Was it really accurate to describe the author as a “senior” official? Was the anonymity granted by his book publisher and the New York Times justified? And given his role in implementing one of the administration’s cruelest policies, was he really the righteous whistleblower he portrayed himself to be?
Miles Taylor, the 33-year-old former chief of staff to Kirstjen Nielsen when she headed the Department of Homeland Security, disclosed on Twitter that he wrote the column titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” which the Times published in September 2018.
In recent months, Taylor, who resigned from the administration last year, has become a prominent anti-Trump pundit on CNN. He is also the co-founder of a group called the Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform, which supports former vice president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Taylor’s 900-word piece for the Times described in general terms efforts by White House staffers, including himself, to respond to Trump’s “amorality” and “impulsiveness,” which he wrote had resulted “in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”
The column enraged Trump; he took to Twitter to call the unknown writer “gutless” and demanded, for reasons of national security, that the Times must “turn him/her over to the government at once.”
“Anonymous” followed up with a book-length essay addressing the same themes as his Times column. Entitled “A Warning,” it reached the top of the nonfiction bestseller list last November.
Neither the Times nor Taylor’s publisher, Twelve Books, revealed his identity, describing him only as a “senior” official.
The phrase “senior administration official” is not a formal job category; it’s often used as shorthand by White House officials and journalists to describe a range of people who have delivered information for publication “on background,” meaning without being identified.
Taylor was an adviser in the Department of Homeland Security at the time his op-ed was published in the Times. He was later promoted to chief of staff to Nielsen and remained in that job from February to November of last year. He worked on a number of important administration initiatives, including construction of the border wall, the family separation immigration policy, and a program requiring migrants to stay in Mexico. At times, he spoke to reporters in background briefings, during which reporters were permitted to describe him only as a “senior administration official” — the standard description for such briefings.
But in Taylor’s case, the phrase was crucial to lending his column and book gravitas. Some guessed that “Anonymous” might be a Cabinet official, a prominent top adviser like Kellyanne Conway or even Vice President Pence. The guessing game that surrounded “Anonymous” fueled interest in his column and book, much as anonymity drove interest in the 1996 novel “Primary Colors,” a roman à clef about President Bill Clinton that was later revealed to have been written not by a White House insider but by Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.
Did Taylor — who was a deputy chief of staff at DHS when the Times published his column — qualify as a “senior” official? He wasn’t promoted to chief of staff until six months after publication.
“I would not describe him as a senior administration official,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary in the Clinton administration.
In his definition, “senior administration officials” are assistants to the president, Cabinet officials, and the principals and deputies in the national security apparatus. “That’s what I think of when I read that term, and that’s what I think a lot of other people think,” he added.
Jonathan Karl, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News, acknowledged that the term is a blurry one. But he said he doesn’t think “anybody when they read the anonymous op-ed thought it was someone who was an adviser to a Cabinet secretary who had very little contact with the president himself.”
Olivia Nuzzi of New York Magazine said that the times she’s used that attribution it’s been the product of a negotiation with a source. “It’s so vague as to be meaningless, which is why sources want it, but that’s also why it can feel like a deceit for the reader when they learn who you’re actually talking to.”
In the case of an anonymous author, “the prospect of who it might be creates more interest than who it really is,” said Lockhart. “Going public ends the game. People play the game because it is fun and interesting and it’s like anything — the more hype and speculation, the higher propensity for disappointment.”
Both the Times and Twelve Books declined to comment on how they labeled Taylor.
“We take seriously our obligations to protect sources,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said. “Many important stories in sensitive areas like politics, national security and business could never be reported if our journalists violated that trust.” In this case, she said Taylor had waived his right to confidentiality; she confirmed that Taylor was the author, but had no further comment.
James Bennet, the Times editorial page editor who oversaw the “Anonymous” column, resigned from the newspaper over the summer amid a separate tempest, the publication of a column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that urged military intervention to quell civic protests following the police killing of George Floyd. He could not be reached for comment.
Taylor himself defended his use of anonymity in a Medium post on Tuesday.
“Issuing my critiques without attribution forced the President to answer them directly on their merits or not at all, rather than creating distractions through petty insults and name-calling,” he wrote. “I wanted the attention to be on the arguments themselves. At the time I asked, “What will he do when there is no person to attack, only an idea?” We got the answer. He became unhinged. And the ideas stood on their own two feet.”
But Taylor’s role in implementing Trump’s highly controversial family-separation policy while he worked for Nielsen may undermine his own integrity in the eyes of critics. Under the policy, U.S. immigration agents took children away from adults who crossed the southern border, housing them in separate facilities.
Amid an international outcry, Trump reversed course and rescinded the policy in mid-2018. But even today, its effects linger. Some 545 children who were separated from their parents under the program still have not been reunited with their parents, lawyers appointed by a federal judge reported last week. About two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to the attorneys.