Q and A

Trump whistleblower Miles Taylor on being caught in the media machine

August 2, 2023
In this March 5, 2019, photo, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, talks with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, right, and her chief of staff Miles Taylor depart after the Republican Caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Miles Taylor was chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security when he wrote an anonymous op-ed for the New York Times about the resistance inside Donald Trump’s administration. Taylor resigned in 2019 and published A Warning before finally revealing his name in the fall of 2020. His second book is Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump, and his podcast is The Whistleblowers.

AP: You were brought into the Trump administration with John Kelly, someone whom you admired, not because you were a Donald Trump supporter.
What was your impression of the news coverage back then?

MT: One of the things that was unhelpful is there were folks on the left in the media who were trying really hard to amplify Donald Trump, and to some of them, Trump was a really convenient way for them to say, “See, the Republican Party’s crazy and it’s dangerous.” And it backfired spectacularly. It gave Trump this huge platform. 

After Trump took office, some people refused to take the bait, but others allowed their coverage to become more partisan. That ended up fueling his narrative of a corrupt mainstream media. That did a lot of damage to our democracy.

You’ve been both a source for the news media and a subject, so you have this dual role.

Yeah, and it’s the worst!

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Why do you say that?

When I was still leveling anonymous criticisms at the president, I had people praising Anonymous as a resistance superhero. On the other hand, I had people who absolutely villainized me as a traitor. And then me, Miles Taylor, thought neither of those things were good descriptions of who I was. 

It’s this media ecosystem we’re in—social media and traditional media. There’s a lot of overlap. It’s not healthy. 

No, it’s not. You see this a lot with would-be public servants. I talk to potential candidates all the time, who look at the prospect and then decline to enter the fray, because it’s not about policy and ideas anymore. It’s about punching your adversaries and getting “likes” on Twitter or TikTok. 

My therapist recounted one person who’s a relatively prominent veteran and political official who said, “The PTSD that I experienced from the battlefield is not as bad as the PTSD I have from working and serving in this political environment.” That tells you something. 

You dealt with an onslaught of negativity? 

It wasn’t all negative. When I came forward against Trump, there was a tsunami of support. But there’s this defect in our nature, which is you tend to forget the positives but you really remember the negatives, especially the violent stuff. It really, really, really started to get to me. I coped by trying to turn my brain off, and for me, like many people, that ended up being alcohol.

I reached rock bottom close to Election Day. I was in a marriage that fell apart. I had to leave my home. I got fired from my job [at Google]. I had to spend most of my personal savings on lawyers and other security measures. And my family was getting attacked. So I found myself on election night 2020 alone in a safe house with a bodyguard outside and a pistol under my pillow. As I’m watching the news, drunk, it looked like the election was trending toward Trump. I thought, “Wow. I’ve literally given up everything, except my life, to stop this guy from being president again, and it looks like he might be president again. So maybe I take my life, too.” 

My wife now, Hannah—I credit her with saving my life and am proudly almost eighteen months sober. But building back from that was very, very difficult.

Being a whistleblower, are there other ramifications that people don’t necessarily think about?

It’s a very lonely place, and I still don’t know how I feel about the term whistleblower, or whether I am one, but we did this podcast talking to whistleblowers all across the government, and it was almost like group therapy. I didn’t know a lot of these people. And actually, some of the whistleblower stories I disagreed with. One of them was Reality Winner, who is this former National Security Agency contractor that leaked classified information. At the time, I thought she ought to go to prison. But then you meet these people in person and you hear their stories and you’re like, “Oh, wow. There are remarkable similarities to what I went through.” And in almost all the cases, these are people who, one, believed they witnessed wrongdoing, and two, knew that exposing it would destroy their lives. They did it anyway. And every single one of them said that they didn’t regret it despite losing almost everything. 

You were a CNN contributor during the 2020 election. Do you think the media has learned lessons?

No. In fact, opinion-driven news is almost the only news people have access to now, which I think does not cater to the majority of Americans. I think that the vast majority of Americans are relatively moderate in their politics and very eager for an unbiased, unfiltered lens on the news. They’re not getting that. What we end up seeing is a lot of coverage that caters to the extremes. And I worry it’s going to lead us to make some serious civic mistakes in 2024 and beyond. The loudest voices are at the microphone right now. The system is rewarding political extremists. Part of that is the media, and part of that are the structural deficiencies in our democracy. 

Since things haven’t gotten betterhow do you maintain mental health? 

The best advice was creating balance, sometimes forcing a digital firewall so that I have time to meditate, run, and have uninterruptible time with family and friends, where someone can’t tweet something nasty into my phone and ruin my day. 

Ariana Pekary is the CJR public editor for CNN. She was an award-winning public radio and MSNBC journalist for two decades. Now she focuses on the systemic flaws of commercial broadcast news. She can be contacted at publiceditors@cjr.org or on Twitter @arianapekary.