort to stave off irrelevancy,” the aide added, “but it’s probably too late for that.”
A former GOP leadership aide summed it up this way: “Heritage is self-righteous about dinging a member of Congress as not being sufficiently conservative if they so much as fail to sign on as a co-sponsor of some little-known piece of legislation, but when Trump comes along, their scorecards and purity tests vanished. Their silence and false optimism has been really disappointing, and yet not surprising.”
Heritage Action is indeed long accustomed to lobbing bombs at Republicans who it doesn’t feel are Republican enough, but the group has largely taken a pass on Trump.
The group’s CEO, Michael Needham, seemed less concerned about Trump and more concerned throughout the primary season with making sure the GOP establishment didn’t win the nomination, though Needham has expressed some concern over the one-time registered Democrat’s mutable thinking.
Shortly after Trump released his Heritage-inspired Supreme Court list, Needham called the nominee out for saying he could potentially add to the list. “And so kind of this great moment with Donald Trump and conservatives for some reason gets a question mark at the end,” Needham said.
Heritage Action could legally endorse a candidate for president, though it hasn’t endorsed Trump. (The group has never endorsed a presidential candidate.)
The group’s spokesman, Dan Holler, said it would continue to call out both sides.
“Heritage Action will advance and defend conservative policies throughout the campaign. Similarly we will criticize policies that take us in the wrong direction, regardless of which candidate offers those policies,” Holler said. “And hopefully Americans will experience a policy-oriented campaign that allows them to make an informed choice.”