Miles Taylor, a national security expert and lifelong conservative Republican, who served admirably and skillfully in the Trump administration, visited the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven last month. I interviewed him about his new book, “Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump.”
A “blowback” indicates the unintended adverse results of a political action or situation. Taylor cautions us to be extremely wary about re-electing Donald Trump or someone even worse as president in 2024. It is, he writes, up to us, or more pithily, us versus us, to understand the consequences of failing to act.
The book details Trump’s proclivities toward authoritarian rule, his admiration for dictators around the world, and his sympathies for white supremacists. More importantly, it displays how the next MAGA president, which may well be Trump himself, will make all this even worse. I asked him to share his experience, and why he and so many others made it past 2019.
Taylor served first in the George W. Bush administration, then as deputy chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security under Secretary John Kelly, and finally as chief of staff under Kelly’s successor, Kirstjen Nielsen, the last two in the Trump administration. A bright, dedicated public servant, he was one of several leading members in the Trump executive department who thought they could make the government work to ensure the American people’s freedom and security. He was part of a group he terms “the axis of adults” that included his mentor Kelly, Nielsen, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and others.
Distraught and angry, Taylor published an op-ed piece in the New York Times in September 2018. Signed “Anonymous” (the only unsigned commentary ever printed by the Times), its title was “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”
“Ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left,” he wrote. “We want the administration to succeed, and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.”
Taylor and his like-minded colleagues vowed “to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses” until he left office: “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” Trump engaged “in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed, and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”
He admits they failed.
Taylor stayed on even as his coworkers left: In March 2018, Tillerson was fired via Twitter, and in early 2019, both Kelly and Mattis resigned, followed by Nielsen. Frustrated, he himself resigned in September 2019. He expanded his op-ed piece into a book, “A Warning,” also published anonymously.
Then, one month before the 2020 presidential election, he revealed he had written them both. He immediately became a verbal target of Trump vindictiveness and the literal target of his MAGA allies. He was followed in his car, his apartment was broken into, he bought a gun for protection, he started drinking too much, and his engagement collapsed.
“Blowback” tells a harrowing tale. Because Taylor’s expertise is national security, he focuses on Trump’s obsession with immigration, especially undocumented refugees. “Everything,” he writes, “was about the border,” because it was “Trump’s insatiable border fetish.” Trump never wanted to engage in reasonable policy discussions about immigration reform.
He wanted only to build a wall or, worse, place a moat between the U.S. and Mexico, filled with snakes and alligators. He wanted to deploy “heat-ray technology to make asylum seekers feel like their skin is on fire, or shoot-to-kill orders for anyone who rushes the U.S. border …. They may even be treated like terrorists.”
Trump told border agents to stop everyone from crossing into the U.S., and just ignore the immigration judges if they were ordered to allow them due process. When agents told the president that was illegal, Trump retorted that he would pardon them. Taylor was appalled: “Trump offered a presidential pardon in exchange for an illegal act … Did the president just break the law?” (His emphasis.)
Worst of all was the family separation policy. To deter undocumented immigrants from crossing the border, the Trump administration began taking children from their parents and putting them in cages, eventually sending them into the interior of the U.S. Officials never kept track of the children, perhaps numbering as high as 26,000, and to this day, the government still hasn’t been able to locate many of them. Taylor calls this policy “disgusting.”
It was the final straw. He resigned in September 2019 — not to disappear into obscurity, but to work to ensure that neither Trump nor one of his loyal followers would assume the office of the presidency. Because if they did, as he puts it, “this is a cautionary tale about how neglecting our guardrails — individually and as a democracy — can lead to self-destruction.”
He tells us that we must not let this happen.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, interviewed Miles Taylor at Bunch of Grapes on July 27. He taught constitutional law and politics for more than 40 years.