When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Miles Taylor: Inside the Trump White House

| S:1 E:49
Miles Taylor: Inside the Trump White House

In 2018, Miles Taylor anonymously authored a New York Times op-ed titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”. At the time, Miles worked in a senior role in the Department of Homeland security.

Eventually, after Trump asked him and other officials to break the law, Miles quit. He decided to author a book, again anonymously, titled A Warning, which described in detail the morally gray, and sometimes blatantly illegal orders that came from the President.

In the lead up to the 2020 election, Miles felt it was important to reveal himself as the anonymous author of both the op-ed, and the book.

Now, he’s created the Renew America Movement, an organization dedicated to giving a voice to the ‘rational’ republicans who won’t subscribe to the right-wing extremism of Donald Trump.

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Miles Taylor:

Donald Trump on various occasions had ordered us to gas, electrify and shoot innocent migrants at the border, civilians. Now the president may rightfully think that our border security wasn't up to snuff, but it's not legal to shoot, electrify and gas innocent women and children that are coming across the border to the United States. The vast majority of whom are merely seeking to come here for a better life

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

My guest today is Miles Taylor who was thrust into the national spotlight after revealing himself to the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed titled, "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration." At the time of the op-ed, Miles worked in a senior role at the Department of Homeland Security and decided he had to warn the country about the chaotic and even criminal behavior of President Trump. Now in the wake of the 2020 election, Miles and a group of Republicans are putting pressure on their party to reform and to renounce their allegiance to Donald Trump.

Miles, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Miles Taylor:

Ken, thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Ken Harbaugh:

Great to have you. We have to start with the op-ed because although it wasn't really that long ago in real years, in political times, it was a lifetime. So set the stage for us. Where were you? Why'd you write it? And what were the immediate repercussions?

Miles Taylor:

Yeah well, I mean, look. From the get-go I think everyone who went into the Trump administration recognized that the president at a minimum was unprepared to assume that office. I mean, there was a widespread feeling among members of his cabinet, especially the national security cabinet, that he really wasn't familiar with the government bureaucracy, the departments and agencies that he would be assuming control over, and that folks needed to go in to really stabilize the ship. Now, I'd say that's at a minimum because there were a number of other folks early on, who, as they got exposed to the president, felt that in many ways he was unqualified for the office and were pretty scared about what they saw. So in the first year of the administration, I had the same experience, witnessing a president who was totally disinterested in the details, wouldn't read, wouldn't pay attention, could not focus in meetings and made decisions in a very ad hoc and reckless manner.

So John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, you name it, Jim Mattis over at the Pentagon, had started to become much more worried about the president's stability and also the way the executive branch was being run. But year two, the second year of the Trump administration, is when I published the op-ed. I'd say things had gone from bad to batshit crazy. I mean, just an absolute nightmare. There was no process at the White House there. It was total dysfunction and chaos, and it was resulting in truly horrible decisions. One of them being the decision to move forward with Jeff Sessions', family separation policy over at the Justice Department, which then was thrust upon the Department of Homeland Security.

While at the time I wasn't doing immigration policy, I was a counter-terrorism and intelligence advisor to the secretary. I just stepped into the role of deputy chief of staff. I watched this slow moving train wreck, something that was so obviously a disaster, that was so obviously going to turn into a humanitarian crisis, just move forward anyway, because Trump was hell bent on having it done. That really spooked me that the so-called guardrails that we had in the administration were not working. And the president was moving forward with very inhumane policies, regardless of what advisors were telling him. So that pushes me right up to September of 2018. When I reached out to the New York Times to publish the piece.

Now the proximate cause, a couple of nights before I submitted that to them, was that I was in Australia with the Homeland Security secretary. We were having sensitive meetings with our intelligence partners, the Five Eyes intelligence community, and I get a phone call in the middle of the night from the White House deputy chief of staff. It was like three in the morning in Australia. And he says, "Who the hell lowered the flags?" And I said, "What are you talking about?"

Now, John McCain had died just days before. And the Department of Homeland Security traditionally says that all flags nationwide should be lowered when a senior statesman dies or another national figure, or former president, that sort of thing. And so we had done that. We'd put out the message that all federal buildings should lower the flags to half staff and honor Senator McCain.

And so the voice on the other end of the phone says, "The president wants the flags raised back up. He does not want to honor McCain. He wants them raised back up." I said, "Hold on a second, let me make some phone calls and just make sure that we put out that order. But you understand if the president wants us to do that, he needs to call personally, and if he does, you're going to see some resignations from this department." I had been someone who admired McCain for a very long time. He was one of the first people I met when I came to Washington D.C., someone who I'd worked with when I was a staffer on Capitol Hill and a man that I admired, one of my few remaining heroes. So we have these calls back and forth in the middle of the night. And ultimately John Kelly convinces the president to let the flags stay at half staff.

They issue a White House order that says they should go down. Trump was very reluctant about that. He hated John McCain and I'd been noodling on the idea of saying something. And after that episode, I remember at that point, it was probably 6:00 in the morning and Australia, I popped up, I went over to my desk at the hotel and in about 30 or 45 minutes, I wrote an op-ed that essentially said, "Look this administration is in total chaos, it's operating on two tracks. One track is whatever crazy idea the president cooks up on any given day. The other track is the bureaucracy is the government trying to function and stay stable." And really the only check on this man, sure there's good people trying to keep things in order, but the only check on him ultimately is the people themselves. And so I wanted to put that message out there.

And the last thing I'll add before going back to you, Ken, is there was one clear reason why I did it anonymously. That's because I've learned that Donald Trump is a master at the politics of personal destruction and personal distraction. He loves to attack a person and not an idea. So by submitting that op-ed without attribution, he had to contend with the message that his own administration was opposed to his leadership. And I wanted him to confront that, although I said not long after that, that ultimately I would come out under my own name. And in fact, I think that's important to take ownership. And I did so before the 2020 election, so we could talk very candidly about who Trump was, but at that point in time, I wanted him to grapple with the message rather than distract from it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I definitely want to talk about your decision to publish anonymously, but I want to ask first if you draw a distinction, or if at the time you drew a distinction between policies and actions that were, as you just described, inhumane, ill advised, all disrespectful and petty. Do you draw a distinction between bad policy and unlawful, or unconstitutional policy?

Miles Taylor:

Yeah, absolutely. And there should be. I mean, look, there's a misperception that there was some resistance in the Trump administration that defied the lawful orders of a commander in chief. That's not what happened. There was not a cabal of people saying, "This is a lawful order, but I don't like it. And therefore, we're going to subvert it and be treasonous and not implement the president's orders." And look for better or worse, Donald Trump and Mike Pence were the only two names on the ballot to run the executive branch. He was the duly elected legitimate president of the United States. And there has to be reverence for that office, but at the same token, it's incumbent upon the president to act according to the law and consistent with the balance of power. There were a number of decisions that the president made or orders that he gave to us that were patently illegal.

And that's when we grew very concerned. So for instance, that year prior to releasing the op-ed, Donald Trump on various occasions had ordered us to gas, electrify and shoot innocent migrants at the border, civilians. Now the president may rightfully think that our border security wasn't up to snuff, but it's not legal to shoot, electrify and gas innocent women and children that are coming across the border to the United States. The vast majority of whom are merely seeking to come here for a better life. It was moments like that where we grew very alarmed about the president's disposition and there's various channels in which those concerns were raised.

I mean, the only answer isn't to just go pop off and write anonymous op-ed. You refer things to the general counsel, you refer things to inspectors general, you notify people on Capitol Hill. There's a system for these sorts of things, but we could go through a long litany of concerns that we had about Trump trying to do things that weren't just unethical or inhumane, but illegal. And that's ultimately why I resigned from the administration as he gave us an illegal order to seal the U.S. border and then said he would offer us pardons if we went to jail, that to me was a bridge too far. And so I quit

Ken Harbaugh:

When you say that Trump issued these orders for example, the order to electrify gas and shoot unarmed migrants. I am picturing one of these rants in the Oval Office directed at his subordinates. Was it like that, or were these codified, were these written down and submitted formally?

Miles Taylor:

Well, thankfully most of these people wanted to save their own asses. And so would not end up in written form because the aid that turns that kind of edict into an executive order doesn't want to be the one who's got emails that can be foiled, implementing an illegal act. So a lot of these things were stopped while they were just verbal fantasies of the president, but they also were not one-time edicts. I mean, in the instance of the president wanting to shoot migrants at the border to dissuade them from coming across illegally, he said that multiple times repeatedly and phone calls and in-person meetings with us in the Oval Office. And he got specific. He said, "Look, I don't want to kill him, but let's just shoot him in the leg so we can slow them down. And so that other migrants can see that they'll get shot if they try to come to the border."

I remember one of the times, the secretary and I were on the way to New York I think for a big cyber security conference with the vice president, and Trump is seeing a caravan coming towards the border of a caravan of migrants, most of whom, again, innocent people, probably a small number of criminals in there, which the CVP is very good at identifying. And he said, "We need to slow them down. We need to shoot him in the legs." And the secretary was just a gas that he was still saying this and called Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon and said, "You need to call the president and explain to him how use of force works." And they did, and they shut it down. And then incredibly Trump went on TV later that day and said, "If the migrants throw rocks, we'll use rifles."

He ignored it. Now we didn't go forward with implementing that order. Again, that would be a violation of use of force, inhumane, and psychotic quite frankly. But it was those types of episodes that the president would repeatedly go back to, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

And even though the functionaries of government didn't act on many of those verbal fantasies, your words, can you explain to us from an executive theory point of view, why it is still dangerous?

Miles Taylor:

Yeah. I mean, look, here's the reality: We were very, very lucky in a lot of cases that the president didn't go forward with ill-advised or illegal orders. That was primarily because his subordinates had talked him out of it, and refused to implement them. But that's not to say that there aren't people who would have gone forward with some of those orders, as a matter of fact, towards the end of the administration, Donald Trump systematically dismantled this apparatus that I called the steady state, right? Trump would call it the deep state and say, "These are people trying to subvert the government." I called it the steady state, because really it was a group of advisors who had been in government before in various capacities, who understood that there were things the president was trying to do, that he couldn't, and that they needed to advise him and steady the ship of state, if you will.

If you can give Trump credit for anything it's that he has a well honed radar for people who have a conscience and the folks who would tell him what he needed to hear rather than what he wanted to hear. He would identify them and remove them from the administration. So by the time you get into year three of the Trump administration, a lot of these folks have been sacked or pushed out. And Trump is increasingly putting in place the folks he's realized will implement almost any order or go along with his edicts. And this isn't a hypothesis here. Trump had said to us multiple times in person and later publicly, how much he liked having people in acting roles is because he realized if someone wasn't confirmed in their posts and they were in an acting capacity, they were much more likely to suck up to the president because they wanted to get nominated for their job and get it permanently. He recognized that, and he said that to us. He said, "I really like my acting's because they do what they're told."

And by the end of the Trump administration, you had a historic number of people in acting capacities who were willing to go forward with ill advised policies, everything from what you saw with the crackdown against nationwide protests, over race, to the show of force we saw happening in Portland and elsewhere. You had folks that were just willing to say yes, rather than to challenge him in the end. And that becomes very dangerous. It means the functions of government, everything from protecting the American people to issuing social security checks are at risk from the instability. And I don't say that lightly. I mean, the last thing I'll add on that point Ken, because when I publicly came out against Trump in 2020, the biggest point I made was that not only were his fantasies about abusing the levers of power meant to benefit himself politically, but they also deeply distracted from the work we needed to be doing to protect the country.

So at DHS, immigration is only one slice of the pie. That department is responsible for protecting the nation from cyber threats, from terrorists, from nation state interference, from Russia and China. And down the list, natural disasters. But the president saw that one slice of the pie, immigration, as the whole pie, and was clinically obsessed with only talking about that. And it literally meant that day to day, our ability to manage DHS- atrophy. As a result, I think the American people were in greater danger. Enough attention was not paid to cyber threats. The president never paid attention to cyber threats. Not enough attention was paid to counter terrorism. Not enough attention was paid to the threat from Russia and China. In fact, the president actively urged us not to pay attention to the threat from Russia. So I felt that on a day-to-day basis, he was subverting our Homeland Security efforts and the country was in greater danger as a result.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk to us about the dilemma of serving within an administration like this, that is pushing all kinds of ill-advised, and as you described, illegal policies, but finding yourself one of the few people who might be able to keep the worst accesses from becoming reality. How do you make that calculation? How do you balance the need to be one of the few sane people left against the moral requirement to resign when things cross a certain line?

Miles Taylor:

It's a really good question. And I don't claim to have all the right answers. In fact, plenty of people can look at my story and judge it for themselves and say, "He should have left sooner or he shouldn't have gone in." But it's in a way sort of a moral ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, and I think it's a very important one for people to play out. I don't care about burnishing my own credentials, but I think people should use my story as a way to ask themselves what would the line be for them? Because we're all facing these moral quandaries, because we're voting for these members of Congress, these senators, these candidates for the office of the presidency who have views like Donald Trump. So it's really on all of us to ask these same moral questions.

In my case, there was a set of several. The very first was whether to oppose Donald Trump or not. That was a no brainer when he was running for president. I was working on Capitol Hill and for House leadership at the time when Paul Ryan was speaker of the House, and Donald Trump was number 17 of 17 candidates in the primary that I was with. In fact, I helped draft something that behind the scenes, Paul Ryan called the Trump inoculation plan. And it was a GOP strategy that we released so that if Trump became the nominee, we would force him to have a platform and a conservative platform. Because we were all worried he wasn't a conservative.

So that was my first choice: stay in House leadership and work against Trump behind the scenes. I was glad to do it. When he won, a lot of those same people from Paul Ryan on down, who'd panicked about Trump getting the nomination, thought he had no chance of winning now had to face the prospect of, do you help him and try to help him keep the government stable or do you just completely oppose him? And that was a no-brainer as well, as Paul Ryan, all the committee chairmen said, "Look, he's now the Republican president, he is the commander in chief. The guy could do a lot of damage if he doesn't go in with smart people."

So we started actively working with his transition team to help them identify good cabinet secretaries. Now, at that point, I didn't envision going into the Trump administration at all, and was heartened to see that he picked some really good people to be in the cabinet. One of those was John Kelly, a man that I'd gotten to know while working on Capitol Hill four star marine general outstanding credentials. He went in to be secretary of Homeland Security. When Kelly and team reached out to ask if I'd come on board, then I faced another conundrum. And it was, "Well, can I do more harm by going into this operation?

And in that case, they had a very, very thin bench at DHS. There were not a ton of people who had gone in who knew how to do counter-terrorism, intelligence policy. So I decided to go in with Kelly and try to help him get DHS into a good place. Now I had a friend ask me at the time, "Why would you go in? Trump is crazy." And my answer was “Because he's crazy. Because we need people who are going to go into this administration who know what they're doing rather than the island of misfit advisers that Trump had brought with him. And I've met a lot of those folks up at Trump Tower during the transition and thought, ‘Oh my God, these people do not know how to go in and run a government.’”

And so that was the first moral decision, but then as time went on, exactly as you ask Ken, at first we were able to put a lot of bad ideas back in the box. It was like Jack in the box or whack-a-mole, Trump would call and say, "I want to pull out of NATO." And so everyone would rush to the White House to have a meeting with him and convince him not to pull out of NATO and then it would work. And so for a time for about the first year, a lot of those really bad decisions got put back in the box. But by the time we got into year two, Trump really started to subvert his advisors. He would either fire them or just go around them or tweet things into existence.

I mean, one example had been, we'd been telling him he should not pull U.S. troops out of Syria because there were active ISIS terror plots that our troops were trying to disrupt, and Trump didn't want to hear it. So one day in December, he just tweeted it into existence. I was sitting in John Kelly's office. John Bolton was there, the national security advisor, we were talking about something else. And then we look up and we see on the TV screen, the president has tweeted. "We're pulling out from Syria." Did he consult John Bolton? No. John Kelly? No. Did he consult his secretary of defense Jim Mattis? No. We all found out from a tweet that he sent from his bedroom in the residence. That was really terrifying.

So the point at which saying no to the president no longer becomes enough, is when I think folks need to decide to resign. When you can't contain the bad stuff from within, then it's your duty to leave and not just to leave, but to go tell the truth, and to go speak publicly.

Now, there've been some folks who've said that it's treasonous to work for a president and then leave and then oppose him. I'd taken a totally different view. Teddy Roosevelt actually said it was treasonous not to speak the truth about the president when the truth needs to be told. And so I felt like it was incumbent upon me once I quit to actively start speaking out and to get others to do the same in our own names. Because as I noted before Ken, when I initially released the op-ed, I still thought it was important to stay in the administration to stabilize the ship because we knew who was going to replace us. Quite literally the White House had floated us a list of the people who would take our jobs if we didn't do what the president said, and those people were dangerous people. They were people who had no experience running an agency like the Department of Homeland Security. And we were in this impossible predicament: the president threatening to fire us because we were saying no so much, but also knowing who would replace us and so needing to stay in. That was not an easy decision to make. Do I wish I'd resigned sooner? Yes. There was actually a period just before the midterm elections in 2018. When I tried to get a number of members of the cabinet to resign in unison, I wanted them to resign en masse, to prove a point about Trump and they were very close to doing it. The only reason they didn't is because they were worried if they did it, it would cost us the midterm elections, the Republicans that is that we would lose the House. And Trump would use that as an excuse to discredit those people who resigned.

So everyone kept their powder dry. And then what happened? Right after the midterms, Trump started to sack a number of those cabinet secretaries systematically before they could resign. So at that point, the whole thing was falling apart and I felt like I needed to quit, get out of there and speak the truth. So I left, I wrote a longer form statement against the president, a book called A Warning. That was basically a message to the American people that I said, "Look, I was wrong in my original op-ed the guardrails did not hold, these unelected bureaucrats like me and John Kelly and other people we're not going to be able to protect you. Our only defense against the president's erratic impulses or the people themselves deciding not to reelect him." And then decided to come out in my own name subsequently after releasing the book to really tell those stories and to have them stand on their own two feet.

Ken Harbaugh:

You've described the steady state not the deep state, but the steady state is that cadre of seasoned professionals who provide advice with a level of experience and maturity required to keep the gears of government running. Did your experience watching that be dismantled one person at a time leave you despairing for the institutional strength of our government or the fact that it took several years leave you somewhat encouraged?

Miles Taylor:

I hate to be the Senate Ken, but I'm going to go with the former rather than the latter. It was dispiriting on a number of different levels. One from an institutional standpoint that the president had found out how to get around the various checks and really wanted to abuse his power for political purposes. And again, that's another thing that I don't say lightly. But the president would make decisions on the basis of how it would impact him politically rather than how it would impact the people. And I'll give you an example. One I've talked about publicly is the wildfires in California. We had these egregious wildfires sweeping the state, people were losing their homes. People were losing their lives. And the president called and told us “Do not distribute wildfire aid, emergency FEMA aid to California.”

What was the reason he gave us? The reason he gave us is that Gavin Newsome, then governor, didn't like him and was a Democrat, and the people of California didn't vote for him. That's why the president didn't want to give money to wildfire victims. Because it was a blue state and not a red state. What do you do in that moment? I mean, as the institutional safeguards start to bend and crumple, I mean, he has the authority technically to deny aid, whatever reasons he wants. That's actually not illegal, but it's very, very wrong. So I was really dispirited at that. Now the good news is ultimately he was persuaded not to do that, but an order was right drafted. It just didn't get sent.

Then on the personal level, I'd say it's twofold Ken: One was that more people didn't speak out sooner, and two was that even once they were fired or resigned that they then didn't come out and tell the truth. Now, keep in mind. Most of these major figures you saw in the Trump administration, I was in rooms with them personally when they said, "Not only is Donald Trump reckless," they would say things like."He's a danger to the fabric of our republic." And then say nothing. That was really disheartening to me because who the hell is Miles Taylor? Who the hell cares who Miles Taylor is? That was my thought at the time, which was, look okay, these other people are the big names of the administration. They are the ones that should be going out. And they've got the credibility to say to the American people, "I'm a cabinet secretary, that's been confirmed by the Senate. I've seen this." And they didn't do that.

So after I couldn't persuade these folks to come out and say the things they've been saying in private is when I decided then I would unmask myself and go do it publicly and try to recruit others. The one heartening thing to say is, although we didn't recruit very many of these cabinet members, we recruited in the election year, the largest number of exit administration officials in U.S. history to oppose a president that they served. But most of them were names that folks had never heard of. They were folks at my level in the government who decided to join our team and speak out. And I'm forever proud of those people and grateful for their public service. But I still think there's a stain on the reputations of a lot of the folks that didn't speak up when they should have.

Ken Harbaugh:

In that second letter you wrote identifying yourself as the author of the anonymous op-ed, you invoked Lincoln's first inaugural address, the one in which he appeals to the better angels of our nature. He said, "We must not be enemies though, passion may have strained. It must not break our bonds of affection." It's a nice sentiment but of course, a couple of months after that the Civil War breaks out and the nation is riven. Was your choice of that quote at all poetic irony? Was it foreboding? Do you think we are on the same path?

Miles Taylor:

Well, I really hate to say it, but when I wrote the book A Warning, the warning was really twofold. The immediate warning was Donald Trump poses a danger to the country and Americans should not reelect him. And I'm glad the American people heated that part of the warning. But there was a second warning in there, and that was, if we as a people don't fix the discord in our discourse, we will be forever divided and America won't see its 300th birthday, let alone it's 275th. I'll raise your Lincoln quote that I had cited with another one that really gets me and it's been cited a lot lately and it's Ulysses S. Grant. He was asked, I think about 10 years after the Civil War about what could divide the nation again. And he said something to the effect of ‘If there's ever a contest that challenges our national existence in the future, the dividing line won't be the Mason Dixon line’ which was of course the line between the Northern and Southern states, ‘but it will be between patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition ambition and ignorance on the other side.’

Now I saw a poll the other day that something like half of Republicans believe in the QAnon conspiracy. If that's not superstition and ignorance, I don't know what it is. And we are talking about the mainstreaming of these radicalized conspiracy theories. That's what's really, really alarming to me. So I don't think we've addressed the discord in our discourse. I think it's gotten worse. And now it's jumped the track from vitriol into violence, and I'll cite another poll for you. The University of Chicago did a study sometime within the last month or so that found that 9% of Americans believe that political violence is justified including to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Let me put that into context for you. 21 million Americans believe that Trump should be violently re-installed into the White House. Now it sounds hyperbolic to talk about a Civil War, especially in the 21st century. We think of that as an anachronism, we think of ourselves as having grown beyond that level of discord, but we haven't, and polls like that show some very, very disturbing figures. And in the same study, they found that something like 6 million Americans are either now a part of domestic extremist groups and militias, or have a friend or family member that is a part of an extremist group or a militia. That's a massive increase over the domestic terrorism numbers we were tracking when I was in the Trump administration.

In fact, at any given time, the FBI's best estimate when I was there was that they had roughly 100,000 subjects of interest that could be tied to domestic extremist groups that intended to commit violence. These aren't people whose political views are objectionable and that's why the FBI is following them, it's people who've talked about maybe using guns to go kill others to further their political ideology. So roughly 100,000. Now we're talking in the millions, we've seen more than a 10 fold increase in membership in those extremist organizations and the political rhetoric from people like Donald Trump. And those who've enabled him are encouraging folks to go down that path. So yes, I am very worried. I think it is the number one national security threat to the United States right now is internal discord and not threats from any foreign adversaries. Yeah, the China threat is high. Yeah, the Russia threat’s high. Yeah, the terrorism threat's high, but it's quite frankly the internal divisions that are the biggest threat to our national security.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you've put a finer point on it than that in previous interviews, it's not just the internal division you point to, it is the Republican Party. I'll quote you, "The number one national security threat I've ever seen in my life to this country's democracy is the party that I'm in, the Republican Party. It is the number one national security threat to the United States of America." Do you still maintain that?

Miles Taylor:

I got trolled really hard Ken, for saying that, but people needed to listen to specifically what I was saying. I had a number of folks, good friends that work in the national security community and have alongside me, message me afterwards and say, "Come on, are you serious? What about Al-Qaeda bringing down the Twin Towers on 9/11?" There's no doubt. But look, Al-Qaeda at no point, even at its height posed the same danger to our fundamental democratic institutions as a radicalized Republican Party has. In fact, I can't think of a point where we got close to the brink of undermining our democracy because of the fight against Al-Qaeda. There were debates about privacy and civil liberties, but by and large, our institutions held strong and we defeated that adversary.

By contrast, what we're seeing in terms of a previously sitting president, trying to overturn an election is a fundamental threat to our democratic institutions and has undermined confidence nationwide in the legitimacy of the democratic process. That's a vastly bigger long-term and generational threat when compared to an adversary who is trying to divide us with violence. In fact, if anything, terrorists unified this country in the fight against them. Donald Trump had an option after the election, and that would have been to concede and not propagate the Big Lie, and we wouldn't see nearly the levels today of lack of confidence in our democratic process, if he had appropriately transitioned the presidency.

But now the after effects of that episode are going to be felt for years, for decades, again, for a generation that's a big danger to this country. So yeah, I'm still a Republican, but I firmly believe that the people who are in charge of our party right now, pose a somewhat existential threat to our democracy as we know it and the party itself needs to reform or in some way be replaced. And my objective in the near term is to do what we can to elect rational Republicans and to kick out the radical ones who want to undermine our country and it's institutions.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to go back to that Grant quote, your fellow Republican, when he talked about superstition ambition and ignorance, because I've increasingly seen it pop up. And you illustrated how this growing belief in the QAnon conspiracy captures superstition and ignorance, but the trifecta has to include ambition. Can you talk about the ringleaders? Can you talk about those who know better, But for purely political reasons, for reasons of careerism and ambition, are feeding the other two pillars, superstition and ignorance? I mean, it doesn't come from nowhere.

Miles Taylor:

Yeah no, that's right. I mean we'll go beyond Trump because this isn't really all about Trump anymore. I mean, there's 1,000 little Trump's out there who think they've learned a lesson from him, and it's the wrong lesson, but the lesson they think they've learned is be more like Trump, and you'll be in office. And they've fed those populist factional impulses across the country. So there's 1,000 little Trumps who say what they're saying because it will advance their careers.

I talk to a lot of members of Congress still. I'm still friends with a lot of members of Congress. Behind the scenes, I'd say probably half the Republican conference on the Hill, still thinks Trump is crazy. People who are trying to mimic him are crazy, but they're scared to speak out because they're scared of either A, losing their jobs and getting into primary challenge, or B, losing their lives.

That may sound like hyperbole, but they've got plenty of reason to worry. The total magnitude of threats that are against public servants today is unlike anything that we've ever seen. I've talked to multiple current and former members of Congress who have gotten their concealed carries, and have their wives and their children carrying guns, because they're worried about getting attacked for running the foul of Donald Trump. I mean, in my case, when I came out against him, I had to have a full-time security detail, I've restraining orders against stalkers. I had to move locations. And no one has to play the violin for me. I knew that that's how it was going to be because the discourse is so vitriolic and people are so angry. But that's manipulating how our system works.

I mean, Liz Cheney herself said it when she said during the impeachment vote: there were members who would have voted to impeach, but they were scared for their safety. So quite literally the intimidation is working. The intimidation is encouraging people to not act the way they otherwise would. That's very scary. Part of that is because of the ambition of people who want to climb and embrace Trumpism expanded, and use it to further their careers. They see that anyone who opposes them is a threat, so they engage in intimidating tactics.

Then the other side that I'll point back to is when I was going around trying to get ex-Trump cabinet secretaries to speak out publicly, some did, John Bolton spoke out very vocally against the president, John Kelly had spoken out and others. But some of those that remain quiet, one of the top reasons that they told me that they supported our cause from afar, but didn't want to lend their name is that they said they were worried about losing their jobs or future prospects. ‘What if Donald Trump got reelected again in the future?’ And ‘What if there was more opportunity?’ They would lose out on those chances to further their careers. That was pretty sickening to me. So ambition is absolutely allowing this madness to continue. And the only way to thwart it frankly is, I'll quote a friend of mine, Alex Veneman, who had testified of course, in Trump's first impeachment. Veneman said that to me the other day, "Look, Miles, the point of intimidation is to silence. And the only way to counteract that is to not be silent." And it sounds very simplistic, but that's not just something for people in Washington to heed.

That's every American's responsibility because in our own communities, when we're debating these political candidates and who's deserving a public office. The intimidation has worked and has silenced a rational majority from speaking with their neighbors and their friends at barbecues. I mean, what do you do if you go to a barbecue and half the people there think Joe Biden is a reptilian humanoid and that the government is secretly being manipulated in the way that QAnon and on describes? Do you speak out at the barbecue or you just keep your mouth shut? I mean, it's tough. And so everyday Americans have to confront this problem if we're going to fix our democracy and get it back into a healthy state.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, let's end on that hopeful note because I want you to describe what you're up to now with the Renew America Movement and your efforts to try to bend this arc.

Miles Taylor:

Well, yeah, we launched something this summer called the Renew America Movement. It's an organization that's really meant to be a tribe for the politically tribeless at the moment. Now, like I said earlier, it's one thing to go against your tribe. When you're at that barbecue with members of your tribe and everyone's a Republican, but you're the one Republican that doesn't think these conspiracy theories are true. It's tough to say something because there's no strength in numbers and you're worried no one will back you up. But like I said, I think that the numbers show that there's a silent majority in this country that's rational. And so there needs to be a tribe of the tribalists.

So what Renew America is trying to do is really create an identity for rational voters, renewers or people who want a common sense coalition in this country again, they're centrists, they're committed on principle and they want to see the country get to a better place. So what we're trying to do in the immediate future is win elections. And by that, I mean, we're going to run rational Republicans against radical ones in primaries. And really try to get the riff-raff out of Congress. But then more broadly, we want to deepen the pro-democracy bench and recruit new candidates for office to run as either renewed Republicans, to run as independents. And in some cases to run as Democrats, even though we're an organization that's primarily center right leaders our board is former Republican governors, senators, congressmen, party leaders, cabinet secretaries.

We want to see good Democrats elected too, a deeper pro-democracy benches, a deeper bench across the spectrum. And we would like to see extremes in the Democratic Party, think of the squad and AOCs of the world, also out of Congress, and have a more rational membership in the House and Senate. So that's what we're trying to do in the short-term. In the long-term we want to really build out that renewer brand identity and have consumers, voters be able to get together and recognize that they're not alone in this fight. I mean, I'll leave you with this Ken, a poll earlier this year from Pew, showed that 50% of Americans now identify as independent. It was the highest number they've ever recorded. One half of the country now says, "I'm not a Republican or a Democrat. I'm an independent." And 25% respectively say they're Democrats or Republicans. So people are fed up with their democracy, not giving them what they want. I mean, ironically, we've got choice and competition in everything we want. I can go online and order whatever I want right now, and get a ride share from wherever and travel wherever I want. But the one place I don't have choice in competition is in my democracy, which is where I should have it.

So in the longer term, what we really want to do as a movement is modernize the laws across the country to make democracy more responsive. The two big parties really do have a stranglehold over the process in their respective states. It's really hard for third party candidates or independents to run in those races and win. So we want to break down those barriers to make sure that people simply have more choice. If there's more choice in our democracy, we're going to end up with better options.

So that's what we're trying to do in the long run is sort of break that big party monopoly over the system. Even though I'm a Republican, I want to see competition, I welcome competition, and there should be other parties that can emerge and run against us. But that's a generational project right there. But we've already seen that voters are excited about it. They're supportive of it. And things like rank choice voting and Alaska have been passed. A number of other states are considering similar ballot initiatives. So I think this is going to be the big cause of the 21st century when it comes to government reform is making sure that our system is responsive and that there's more choices. So hopefully we get there and hopefully the Renew America Movement can help nudge us along the way a little faster.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I appreciate the effort. But as a Democrat, I would submit to you for your reaction that equating extremism on the left among elected Democrats to the extremism we're seeing on the right among elected Republicans is not a fair comparison. Something has happened on the right that has so far deviated from the norms with appeals to violence, and almost wishing for bloodshed in Madison Cawthorn's latest speech, that I don't think it's a fair comparison to groups on the left still out there.

Miles Taylor:

I think you're right, Ken. I mean, frankly it's comparing apples and refrigerators because the extremism seen on my party's side is about whether or not our country will continue to operate the way it was designed as a democratic republic. The extremism on the left are debates about the government's role in society and the fights that we've had. But right now my party is posing an existential threat to this country. And that's why for Renew America, our priority overwhelmingly, like I said, it's going to be defeating those radical Republicans and trying to get rational ones in.

And look, we're going to support Democrats in those races where those Democrats are our best hope to defeat those radicals. So look at Arizona, if it's Captain Mark Kelly, a patriot running against a Trumper like Kelly Ward, we're going to be for Captain Mark Kelly, a Democratic Senator, and a reasonable guy in that race. And we hope other people will choose to put country over party in this fight. We did it in this last election. The only reason Joe Biden won the presidency is because enough people put country over party and the numbers show that moderate Republicans came out and put them over the edge in swing states. They need to do that again and not just again, but again and again, until we get to a place where we have a GOP, that's not trying to nuke our institutions.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well Miles, thanks for coming on. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, and I have a guess, but you might surprise me with your answer. What's the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?

Miles Taylor:

That's a tough question. I don't consider anything that I've done particularly brave. Look, I'm a small town kid from Indiana and you're just raised to speak up and say the right thing when something's wrong. I guess the decision that if I gave you an answer, it would be to stay in this fight.. After the 2020 election, it was bruising. I mean, I lost my home and a marriage and my personal security and my finances and everything to take on that fight against Trump. But after the January 6th insurrection, I thought now's not the time to throw in the towel and go back to the private sector. We've got to keep going, the fights only just beginning. So that was a tough choice to make, but I have no regrets about it. And I hope other folks will join us as we run towards 22 and beyond.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you, Miles. It's been great having you.

Miles Taylor:

Thanks, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Miles for joining me.

You can find Miles on twitter at @MilesTaylorUSA

Make sure to check out his book: A Warning.

Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m joined by Shontel Brown, the chairwoman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. She recently won a heated democratic primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional district, which was seen as an indicator for the direction of the Democratic Party.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.



View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Chris Harnisch: The ‘Surrender’ of Afghanistan

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:51
Chris Harnisch, who worked in the State Department during the Trump Administration, discusses the missteps during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the threat of domestic terrorism.
Listen to Chris Harnisch: The ‘Surrender’ of Afghanistan

Chairwoman Shontel Brown: Bipartisanship and Ohio’s 11th District

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:50
Shontel Brown discusses her recent primary win in Ohio’s 11th District, and the future of both parties.
Listen to Chairwoman Shontel Brown: Bipartisanship and Ohio’s 11th District

Amy McGrath: The ‘Honor Bound’ Memoir

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:48
Amy McGrath talks about her new book, which details her time in the military, her tough political campaigns, and the challenges we face as a country.
Listen to Amy McGrath: The ‘Honor Bound’ Memoir

Kris Goldsmith: PTSD, Less-Than-Honorable Discharges, and Domestic Violent Extremism

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:47
Kris discusses PTSD and his suicide attempt, his battle to amend his less-than-honorable discharge, and his work fighting domestic violent extremism.
Listen to Kris Goldsmith: PTSD, Less-Than-Honorable Discharges, and Domestic Violent Extremism