Miles Taylor is many things but he is no longer Anonymous. That was the word he hid behind in writing a damning essay in the New York Times from inside Donald Trump’s White House and a subsequent book.
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Today, Taylor is speaking openly to anyone who will listen. The 35-year-old conducts part of a phone interview with the Guardian while boarding a flight from Chicago to north-west Michigan. At one point he breaks off to make sure two fellow passengers get to sit together. With the grateful couple safely ensconced, Taylor carries on talking. What if his unvarnished views on the former president trigger a display of Maga air rage?
“It’s been my experience the past couple of years that when someone notices you and they come over and say, ‘Are you such and such person?’, you don’t know if that’s going to be someone who says thank you for what you did or someone spits in your face and tries to punch you. So yeah, I try to lower my voice in public.”
Even so, Taylor has proudly attached his name to a second book, Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump, which combines raw politics with uncomfortable disclosures from his own life. Showing the zeal of a convert, the man who for a time was at the centre of the biggest mystery in Washington has become an apostle of radical transparency. With Trump once again charging towards the White House and vowing revenge, Taylor sees the cloak of anonymity he once embraced as a fundamental threat to democracy.
Taylor insists he hates politics but was inspired to work in government after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. He started in the George W Bush administration and was a senior aide on Capitol Hill. After Trump’s election he joined the homeland security department, eventually becoming chief of staff to the secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.
In September 2018, Taylor wrote his column in the Times, under the headline “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”. The article made public what cabinet members were saying in private: Trump was unstable and unfit.
Guessing the identity of the author became a Washington parlour game, with Trump demanding the Times unmask him (“TREASON?” he tweeted). Taylor quit the administration and followed up with a book, A Warning, attributed to “Anonymous: A Senior Trump Administration Official”, another chronicle of incompetence and malevolence in the White House.
Yet he was finding the secrecy an unbearable burden and, after much agonising, unmasked himself in October 2020.
He recalls: “It’s obviously very ironic coming from me but, in the aftermath of all of that, I came to the conclusion that the biggest threat to our democracy was anonymity.
“The people who most needed to come forward and tell the truth were cowed into silence, including me. I thought anonymously sounding the alarm about the president would draw attention to the message instead of the messenger and always intended to unveil myself. But in the aftermath I realised I really should have done that a lot sooner both for political reasons and personal reasons.”
Politically, he believes, coming forward sooner would have given more people cover to do the same. When Taylor went public ahead of the 2020 election, it proved helpful in recruiting what would be the biggest alliance of ex-officials in US history to campaign against the president who appointed them.
“But then personally, the living two lives was an enormous stressor on my psyche and my life. The pressure to come forward or not? Frankly, at the core of it, the reason why I delayed was fear and, as I dove deeper into myself, it felt like cowardice because I saw what happened to people who went against Trump. While I convinced myself, ‘Look, you’re going to unmask yourself eventually,’ I was hesitant in that time after the publication of the op-ed and the book, because I didn’t want my life ripped to shreds. But ultimately, I felt I really had to do that,” he says.
To manage anxiety attacks, Taylor abused alcohol and prescription drugs. He was hospitalised after overdosing on caffeine, alcohol, marijuana and Xanax, at levels that had killed other patients. After revealing his identity, he received death threats, took on a bodyguard and was forced to shuttle between safe houses.
Taylor now writes: “The public fight against Donald Trump cost me my home, my job and savings, friendships, a relationship, and my family’s security, temporarily putting me on the run. Late one evening in a Virginia high-rise, it also nearly cost me my life.”
This last point is a reference to how, alone with a gun on election night in 2020, Taylor contemplated shooting himself. Now, sober for nearly 18 months, he sees the experience as metaphor for the US in the Trump era.
The flirtation with putting another hyper-populist far-right person in the White House is effectively civic suicidal ideation
He says: “The ways that we individually, if we ignore our guardrails, can end up causing ourselves to drift towards self-destruction and similarly, as a democracy, ignoring those guardrails is effectively suicidal ideation. That’s what we are as a country grappling with right now.
“The flirtation with putting another hyper-populist far-right person in the White House is effectively civic suicidal ideation. In the course of writing this, the personal guardrails being ripped off in my life looked an awful lot like what’s happening right now where our collective silence, at least in the Republican party, about this guy is leading us potentially towards self-destruction.
“Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t people sounding the alarm but, by and large, the leading figures of the Republican party refuse to repudiate this man and continue to support him. We are doing this again, even though those people say privately he’s a threat.”
Taylor offers the example of Kevin McCarthy, the House speaker whom Taylor used to meet weekly.
“He thought Trump was a buffoon and a danger and I’m sure Kevin still thinks that privately. Those people publicly, because they’re afraid, are still supporting the man. That collective anonymity is putting us in pretty seriously great danger.”
In November 2020, the journalist Carl Bernstein listed 21 Republican senators he said had “repeatedly expressed contempt” for Trump. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill have confided in reporters about such disdain, generating countless stories. But few ever go on the record. Taylor talked to many of them for his book.
“Some of the people who were incredibly critical of me for publishing anonymous critiques of the president are the same people who when I interviewed them, asked that I not use their names so that they could speak candidly. They asked if they could be anonymous in the book. You can’t even make that shit up: that’s insane hypocrisy,” he says.
“And after I submitted to the publisher, I went back to some of these people multiple times and said, ‘I really think you should consider letting me put you on the record here. Let’s make this an opportunity for you to be on the record pushing back against this.’ ‘Oh, no, no, no, no. It doesn’t make sense right now. I’m better positioned in my job in Congress or within the party to steer the direction.’
“To them I would say: I thought the same thing and was completely fucking wrong because we weren’t able to steer in the right direction. Look, you guys aren’t having an effect. He’s still dominating. Stop fooling yourselves. The best impact you can have will be to speak out from within the tribe because it is air cover for other people to do the same. I’m afraid we’re sleepwalking back into the exact same mistakes we made last time and that’s why I called this Blowback.”
On or off the record, Taylor’s sources shared horror stories to add to his own. Trump allegedly sought to tap aides’ phones in an attempt to catch leakers. He was said to have viewed military veterans as “lazy malingerers” and planned to destroy the $250bn veterans’ social safety net so he could spend the money elsewhere. He put his own government on edge about the prospect of nuclear war.
Taylor recalls: “Officials were so worried that the president would accidentally lead us into a nuclear war with North Korea that, for the first time in the history of the Department of Homeland Security, we convened every single leader to talk through actual real-life preparations for what we might have to do if we ended up in a nuclear conflict with another nation state. I will tell you that, in the wake of those preparatory meetings, I felt like we were woefully unprepared as a country to enter that type of conflict, which made it all the more reckless that Trump was being so bellicose with regard to the North Koreans.”
Blowback describes how White House officials worried that Trump wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the military on US soil. Aides mused about using American firepower against helpless migrants.
Taylor writes: “On the flight back to Washington DC, Trump adviser Stephen Miller took a seat next to me to float an idea. Across from us at a small table sat the commandant of the coast guard, Adm Paul Zukunft. ‘Admiral, the military has aerial drones, correct?’ Stephen inquired. ‘Yes,’ Zukunft replied. ‘And some of those drones are equipped with missiles, correct?’
“‘Sure,’ the commandant answered, clearly wondering where the line of questioning was going. ‘And when a boat full of migrants is in international waters, they aren’t protected by the US constitution, right?’ ‘Technically, no, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at.’ ‘Tell me why, then, can’t we use a Predator drone to obliterate that boat?’ Adm Zukunft looked nonplussed. ‘Because, Stephen, it would be against international law.’”
All of it, Taylor warns, would be far worse under “Trump 2.0”, with guardrails gone and third-rate officials in place. Taylor fears Trump could use secret powers known by national security officials as “the doomsday book” to manipulate elections and satisfy his authoritarian impulses.
He says: “The aides that guarded that book were concerned about the president reading it, or Maga allies around him getting ahold of it, because especially towards the end of the administration, they witnessed the president’s proclivity to abuse his authorities for political purposes, and especially as he started to signal that the 2020 election might be stolen or he could be cheated, those same people were concerned about Trump realising he had even more extraordinary powers than he knew and that he might potentially use those to cement a coup.”
The US dodged a bullet: the doomsday book almost fell into the hands of Christina Bobb, a Trump lawyer, election denier and former host on the far-right One America News Network.
“I have no doubt that she would have taken the doomsday book to Trump and said, ‘Wait a second, look at all of the classified emergency powers we could use to make sure that power is not transferred to Joe Biden.’ That’s pretty terrifying,” Taylor says.
“In a second term, Trump will be very much aware that exists and I suspect from day one they’ll want to get their hands on it and see what tools we in the American public aren’t aware of that they could use to further cement a hold on power and disrupt the political process.”
In Blowback, Trump’s vulgar sexism also comes under scrutiny. Taylor recounts how the president made lewd comments about his own family members. He writes: “Aides said he talked about Ivanka Trump’s breasts, her backside, and what it might be like to have sex with her, remarks that once led [then chief of staff] John Kelly to remind the president that Ivanka was his daughter. Afterward, Kelly retold the story to me in visible disgust. Trump, he said, was ‘a very, very evil man.’”
Trump was not beyond “locker room talk” at national security meetings. Taylor says: “He would critique women about their looks on their television appearances and their bodies, including my own boss, Kirstjen Nielsen, at one point, and that was incredibly off-putting. There’s an anecdote I tell in the book about him joking about [press secretary] Sarah Sanders’ weight.
I’ve got to think that people who are still hardcore supporters of Trump’s will at least draw the line at incest fantasies
“But the comments about his own daughter were the most disgusting. I debated actually whether to even include those anecdotes in the book because they are so graphic and disgusting. But I’ve got to think, or hope at least, that people who are still hardcore supporters of his, who’ve stuck with him through impeachments and indictments, will at least draw the line at incest fantasies.
“There’s got to be a point that you just decide, no matter how much you like someone’s policies, that their character is so vile that you can’t support them. So I ultimately decided to put that in there to talk about his misogynistic behaviour because I think it’s reflective of the way he conducts himself as commander-in-chief. You can’t firewall those two things from each other. He can’t be a disgusting person in his private life and a paragon virtue in his public life. That doesn’t exist. Those private behaviours lead to public danger.”
That much should have been clear in 2016, when the public learned of the Access Hollywood tape, on which Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitals, and elected him anyway. He has always been the opposite of anonymous, a celebrity flaunting his vices in plain sight. Taylor thinks 2016 might be happening again.
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Taylor says: “There’s been a number of polls that show the ex-president beating Joe Biden by several points. It would be hubris to say, ‘Oh, no, we would beat him again a second time.’ Actually, I don’t think that. If the election was held today, I think Donald Trump would defeat Joe Biden, and that really concerns me.”
Taylor proposes harsh medicine few Democrats would be willing to swallow: a coalition with moderate Republicans, perhaps even with the former congresswoman Liz Cheney replacing Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate.
“The single best jump to beat Trump is a unity coalition that Biden would undertake to form. He talked a lot about bringing Republicans into his administration in the first term. Not a whole lot came in. He needs to bring someone to the top of the ticket to show he would govern for the first time in American history as a unity president with a unity administration. That’s maybe his only shot to decisively beat Donald Trump,” he says.
Taylor’s plane is about to take off. After celebrating his father’s 80th birthday in Michigan, he will head to a memorial service for a family member who died at 95.
“I’m taking heart in the fact that I’ve got family members that are living so long,” he says, philosophically. “Hopefully that means something for me. The stupid situation that I keep putting myself in in going against these political crazies probably is not terribly good for my lifespan. We’ll see.”