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Mike Pence will address the think tank's annual gathering for top donors at the Trump Hotel

Heritage has a big footprint with Trump's transition

Washington CNN  — 

Clues about the ideas that could emerge from the Trump administration are in a stately building on Massachusetts Avenue, a few blocks from Capitol Hill.

That’s the home of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with long roots in Washington that is shaping up to be a major influence on Trump’s administration.

Much of the work that Heritage has put into Trump’s transition has played out behind the scenes. But the relationship was in the spotlight Tuesday night. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who runs Trump’s transition efforts, addressed the think tank’s annual gathering for The Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club, delivering a keynote speech to top Heritage donors.

And it played out at the new Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“This session of Congress and the focus of this administration ultimately is going to be about growth,” Pence told the group. “The first 100 days, I was visiting Capitol Hill the other day, I told my former colleagues there, buckle up, vacation is over, we are going to work. We are going to start out by repealing Obamacare, starting the process of replacing it with free market solutions and right out of the box, you are going to see our President-elect get out that pen and repeal every single unconstitutional executive order that Barack Obama signed.”

Heritage President Jim DeMint, a former GOP senator from South Carolina, said the location of Tuesday’s event was selected mainly because the President’s Club is meeting at the nearby Ronald Reagan Building this week. But in an interview, DeMint also said that having the event at Trump’s new luxury hotel would have special meaning.

“It just turned out to be a good opportunity for us, and I think some of our folks are staying there while they’re in town, so they just get a kick out of having our closing event at the Trump Hotel with the (incoming) vice president speaking,” DeMint told CNN.

Heritage has a big footprint with Trump’s transition – though DeMint reiterated multiple times that the organization is only serving in a supportive role and doesn’t call any shots.

It’s no accident, though. Heritage has a long history of advising conservative presidents and lawmakers, and DeMint said the group began the process of preparing for this transition even more intensely two years ago – even without being certain who they would be advising.

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“For the last couple of years, we have been preparing to advise as well as to help collect a whole catalog of people from all over the country who could help Trump accomplish his objectives,” DeMint said, clarifying that when the effort began, it was without a particular candidate in mind. “So we had a dedicated transition team that’s been going now from this time last year, as well as developing the policy manuals … on every issue and what the President can do on executive orders.”

Some of the conservative think tank’s top names are volunteering at high levels within the transition, including former Heritage President Ed Feulner, former Reagan attorney general and Heritage fellow Edwin Meese and former Reagan official and Heritage fellow Becky Norton Dunlop. Heritage scholars are advising on policy throughout the transition, including in areas of foreign policy, domestic policy, budget and administration management, and 11 members of Trump’s agency landing teams so far have Heritage or its sister political group listed as their most recent employer.

No other Washington institution has that kind of footprint in the transition.

While Trump himself does not have a long relationship with Heritage, DeMint served in the House with Pence and calls him a “great friend.” Trump’s attorney general nominee, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has been shaping the transition for months, also has a long relationship with DeMint and the think tank.

The coziness is no secret in Washington. At a Heritage Foundation event just after the election, John Yoo, a Berkeley Law professor and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, got warm laughter from the crowd by cracking about the closeness.

“I’m surprised there are so many people here because I thought everyone at Heritage was working over at transition headquarters,” Yoo said during the panel about Trump’s win. “I asked the taxi cab driver to take me to Trump transition headquarters, and he dropped me off here, instead.”

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Heritage shades to the right of the conservative policy world. In terms of a first 100 days agenda, Heritage is focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare, tightening up immigration and pulling back government regulations – dovetailing with Trump’s campaign promises.

In fact, DeMint said, staff preparing policy recommendations for the next President have looked to Trump’s public pledges to develop their suggested legislative and executive actions.

Heritage has also been well positioned to have trust with the incoming Trump administration. Some other conservative think tanks had members sign onto anti-Trump letters during the election. Heritage did not and DeMint reached out to Trump early on to demonstrate how his group could be of service.

“I had told Donald Trump in a meeting, I believe it was prior to the convention, that we could help provide the people and policies that could help make America great again,” DeMint said. “So just by being prepared, also the campaign and the transition knows, that many of these issues that Donald Trump ran on – repealing Obamacare, securing the borders and preventing amnesty, and draining the swamp – those are things Heritage has been building support for for years.”

Heritage released its “Blueprint for a New Administration” days before the election, filling it with recommendations for a Trump administration that reveals some of what its members are likely advising Trump. Key elements include balancing the budget, repealing Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, reducing entitlement programs, rolling back government regulations and building out national defense budgets.

The report, authored by some of the people now working on Trump’s transition, goes agency by agency to lay out executive actions that could be taken and legislation that could be passed in each area.

DeMint says they would have advised any candidate who’d listen, even Hillary Clinton if she’d been interested. And Heritage takes a trust but verify approach, they say, meaning they’ll plan to hold the administration to its promises.

Still, DeMint expects the work to pay off.

“So many folks might criticize that we put so much resources into this and if Hillary had been elected most of it would have gone in the trash the next day,” DeMint said, chuckling. “But I’ve learned in my experience that victory goes to those prepared, and Heritage is not looking for attention or credit, but what we do want to do on behalf of our supporters is reinvigorate our country with good policy ideas, and it turned out to be a very good match with what Donald Trump wanted to do.”

CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report