Late last month, a strange file appeared on an Amazon server belonging to the Heritage Foundation, an influential Washington, D.C.-based think tank that remains widely regarded as one of the country’s most serious and respectable conservative institutions. The file—which appears to have been unintentionally uploaded by a Heritage staffer, rather than obtained by an intruder—offers a remarkable window into how Heritage maintains this reputation. It contains hundreds of emails and thousands of pages of internal fundraising reports documenting how the foundation navigated the flood of conservative conspiracy-mongering that followed Obama’s election in 2008, and how its staffers discussed the increasingly bizarre ideologies of its donor class with puzzlement and occasional derision.
The file, which has since been deleted, is a Microsoft Outlook backup folder that appears to have been associated with an assistant director at Heritage named Steve DeBuhr, who belongs to the foundation’s “major gifts team” and handles donor relations in the Midwest. In that capacity, he received regularly updated “call reports” containing detailed dossiers on current and potential donors as well as DeBuhr’s and other development officers’ various interactions with those donors throughout the country. By all accounts, the file appears to be authentic: It surfaced on the same server (thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com) where Heritage hosts policy papers and membership forms.
Between 2008 and 2009, Heritage raised approximately $135,000,000 in tax-deductible donations from private charities and individuals, according to publicly available tax filings. One of those individuals was a Pennsylvania businessman named Robert W. Ellis, who between 1994 and 2008 gave 40 gifts totaling nearly $250,000 to the foundation. DeBuhr’s records indicate Ellis’s development officer, a Heritage employee named Jeffrey Trimbath, met Ellis in person at least seven times between July 2008 and June 2009. In notes taken after those meetings, Trimbath characterized what he took to be Ellis’s views toward Muslims and liberals.
At lunch, Bob was characteristically passionate, but this time so no much against the Muslims, but against liberals and socialists. He said that everytime he meets a liberal/leftist person, he says “well, I guess you’re a mass murderer in training, because that’s where your ideology leads.”
Trimbath’s characterization of Ellis’s views appears to be accurate. “Liberals are basically socialist in ideology, they believe in massive government,” Ellis told Gawker when reached by telephone. “Socialism, liberalism, they all seek to gain total control. And every time–with Stalin, Pol Pot, and so on—they lead to mass murder. They’re mass murderers!”
Ellis also confirmed, as Trimpath’s latter notes suggest, that he views the religion of Islam and its practitioners with suspicion and outright hostility. For example: After a January 14, 2009 meeting at Heritage’s Washington office, which followed a lecture by an Anglican bishop named Michael Nazir-Ali, Trimbath wrote:
Bob was characteristically aggressive with the Bishop, but not inappropriate. He represented the “hard line” position of not negotiating or even talking to Muslims. He was able to ask two questions,, and interject 2 or so comments in the meeting. He said that the Bishop should forget interfaith dialogue because it just gives credibility to the Muslims.
When asked about this passage, Ellis told Gawker that “I don’t know if that’s an exact quote, but it probably came from what I said about the nature of Islam. Have you ever read the Quran? Have you ever heard of the concept of taqiya?” In the same conversation, Ellis said he interpreted taqiya to mean that Muslims are obligated to deceive non-Muslims in order to obtain power.
Furthermore, after an April 3, 2009 phone call about a recent presentation about sharia law that Ellis had seen in Washington, D.C., Trimbath described Ellis’ thoughts about the presentation this way:
[Robert W. Ellis] said that the presentation was good, and Bob made reference to the event we attended in Maryland last fall. Of course, this subject unleashed the typical torrent of passion that we’ve come to know in Bob and his views about Islam. “You can kill ‘em as fast as they’re making ’em” was a quote I hadn’t yet heard. We’re the moderates in light of this view, but that is ok.
When asked about this passage, Ellis clarified: “I probably said, ‘you can’t kill them as fast as they’re making them.’ Or that they’re killing each other faster than we can kill them.” After noting the population growth of the Iraq, the majority of whose citizens practice Islam, Ellis added: “It would be easier for us to just let them kill each other.”
Trimbath’s private attempt to distance Heritage from Ellis’s position—which, boiled down, seems to be that Muslims should be killed at a pace commensurate with their birth rate—didn’t stop the foundation from regarding him as an ally: Elsewhere in his notes, Trimbath refers to Ellis as “our good friend Bob Ellis.”
Another example of Heritage wrestling with its understanding of the views of its donors comes from notes regarding its relationship with the trust of John E. and Sue M. Jackson, which funneled $330,000 to Heritage between 1995 and 2008. One of the trust’s officers sent Trimbath an email on September 7, 2008, thanking him for sending a Heritage white paper about the compatibility of Islam with Western civilization:
Thanks for sending me the article on Islam by your Kim Holmes, #1097. While he was very circumspect in how he approached the problem, I wish someone in Heritage would analyze positions and actions our nation should take to preserve our freedoms while we are under attack by the radical Muslims.
We are in deep yoghurt and our Islamic tolerance for their radical Jihadism will submerge us unless we get a proper policy to prevent us from allowing those within to destroy us. Our Constitution is GREAT and MUST be preserved with its Bill of Rights! (Those poor Brits have already caved in; they are as lost as is France.) What is Heritage doing to focus on our SURVIVAL in the face of our tolerance to let Radical Islam destroy us using “Creeping Jihadism”?
Thank you so much for your email from Sunday. [...] Regarding your observations below, I am grateful for your counsel. We are moving clearly, but slowly, in this area given the sensibilities. We are asking the questions that other think tanks simply are not asking. And, part of that is inviting speakers to Heritage that will forthrightly confront the problem that you highlight.
Later on in the same correspondence, Trimbath asked the officer to schedule a phone call—which turned out to contain an ask for “$40K per year for the next three years,” or $120,000, from the trust. The officer did not respond to requests for comment.
A third example of how Heritage employees deal with political views well outside the mainstream conservative discourse can be found in a January 2009 call report, in which a development officer recounted a meeting with a Florida philanthropist named Betty Anderlik, who gave $62,155 to Heritage between 2003 and 2009.
She was cheerful, but a bit odd. Her biggest concerns about Obama are that he has not made his birth certificate public and that he is a Muslim. We talked a bit about Heritage’s challenges and I thanked her for her generous support.
Anderlik hung up the phone when reached by a reporter, so we don’t know if the internal reports accurately reflect her beliefs about Obama. Anderlik recently committed an additional $2.5 million to the foundation “to help turn the country around by renewing America’s focus on the family.”
It is worth pointing out here that, while Heritage doesn’t seem to have addressed the (long-settled) questions regarding Obama’s place of birth and religion, the foundation has been fairly clear about its institutional belief that Islam is a legitimate religion that respects the “values that inform democracy and representative government” and its view that the world’s Muslim population are overwhelmingly peaceful. That said, these call reports clearly suggest that Heritage does not consider a donor’s outré views toward Barack Obama’s background and Muslims (radical or otherwise) to be disqualifying, at least in terms of their ability to associate with Heritage and donate to the foundation.
This dynamic—in which a stolid conservative group depends on, and thus takes a gentle-handed approach toward, people who in Heritage’s estimation believe that Barack Obama secretly practices Islam—seems to be based on strategic rather than philosophical or moral calculations, according to a previously unpublished internal memo contained in the same cache of reports.
That memo, distributed by former communications director Rory Cooper to Heritage’s blog staff in February 2009, serves as something of a style guide for how the foundation’s employees should refer to President Obama and other Democrats:
President Obama: He is our President. And when we refer to him, it should be “President Obama”, “President Barack Obama” or “the President”. Using just his last name or even including his middle name can reflect disrespect for the office he earned in November. ...
Comparisons: “Just like Clinton” or “Much like ‘Generic Evil Person’. Unless we are literally comparing a record, let’s avoid hyperbolic comparisons.
Intent: “He wants America to Fail”, “He has a socialist agenda”. Let talk radio do the labeling for us on this one. We need to provide the facts, and let others be the judge.
In other words: Heritage chooses not to express the idea that Obama “wants America to fail” with the full knowledge that conservative talk radio shows will say that for them. Indeed, the foundation has a mutually beneficial relationship to the conservative talk radio industry: It funnels millions in advertising dollars to radio shows for access to its audience of motivated donors. In 2008, according to notes submitted by a development officer charged with handling donations from the Michigan-based Herrick Foundation (which had donated $4,405,000 between 1984 and 2008), Heritage was spending more than $4 million dollars on ads aired during popular conservative radio shows:
I reminded [a Herrick Foundation representative] that we are currently advertising on Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and the cost is about $2.5 million. I told him that we are currently negotiating with Rush Limbaugh to start that next year and that would be an additional $2 million.
Dozens of references in the same fundraising documents suggest this strategy has been effective for Heritage. In a report describing a meeting with one donor who had given the foundation nearly $118,00 between 1987 and 2008, a development officer noted: “He listens to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity a lot, hears our commercials and is very excited to hear that our membership is growing so significantly and so quickly. He is very proud to be a Heritage supporter.”
In response to several specific questions about the fundraising documents quoted in this article, Heritage Foundation spokesperson Wesley Denton provided a lengthy statement to Gawker, quoted in full by Politico here, asserting that Heritage was “unable to verify the authenticity of files circulated online” and that “all Americans have the right to support causes without fear of harassment.”
Shortly after Denton provided the statement, however, a Washington law firm representing Heritage sent Gawker Media’s legal department a 3-page letter confirming that the call reports we inquired about were “hastily-written—and often short-hand—summaries of phone calls and personal meetings between Heritage development staff and donors and potential donors of the Heritage Foundation.” Heritage’s law firm added that “we absolutely cannot and do not confirm that any alleged statements by donors and potential donors are accurately reproduced in the call report notes.”