By Gram Slattery
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In mid-March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis described the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute” that was not of vital strategic interest to the United States, in a written reply to a questionnaire from Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
His comment dismayed allies and drew fierce rebukes from many Republicans who favor a more active role for the U.S. in Ukraine, including some who are challenging him for the 2024 presidential nomination.
Playing a quiet but important role in shaping the governor’s remarks was the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, America’s top conservative think tank, according to two people with knowledge of their interactions.
Senior Heritage officials had advocated for months in conversations with DeSantis’ team that he oppose policies that could move the U.S. toward direct confrontation with Russia, the people said.
While officials at Heritage have been in contact with almost every 2024 Republican presidential campaign, including that of former President Donald Trump, the think tank’s proximity to DeSantis is unique, eight people involved in the discussions said.
Heritage personnel have held near-daily conversations with DeSantis officials in recent months about key issues, including downsizing federal agencies, reorienting U.S. foreign policy to better prepare for confrontation with China, and lowering hurdles to domestic energy production, the eight people said.
The range and frequency of those discussions with DeSantis’ campaign have not been previously reported.
“It just makes sense. He’s such a policy mind,” said one Heritage official who, like the other people, asked not to be identified so he could speak freely about the private conversations.
DeSantis’ aides and allies say next week’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee will be an opportunity for the governor to show that he is better versed in policy than his opponents. They portray it as a pivotal moment as DeSantis tries to regain momentum following a summer slide in the polls.
Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary, said the candidate had received “a wide variety of input” when formulating his proposals. He did not elaborate on what role Heritage had played regarding specific policies.
“The Heritage Foundation is a principled conservative organization and we are grateful for their contributions and suggestions,” Griffin said in response to Reuters’ detailed questions for this story.
Although the news agency was unable to pinpoint every policy DeSantis has adopted due to his campaign’s relationship with Heritage, many of his preferences mirror the think tank’s deep skepticism of the federal government, corporate elites and foreign entanglements.
Several days after DeSantis’ March comments on Ukraine, his top aides met privately with Heritage President Kevin Roberts and other officials of the think tank at an office building near the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, Florida.
During that meeting, Generra Peck, who would later serve as DeSantis’ first campaign manager, thanked the Heritage officials for helping lay the groundwork for the governor’s position on the conflict, according to one person with direct knowledge of that conversation.
Publicly, Heritage is taking pains not to take sides, in a bid to position itself as the pre-eminent conservative think tank no matter who wins the Republican nomination.
During Trump’s presidency, Heritage developed a close working relationship with him. With the former president holding a formidable 34-point lead in polls, the think tank could again find itself working with a Trump administration should he win the 2024 election.
“We are happy to provide policy recommendations to any lawmaker or candidate who asks,” said Noah Weinrich, a Heritage spokesperson, in response to detailed questions about this story.
Weinrich said Heritage has ‘hosted’ all major Republican candidates, but he did not comment on the contents of any policy discussions held between the think tank and any of the presidential contenders.
Either Roberts himself or other top Heritage officials have traveled to DeSantis’ home base in Tallahassee about once a month this year, people with knowledge of the trips said. Roberts has also traveled to Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort owned by Trump, but the last visit was more than six months ago, those people added.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
DeSantis’ policy chief, Dustin Carmack, who was a Heritage research fellow before joining the campaign, talks with officials at the think tank almost daily, according to two of the people, an unusual level of contact for a policy chief at this early stage of a campaign.
Heritage officials have held in-depth discussions with DeSantis’ team about restructuring the Justice Department, abolishing the Department of Education, firing thousands of mid-level bureaucrats and disentangling the U.S. from Ukraine, according to those people.
While Heritage officials have also held talks with all other major Republican presidential campaigns, those discussions have not been as frequent or in-depth, those people said.
Some of those conversations have included DeSantis himself as well as Roberts, those people added.
In addition to Carmack, the policy director, at least seven other Heritage staffers have taken positions in the DeSantis campaign.
Among the policy areas in which discussions have taken place is the need to reform federal law enforcement, according to a DeSantis campaign official.
DeSantis, like other Republican presidential contenders, has accused the Justice Department and the FBI in particular of bias against conservatives, accusations that law enforcement officials deny.
Steve Bradbury, the general counsel for the Department of Transportation under Trump and a Heritage scholar, has talked with DeSantis about the need to relocate the FBI outside of Washington and empower its field offices, according to the DeSantis campaign official. Bradbury did not respond to interview requests.
DeSantis appears to have embraced that view in part, saying on the campaign trail he would move much of the agency’s functions outside the capital.
The governor, as well as many senior Heritage officials, holds the view that the concentration of federal employees in Washington leads to anti-conservative bias, as the city and its suburbs vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party.
Top Heritage officials, one person familiar with the think tank’s operations said, were among a small cadre of policy experts who saw an advance draft of DeSantis’ “Declaration of Economic Independence,” which condemned the effects China and large corporations were having on everyday Americans.
While Reuters could not determine if Heritage staff suggested changes to the speech, the sharing of the document was a sign of the trust, that person said. The speech, which called for a decoupling of the U.S. economy from China and railed against President Joe Biden’s recent bank bailouts, was consistent with Heritage’s institutional policies, the person added.
The Florida governor has also embraced Heritage’s “Project 2025.” In addition to a 920-page book that contains policy suggestions for every federal department, the think tank is assembling a vast list of hires that would staff the next administration in 2025 should a Republican win – even for positions that have in the past been seen as nonpartisan.
In June, DeSantis dispatched a senior adviser, David Dewhirst, to work on the project. On the trail, the governor makes frequent references to firing mid-level bureaucrats, which two senior Heritage officials said they considered lightly veiled references to the project.
Whether DeSantis’ connection to the think tank has been helpful for his campaign is an open question. In recent weeks, the governor has unveiled a number of policies from immigration and the military to the economy. He has yet to see a bump in the polls.
DeSantis’ decision in March to characterize the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute” was consistent with the views of about half the Republican Party, surveys show. But some donors and many Republican voters vigorously disagree.
Following the controversial March 13 statement, Heritage officials had a suggestion for the campaign, according to one person with knowledge of the discussions.
Perhaps, they said, DeSantis’ message on Ukraine could be delivered with more nuance. He could acknowledge the unjustness of the Russian invasion, while insisting the U.S. needed to limit its involvement and keep its attention on China.
It is unclear if DeSantis took that advice to heart. But the governor’s message subtly shifted. DeSantis told Fox Nation in an interview on March 23 his remarks had been “mischaracterized.”
“Obviously, Russia invaded,” he said, “and that was wrong.”
(Reporting by Gram Slattery, editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Flynn)