Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
Former Trump Administration official Miles Taylor discusses a potential Trump 2.0, and his new book, Blowback. In the book, Miles paints a picture of what would happen if Trump had won reelection, and what will happen if he or another leader from the MAGA movement retakes the White House.
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 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. He then created the Renew America Movement, an organization dedicated to giving a voice to the ‘rational’ Republicans who do not subscribe to the right-wing extremism of Donald Trump.
Since then, Miles left the Republican party and co-founded the Forward Party with Andrew Yang. In last year’s interview, Miles Taylor: The Fight Has Just Begun, we brought him back on the show to talk about this decision, the midterm results, the future of Trumpism, and the ongoing threats to American democracy.
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One of the most important insights that I picked up in having conversations with dozens of my former peers and cabinet secretaries from the Trump administration all the way down to junior aids, who are still in Trump's orbit, is this universal worry that in a second go around, you're going to have deeply unqualified people coming into a second Trump administration or the administration of the next Trump to run the government.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
My guest today is Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official who wrote the famous anonymous op-ed in the New York Times exposing the chaos and cruelty within Trump's White House.
His new book Blowback explains how the stage is being set for the next Trump.
Miles, it's great to have you back on the show.
Ken, great to be with you, my friend.
Your book covers some extraordinary new ground. I thought I'd read everything there was to read about the dysfunction within Trump's administration, but you have stories to tell, and we'll get to some of those.
But I want to start with what I think is the crucial insight of your book and of your time in the Trump administration.
I'll just quote you directly. You wrote that, “The MAGA movement learned a hard lesson in Donald Trump's first term, people are policy.” What do you mean by people are policy?
Well, Ken, like you, I did not want to read another Trump retrospective, and I certainly did not want to write one.
So, when I set out to write this book, it was really to try to paint a picture of what would happen if Trump had won reelection and what will happen if he or another leader from the MAGA movement retakes the White House.
And one of the most important insights that I picked up in having conversations with dozens of my former peers and cabinet secretaries from the Trump administration all the way down to junior aide who are still in Trump's orbit, is this universal worry that in a second go around, you're going to have deeply unqualified people coming into a second Trump administration or the administration of the next Trump to run the government.
Now, let's go back in time really quickly.
When Trump first came into office, love him or hate him, he actually ended up assembling a cabinet that by historical standards, was pretty qualified.
Guys like Jim Mattis and John Kelly actually would've been considered as cabinet secretaries, even in the democratic administration by some individuals.
So, Trump had some pretty qualified people, but as we all know, by the end of the administration, he had systematically fired anyone he thought was trying to keep him from doing things that were immoral or illegal. And he staffed the administration with loyalists.
But I'll put it in the words of John Bolton, who I interviewed for the book. And Bolton said, “In a second administration, it won't be the good guys, it will be the 5th Raiders.”
Then I asked another top Pentagon official from the Trump years, and he put it more bluntly, he said, “It will be the fucking enablers,” was his quote.
And I think that's the worry, is we will see political staff the next MAGA White House. And that means that your government, the government of the American people won't function the way that it's supposed to. It will function as a political weapon instead of a public service.
You warned that Trump 2.0 will staff the American government, with deeply unqualified people, your words, but it's worse than that. We're not just talking about people with a lack of experience and qualifications. We're talking about deeply malevolent people.
You run down the list of potential nominees for the National Security Council. You say it could include people such as Pam Bondi, Mike Flynn, Richard Grenell, Peter Navarro, Robert O'Brien, Kash Patel, Erik Prince, Stephen Miller on the National Security Council.
This isn't just a matter of people not knowing how to do the job. It's a matter of people bringing a malevolence to the work of government and all of it in service of Donald Trump.
Yeah, one of the people that I spoke to referred to it as a nightmare slate of public officials coming in.
And again, don't take my word for it. I have a very strong opinion about what I think a second Trump term would look like. But in conversations with these folks, that's where I got these names, is from people who'd also, served at the highest levels of the Trump administration.
But it's not just if Donald Trump gets reelected, because here's the fine point of it. His first term was staffed up largely by conservative think tanks in Washington, DC.
These groups like Heritage Foundation and others had rosters of people that they gave to the White House and said, “These are the people you need to hire to build out an administration.”
When a president comes into office, he's got about 4,000 jobs to fill. And those think tanks play a crucial role in giving him lists of people to take those jobs.
Right now, those key think tanks in Washington, DC that will staff up the next Republican administration, whether it's Trump or not, are all run by Trump's former acolytes.
So, the Heritage Foundation, for instance, is run by Trump's former personnel chief, and they are running a project called, I think it's Transition Project 2025, where they're developing the list of MAGA people who are approved hardliners to go into the next administration.
Same thing with the America First Policy Institute. One of the biggest think tanks now, on the conservative side in Washington, DC run entirely by former Trumpers. And they're doing the same thing.
So, even if the disgraced, twice impeached X president doesn't win the nomination, doesn't win the presidency, whoever his successor is, is likely to be supported by a heavily MAGA conservative apparatus in Washington DC.
Let's talk about that potentiality. I mean, you subtitled your book, A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump. As we're having this conversation, it appears that the next Trump is likely to be Trump himself. I want your thoughts on that, how the 24 Republican primary is playing out.
But do you think there is any reason to believe that another scenario may evolve in which a never Trumper — well, I can't say a never Trumper, but somebody who is now opposing Trump, like for example, Chris Christie rises to the top of the pack as someone who stands apart from everyone else who is just parroting Trumpism in whatever form they adopt.
Is that a possibility or is the Republican party beyond hope at this point?
Well, let's start with scenario number one. Donald Trump returning to the White House. And there's a reason I used the next Trump in the subtitle of this book. It refers both to the possibility of a second Trump administration or a savvier successor, a MAGA copycat in the Oval Office.
So, that first scenario, I would actually say right now, it's likelier that Donald Trump is the next president of the United States than it was in 2016.
Once again, don't believe me, look at the betting markets. The betting markets had Trump at a 9% chance of winning the presidency on the eve of his election in 2016.
Right now, after two indictments and two impeachments, Donald Trump has a 30% likelihood according to the betting markets of being the next president of the United States. Three times the likelihood he had just before he won the office. I think that tells you something.
That doesn't mean the odds makers are political Nostradamuses. What it means though, is that your average person thinks there's a really good likelihood that the guy gets the approval of their neighbors, and friends, and fellow voters. And I think that's a really powerful demand signal.
Whereas in 2016, your average American didn't think he had any hope of winning. That's pretty remarkable given everything that's happened.
So, yes, I think it's the likeliest scenario that he's the nominee. However, if someone searches forward, the question is, will they govern as the type of conservative that me and others were during the Bush administration, or will they govern like Donald Trump?
And I think most of the indicators show that even if it's a Chris Christie, we're going to see really Trump-like tendencies in a future Republican White House.
And that's because if you look at the data, the Pew surveys, the longitudinal studies, the GOP base has been heavily radicalized towards the MAGA direction.
And let me be really specific about that. I define MAGA as a willingness to use the levers of political power for political retribution and to dismantle the guardrails of democracy.
And when you poll Republicans, you find positive and favorable attitudes towards those two things when you ask them. You've got a majority of Republicans believe in QAnon, majority believe in the great replacement theory, and an overwhelming majority believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
All three of those are provable conspiracy theories but show that we have a base that's really changed.
Why does that matter if someone else gets the nomination? Because they will depend on that base to win and hold elected office, which means they will be inclined to cater to the MAGA base.
Which is exactly what we've seen with Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House and with the MAGA movement dominating the party overall.
Well, political retribution, your word, seems to be the MO of the Republican party today. Even someone like Chris Christie, he came to power on the back of political retribution going after his enemies, shutting down a bridge to slow traffic against a political opponent.
One of your sources said that Trump 2.0 will be a revenge machine, the epitomizing at the highest level of a government dedicated to political retribution. And Trump himself said, “I will be your vengeance.”
How will that look in the lives of Americans, in the lives of those like us and those much more vulnerable than us speaking out against the excesses of Trump 2.0?
Well, the vast majority of the people who gave me these insights, Ken, were Republicans. And not just Republicans, but people who had served in the Trump administration.
So, the person that you cite, that quote, it will be a revenge machine, is from a man named Monte Hawkins, who was on Trump's National Security Council, worked in the Trump White House almost I think all four years at least the first half of the Trump administration.
And he and others as part of those conversations, flagged some really specific concerns about the intelligence community, namely their worry that Trump had plans and his allies will execute those plans in a second term to use the intelligence community to go after political rivals.
This was one of the more shocking things that I was told in the course of writing this book, is the worry among intelligence officials that the next Trump would do what's called polling FISs against political rivals.
So, FIS is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that gives the president power to use the intelligence community to wire tap civilians on US soil with court approval.
The worry of folks that I talked to is that they would circumvent the intelligence courts, stack the intelligence community with political loyalists, which Trump was trying to do at the end of the administration, and then use those powers to go after political enemies.
This is the type of thing you would expect in a dystopian novel, not to be written in first person from people going on the record to say this is a concern.
I mean, another person who was a very prominent Trump advisor, Fiona Hill, who was Donald Trump's top Russia advisor, said to me, she similarly worried about that politicizing of the intelligence community.
And her comment was, “It will lead the United States into wars.” Because Trump had such an inclination to spin intelligence information in a political direction that it would leave the United States blind to the real threats out there in the world.
So, those are the types of things very serious people in the national security world are worried about if he or a successor comes back to power.
Where does Trump's special antipathy towards the IC, the Intelligence Community, come from? It's not just about him reshaping it as a tool for political persecution going after his enemies.
He came into the office, it appeared, really hating the Intelligence Community. And I haven't heard anyone really explain why he has that view and why he surrounds himself with people who really lash out at our IC, of which I was a part as an intelligence pilot.
Well, I'll give you a very direct answer, and that is he really hates truth tellers. And I don't mean that hyperbolically. Any cabinet secretary in his administration that was willing to stand up to him and tell him the truth, he ended up putting on his firing list and ultimately, pushed those people out.
The Intelligence Community epitomizes an institution that prides itself in finding objective information, presenting it objectively, and pushing back against attempts to manipulate that information.
That's antithetical to Trump's worldview, which is spin something in a way that's favorable to you no matter what. Whether it's true or not, make it true.
And this is actually something that if you go back and you're a student history, a hundred years ago, Hitler was saying the same things. Hitler was the first one to say, “Small lies aren't believed, but big lies become gospel.” And Donald Trump has followed that playbook.
But the Intelligence Community is the type of place where it's really difficult to turn something into a big lie because there's all of this support and information meant to show the objective truths.
That's one of the reasons he hated the Intelligence Community. It's one of the reasons why at the end, he tried to staff it with political loyalists.
Now, his aids told me one of his biggest regrets is that he didn't do that sooner. He waited to fire people like Dan Coats, who was the director of National Intelligence, and he wished he'd put people like Kash Patel in earlier.
But that antipathy, what was even more surprising to me, also extends to service members. And, Ken, you've heard this, we've all seen this, especially during the 2020 election.
There were news stories about Donald Trump's attitude towards military veterans where he went to memorial sites in France and called the fallen soldiers suckers and losers because they didn't survive the invasion in Normandy.
I was really stunned in having conversations with people who used to run the Department of Veterans Affairs under Trump, and the comments that he made to them about veterans.
One of them told me that Trump thought America's military veterans were lazy malingerers, and he hated that the Department of Veterans Affairs — which by the way is the second largest department in terms of budget, 250 billion. He hated that all that money was spent on veterans.
And one of the quotes from the former number two of the department under Trump was that in a second term, he wouldn't care about throwing them out on the street, that he wants to detonate the veteran social safety net because he saw it as a piggy bank. He saw it as a place he could go grab money and spend it on other political priorities.
That was something that really blew me away because I thought Trump had learned his lesson, that saying bad things about veterans was politically damaging.
And the comment that I got back from leaders of the former VA was that yes, that's why he was waiting until the second term to detonate the VA. And if he won office again, it would be one of his first priorities.
You spent a lot of time around general Kelly and other former generals in the administration. They have registered some limited criticism of their former boss, President Trump.
When do you think they link arms and say, “This man is a clear and present danger to American democracy? Do not vote for him.”
When does Kelly say he's going to vote for Joe Biden? When does Mattis say that? When do the other generals, Milley, team up and say, “This cannot happen in America today.”
Well, one of my frustrations I think is that this has been an ongoing conversation since basically 2017. I mean, all the way back to when I put the anonymous op-ed out in 2018.
So, for the past five years, I've been pointing to the fact that a lot of these people, the senior most people in the Trump administration, at best thought their boss, the president of the United States, was unfit for office. And at worst thought he was a threat to the fabric of our republic, which was a quote from Jim Mattis behind the scenes.
But there's been trepidation about that idea of linking arms all at once. There was discussions about the 25th Amendment during the administration and whether if the president got worse, whether he might need to be removed. That idea was discarded.
There were conversations about resigning in mass in the lead up to the midterm elections in 2018. That didn't happen because people were worried about precipitating a crisis.
And then in 2020, there was a concerted effort to try to get as many officials to come out against him.
Now, look, I'm proud to say that in 2020, we had the largest group of former officials in American history to turn against a president who they served under. But most of those people were not household names.
It was people like me that your average American hadn't heard of before. Chiefs of staff and assistant secretaries that quit and turned against Trump. I still think there's room for a moment of more of these ex-officials to come forward because I think it had a really decisive electoral impact.
I think former officials turning against Trump gave enough Republican voters around the country air cover to go vote for Joe Biden, to vote for a Democrat for the first time in their lives.
We're going to be in a situation like that again in 2024, where republicans who care more about their country than the party, may be forced to decide between MAGA and America and will need good Republicans like John Kelly and Jim Mattis to come back to the microphones and explain why.
We absolutely will, because the horse race right now, is just frighteningly close. The thought that 80 million Americans or 70 million plus Americans voted for Trump the last time around is terrifying.
And even the positive results in the last midterms, I don't think inspire a whole lot of confidence, still far too close for comfort.
And you wrote this about Trumpism, “We didn't snuff it out. Rather we looked the other way as cinders lit the dry underbrush of our frank society and spread like wildfire. Right now, the winds favor the fanatics from a historically divided electorate to grim public attitudes about political violence.”
And that's what really scares me the most. This rhetoric, and not just rhetoric, but the activities of extremist organization, fomenting, carrying out acts of political violence. We're approaching very dangerous times reminiscent of the late 1850s.
Yeah, this is the type of thing that … Ken, I always say this, if you told me 10 years ago, I was going to be talking about the prospect of a New American Civil War, I would've said, “Miles hit his head one too many times. What's wrong with that guy?”
But a lot of the folks that I spoke to for this book were using that type of language. I'll go back to Fiona Hill, who I mentioned earlier, who'd been a Trump advisor for much of the administration.
Fiona used a term called soft succession. Her warning was that if Trump or a savvier successor won the White House, you would see the start of soft succession movements in the United States.
In other words, red states and blue states increasingly separating themselves from the legal architecture that undergirds our democracy.
And in her view, when you go and study foreign civil wars and civil strife, that's usually the first indicator you see before something moves into more violent conflict, is this period of soft secession. Her comment was we're actually in it right now.
But there was another Trump official who in these conversations said to me that he predicted if Trump won, that there would be at least legal civil war in this country, if not actual violence.
And his comment was, “It's not going to be battalions in open fields. It's going to be a different type of civil war, one that includes low level violence, political assassinations, and civil strife in major US cities.”
And that political assassination piece is the one that really worried me. You see this a lot when you look back at history, that moments where a major leader is attacked, or God forbid killed, can spark more widespread violence and light the dry underbrush of dissatisfaction in the political system.
And right now, we're seeing the warning signs basically blinking red as much as they've been since 9/11 on that front. So, law enforcement officials told me they're seeing more chatter about threats to public servants than at any point since 9/11.
We saw a tenfold increase in threats to elected leaders from the beginning of the Trump administration till the end of the Trump administration.
But more fundamentally, Ken, American's attitudes towards political violence have surged in a favorable way. I think NPR found that 25% of Americans have a favorable view of violence towards the government in certain circumstances, which was a high watermark.
And then there was the famous University of Chicago survey last year, that found 1 in 10 Americans believed Donald Trump should be forcibly reinstalled in the White House.
I don't care what your political stripes are, you have to look at that data dispassionately and say that that really is dry underbrush that's ready to be lit on fire in the wrong circumstances.
You quote Sue Gordon, former deputy DNI, Director of National Intelligence, (and I love the analyst speak here) she said, “I would assess with low confidence that the United States reaches its 300th birthday in any recognizable form.”
And that reminds me of the reality that we are just so complacent about the lifespan of a democracy. I mean, we have already outlasted any democracy in the history of the world.
So, we don't know how long they last, how long before people grow disenchanted, how long before disinformation overtakes our political discourse? Is the latest stressor the last one, or does it break us, or does it make us stronger?
Terrible analogy, but I was thinking about the submersible that went down to the Titanic, and you just never know if the next dive with something like that, built badly, is going to be your last one because it gets weaker every time. As opposed to a Navy submarine, which is built well and does not crack with every dive.
What kind of democracy are we?
It's a great way to put it, Ken. I mean, really the biggest thing I try to do in Blowback is look at the most important guardrails of our democracy, assess their current condition, and then convey what other people have said will happen to those guardrails if we make the same civic mistake we made before and elect a populist into the White House.
And yeah, I'm worried to say that most of those guardrails look corroded, and some of those supports I think have crumbled or very, very close to crumbling.
Sue Gordon's comment was a really concise way to put it. Will America reach its 300th birthday? That would be in 2076.
And the deeper conversation she and I had was that there's nothing inevitable about democracy. And as Ronald Reagan had said freedom's always a generation away from extinction.
We're in one of those moments right now. And another one of the indicators about that is how political rivals treat each other. And we have seen, again, in surveys in recent years, a majority of people, especially on the Republican side, characterizing their political opponents not as opponents, but as enemies.
And there's a growing view that the other side poses an existential threat to the United States. That indicator light tells us a lot about the trajectory that we are on at the moment, is again, seeing the other side as an existential threat.
And I'll give you an example of how I see that having changed in the discourse. When I first got involved in public policy as a Republican, the party was really focused on national security and was trying to move away from social issues. The culture wars were a thing of the ‘90s, and that was going to be over.
And when I was working under Paul Ryan, when he became Speaker of the House, that was really said out loud is, “We're moving that stuff behind. We're going to be a big tent party.”
Fast forward almost 10 years, I'm talking to people about this book that are still in the MAGA movement, and I asked, “What will the domestic policy agenda be for the next Trump?” And the comment that I heard was guns, gays, and girls.
In other words, the three biggest domestic policy priorities would be making sure that the Second Amendment is unfettered. So, stripping gun protections down to the absolute bare minimum, rolling back LGBTQ protections, especially reversing the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage. And then finally, girls.
And I asked the question, I said, “What do you mean girls? Why is that the number three priority?” He said, “Oh, because women's rights will be rolled back. I mean, abortion rights is going to be a big focus. We're going to try to push a federal ban.”
And that was in the course of the Supreme Court had just made its decision when I heard that comment. And I thought, “Well, it's very unlikely that states around the country are going to make abortion illegal.”
Now, I think we have 11 states around the country that are doing that, and that will be a top MAGA priority in a second administration to make that law federal.
Now, you would be right to ask, is that even possible? But the former Republicans I talked to on Capitol Hill said, yes, they'll hold the legislative branch hostage, the budget hostage. They'll shut down the government, they'll destroy the filibuster. They'll do anything to make that a possibility.
Explain to me the political rationale here, because it used to be, and I know I'm oversimplifying, but in general, a lot of these culture war issues were wedge issues designed to rally the base and regain or retain power and then advance the economic agenda.
And those culture war things were done with sort of a wink and a nod, a heavy dose of cynicism. But your description, and I'm seeing this play out, is that they are the primary drivers now.
Yeah, I mean, Ken, it's such an incisive point you made. The ways that Republican leaders used to try to rally the base have now, radicalized the base.
And that gets back to the point about a country that is divided to the point that it could be close to irrevocable, because Americans see two totally different countries.
One where there's a more progressive future with a small P of greater inclusion, and another where the priority is guns, gays, and girls, and legislating in that space. Those are two very different Americas.
And if we're living in different societies, ones that view the other as an enemy and an adversary, it does increase the prospects of civil strike, civil conflict, political violence, and intimidation.
So, it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a sense, is my former party has created this environment where that division is more likely.
Talk to me about the actual fault lines between those two different countries, as you put it, where they come into conflict. Because you use the phrase, and everyone uses it, red states and blue states.
And that always makes me nervous when we are talking about civil war because it presumes the kind of possibility of a clean break that we saw in the 1860s that just can't happen this time.
It's a liberal conceit. You often hear that, “Oh, we'll just write off the red states. Texas can go its own way. We'll see how they do without federal dollars.”
I think we need to dispense with that because there are good people in Texas fighting for progress, and we're not going to have a clean break. It's just not possible. And I know you don't believe that either, because you introduce some really helpful framing like the digital Mason-Dixon line.
Can you talk about these fractures in a modern society and integrated society like we have today?
Yeah. And I think a lot of Americans feel this viscerally because it's become so much more personal. I mean, it used to be that political conflicts were a thing that you could turn off on the news.
But now, for really the first time in modern history, Americans feel concerned about their own neighbors and are unwilling to go to bonfires and picnics where they're worried they'll run into someone of another political persuasion.
I mean, I think we've all probably been guilty of it. We've all said it to a friend or a family member, like, “Oh man, those are MAGA people. We're not going to hang out with them.” Or the opposite, folks on that side of the aisle saying, “We're not going to hang out with those crazy libs.”
We're becoming much more divided at the household level. And some of that also, is shown in the data.
I mean, if you look at political polarization in the United States, it's not so much about red states and blue states anymore. It's about zip codes. And there's really shocking data that shows red zip codes are getting redder and redder and blue ones, blue and bluer.
So, you have these little pockets right next to each other all over the United States where people are self-selecting into communities based on their political beliefs. And this is the highest rate we've ever seen since polling began in that space.
So, the phenomenon is really hyperlocalized. And that gets to some of the solutions here are not short-term solutions, they're long-term fixes. And I think this is another thing that people sense in their gut and the data also, backs up.
And that is, you can say roughly that 10% of the ideological extremes in the United States are making the decisions for the other 90% of us.
And that's roughly validated when you go look at the fact that right now, only 20% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Really, really, really low. But Congress has a 95% reelection rate.
In other words, the average member of Congress overwhelmingly wins reelection when they run. So, how can Americans have such a low view of Congress, but the majority get reelected?
And the reason is because most of those decisions about who wins races happen in the primaries. And in most states, you're not allowed to vote in the primaries unless you're a registered member of that party.
Which means, the ideological extremes go out, pick the candidates in the primaries, and then the rest of us are left in the general election with people who are too extreme and we have to pick the worst of two evils.
That simple defect right now, in our system has resulted in an increasingly polarized electorate and an increasingly polarized society. But the only way to fix that are long-term structural democracy reforms. And that will take decades.
I think, broadly speaking, you're right. But I think in ‘24, at the top of the ticket, there's just no argument to be made that the Democratic Party is behaving the same way as the Republican Party.
If anything, the Democratic Party is the picture of moderation and compromise. And the way in the last presidential that this wide field of democratic candidates rallied around the one candidate that they thought had the best chance of beating Trump is just a model of citizenship and putting the country over personal ambition.
And I think that's how a responsible party acts. I think the Democratic Party today is the responsible party.
And it's likely to be, Ken, that the Democratic Party is our last best hope to prevent another pseudo authority and takeover of the democratic system. And again, those words sound crazy coming out of my mouth, but that is the way that democracy experts are characterizing the danger here.
In that long run, I think Americans are very hungry for more choice and competition in the political system. But that's going to be really difficult to do in the short term, is to create a more competitive system with more moderate choices, with more individuals who represent the whole spectrum of beliefs and to stuff out the extremes, especially on the far right.
But in the immediate term, I think you're right. It's what I would call coalition campaigning is it looks like in 2024, America's going to desperately need moderate Republicans to, at a minimum, vote independent but to go support the democratic nominee rather than having a MAGA candidate win the presidency.
Now, there's still a lot of time to see what happens in the GOP field, but that's how it looks like it's shaping up at the moment.
I promised that we’d share some of the crazier stories that you put forth about your time in Trump's White House. You were there in the West Wing when the intelligence was coming out about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And Trump was basically defending to reporters the Saudi regime.
Can you recount that experience for us? I believe you were with Bolton at the time.
Yeah, I mean, a couple things happened in that window. We had some, in my view, really disturbing meetings with the president about Jamal Khashoggi.
So, he had just been killed at the hands of the Saudi government for being a dissident, for speaking out about autocracy in Saudi Arabia. And we were really perplexed at first.
Donald Trump didn't want to say anything to criticize the Saudis, and it was clear that the Saudis had perpetuated this atrocity. And important for the United States to come out …
And by the way, Jamal Khashoggi was a visa holder, was a US person and worked for the Washington Post. I mean, it was important for the president of the United States to condemn something that horrific, but Trump wouldn't.
And so, we're in this meeting with him in the Oval Office, and he says, “Oil's at $50 a barrel, it's going to go up to a $100 a barrel if I criticized the Saudis. I don't want to do it.”
And his concern was that it would affect his reelection prospects. If he criticized the Saudis, they would raise the price of oil and it would hurt his reelection.
So, here is a man who, for all intents and purposes, is an American who's been murdered at the hands of the Saudi government, and the president of the United States doesn't want to say anything about it because it's going to hurt his reelection chances.
So, later that week, I'm in John Bolton's office, and Trump had been slated to meet with a group of journalists across the West Wing in the Oval Office, and we thought we had canceled the meeting. We thought Trump was not going to meet with these journalists.
I'm talking to Bolton about something sensitive, a totally separate subject, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary burst into the office and says, “Ambassador Bolton, I got to tell you something.”
He said, “What?” And he said, “Well, the president just did something that I'm worried about in front of a group of reporters.” And Bolton said, “Wait, what are you talking about?” Because we didn't think he was going to be meeting with those reporters.
And according to Sarah, with these three journalists sitting in front of the Resolute Desk, Donald Trump started bragging about all of the intelligence that he was getting about the Saudi's alleged assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
And he picks up fistfuls of classified documents and starts waving it to the reporters in the room, bragging about the specific countries that have provided that intelligence.
And John Bolton's jaw almost hit the floor. I mean, I remember him gasping and saying, “Oh my God.” And then of course, he asked Sarah, “Was it on the record? Did they have a camera in the room?” Basically, worried about the immediate protection of that classified information.
Now, thankfully, there wasn't a photographer in the room to capture pictures of those documents. But that's how reckless Trump was in handling sensitive information, which we of course now, know because he took some of those fistfuls with him to his home in Mar-a-Lago after the presidency.
The last time we talked, you said that your breaking point was the suggestions or the series of suggestions by Trump to wound migrants at the border, shoot them in the legs, electrocute them so that we would create that deterrent effect.
You add to that in this book with a story about, I believe it was Stephen Miller suggesting drone strikes. Can you share that one as well?
Yeah. It was in 2018, I believe (I'd have to go back to the book) and we were coming back from a visit down to Key West in Florida with the president.
We'd taken him down there to go visit what's called JIATF South. Basically, it's a fusion center of intelligence agencies focused on disrupting smuggling networks into the United States.
And so, at the time at DHS, we decided to bring the Coast Guard commandant down with us to talk about how the Coast Guard was involved.
And on the flight back, it's me, the commandant of the Coast Guard and Stephen Miller on the plane sitting together.
And Stephen starts to quiz the commandant about whether we could retask military assets in the Middle East, specifically armed predator drones, bring them into the Gulf of Mexico and use them to blow up migrant votes.
And the commandant and I were shocked and couldn't understand why he would be making that suggestion. And the commandant rightfully said, “These are unarmed civilians.” And Stephen's question was, “Yes, but what would the consequences be?” And the commandant said, “It would be a violation of international law.”
Stephen's view was international law was made up, it was imaginary. And regardless of whether those migrants were armed or not, that was a credible option to consider for deterring illegal immigration into the United States.
And that largely tracked with other things Trump had told us he wanted to do. As you noted, Ken, he wanted to gas electrify and shoot migrants at the border as a means of deterrence.
What does that mean for a second Trump administration, for a Trump 2.0? I put that question to a lot of current and former Homeland Security officials that worked with me during the administration and elsewhere after I had left.
And the answer was that the next Trump will want to take America's counter-terrorism apparatus and point it towards migrants. That means using all the tools we use to go after organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda against migrants.
And that's something Trump had talked about. He wanted to use the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay to hold migrants. He wanted to designate them as unlawful enemy combatants, which as you know, is the terminology used to justify lethal strikes against terrorists.
And he wanted to designate the human smuggling organizations that bring migrants into the United States as foreign terrorist organizations.
Those were all policies that were considered during the Trump administration, not actively implemented because they didn't want to lose reelection. It's the type of thing we could expect them to do in a second term.
Those of us who oppose Trump seem to be putting all of our energy, and probably rightly so, into making sure that he never steps in the Oval Office again, that his acolytes never hold those levers of power again.
But I have this nagging fear that we are not planning for the possibility that he does regain the presidency or someone very much like him regains the presidency.
What is the trigger for us should that happen, to rise up in a peaceful way, call a general strike?
You mentioned, and this is coming full circle now, some of the people that could assume positions of real power within our government.
Is there a flag, a moment, a flare that you're looking for to say, “Okay, this is time for a popular, peaceful uprising to say, we're not going to let this democracy die without a fight.”
You mentioned Stephen Miller. I mean, is it Stephen Miller taking over justice? Is it Marjorie Taylor Greene running the FBI, or do we already know that Trump's going to do that? And if he wins the presidency with a minority of the popular vote, do we need to move immediately?
Well, I mean, look, you can go back to the civil rights movement for examples of how peaceful resistance can accomplish extraordinary change.
And I think it's galling that after January 6th, you saw a crowd of largely white Americans storm the United States Capitol and trash it because their guy claimed it was stolen from him.
I mean, in the civil rights movement, at the peak of it, when you had black Americans being lynched in the South, you didn't see black America go storm the United States capitol. And we saw extraordinary change because of the largely peaceful efforts to push back.
So, I think it's very possible to peacefully resist encroachments on democracy. And that's important to note.
But more immediately, I think we've squandered a number of opportunities to prevent the return of MAGA to the White House. The first and most important was to try to reform the Republican party and to get the radical fashion squelched by the rational faction.
That failed and people like me as Republicans, who went out and tried to swing the pendulum back, materially failed to get the party to expunge Trumpism after Trump left office.
The next best opportunity was for the legislative branch to fortify the guardrails of our democracy in advance of the next presidential election.
Now, some things happened like the Electoral Count Act and some reforms, but a lot of the big reforms that moderates and Democrats were trying to push on Capitol Hill to reinforce our democracy simply weren't passed, and in large part because of opposition on the Republican side.
So, we haven't fortified those guardrails and it leaves the country vulnerable. I worry that our last best line of defense, frankly, is going to be whistleblowers in a future MAGA administration who are willing and able to do what you just said, Ken, which is sound the alarm.
But I worry that whistleblowers are on the verge of extinction because this phenomenon of political intimidation and violence we are seeing is discouraging people from coming forward.
And I'll give you one anecdote that might not be something we can count on next time, is in this book, someone who'd served at the NSC, a man named Mark Harvey, he'd served on Trump's National Security Council at the White House, told me about a last ditch effort at the end of the Trump administration to keep the disgraced, now ex-president from getting his hands on what's called the Doomsday Book.
Is there's allegedly a secret manual in the White House for the President to use in the most extreme emergencies of armed foreign invasion, major natural disaster, terrorist attack that allows the most extraordinary measures to preserve the government to go into effect. Essentially, Marshall Law.
It was Mark Harvey's job to protect the Doomsday Book. And towards the end of the Trump administration in 2020, there was an effort to put a MAGA foot soldier named Christina Bobb, who's now, one of Donald Trump's lawyers. She was known as a newscaster on the MAGA OAN Network. There was an effort to put her in that job, overseeing the Doomsday book.
She, of course, didn't know what was in that hyper compartmentalized protected document. But a number of public officials in 2020 worked hard to prevent a MAGA operative from being put in that job where they would've access to the book.
But the worry was, if Trump had known about those extraordinary powers on January 6th, he could have cemented a coup.
Next time, I'm not so sure that we will have public servants ready to sound the alarm or to make those decisions in that moment of crisis. And that's the worry.
What can we do about it? We've got to lower the price of descent in this country. It's more costly than it's ever been to speak out because people can crowdsource hate, and vitriol, and intimidation.
And the only way to do that, as pedestrian as it sounds, is all of us have to make it harder to make that costly to speak out. And we can do that by being willing to actually say what we believe when it comes to the threats to our political system.
And that goes, especially for Republicans who know better, who are in office right now, who still tell me in private that Donald trump's a threat and then go out and praise him in public. Those people need to speak out.
And some of them, ironically, Ken, insisted on being anonymous in this book and wouldn't reveal their names. And I understand that deep irony of me telling them, “Don't be anonymous. Put your name forward.”
Last question. And it's a personal one, speaking about that price that you sometimes pay when telling the truth, that you have paid a deep personal price and have chosen to share some of the messages you get.
I don't know how they find their way onto your voicemail, but you have made them public. The threats, the vitriol directed at you.
Why do you do that? Why do you share with the public what you're getting privately?
Well, I'm not trying to get sympathy. No one has to have sympathy for me. I mean, I went into this situation very clear-eyed about how tumultuous the political climate was.
But this is now, happening to hundreds, to thousands of people who are in public service, is they're getting these death threats and phone calls. And it's really horrific.
And again, the data shows that it's at levels that we've never seen in the modern age. But I'm putting it out there because I want people to understand we've jumped the tracks from angry rhetoric to violent behavior.
I mean, when my pregnant sister is getting photographs of her home and threats that my blood will be in the streets, or pictures of my nieces are posted on the internet on MAGA message boards, that's really twisted. That's next level stuff we should never tolerate in this democracy.
And I can't tell you how many public officials, poll workers, mayors, congressional representatives have told me they've experienced the same thing.
And I think those people should also, be sharing that because Americans are polarized politically. But we're also, human at the end of the day.
And when you see behavior like that, regardless of what side of the political aisle it's on, it's really disgusting, and it hits you in a visceral way. So, I think it's important for people to come forward.
And I talked to one Republican member of Congress who told me now, he's always carrying his concealed pistol wherever he goes because of the threats. And he went out for Christmas and bought all of his kids pistols and got them their concealed carry permits over the course of the year because of the threats they were getting.
Like you shouldn't go and represent your state in Congress and have to have your kids carry pistols because you've decided to serve the country. That's not what descent should look like in America.
And again, the only way we combat that is to push back against this mass bystander phenomenon and be that one to step forward to protect the other person who is being attacked.
And again, I'll go back to that irony is I think the single biggest threat to our democracy is anonymity, is the collective unwillingness to unmask ourselves to tell the truth about the threats to our political system.
And the biggest element of that threat is on the political right at the moment, is that rational Republicans are being silenced and are being intimidated so they don't speak up. And we've got to make it easier for them to come forward.
Well, thank you, Miles, for stepping up, for pushing back, for coming forward. It's been great having you on the show.
Ken, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Thanks again to Miles for joining me. Make sure to check out his new book, Blowback.
Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at email@example.com. We're always looking to improve the show.
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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.