Taylor, who this fall has been publicly campaigning against Trump’s reelection, spoke with The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig on Thursday about his decision to come out as “Anonymous” after months of denying his identity as the author, why he didn’t resign over his own department’s immigration policies and more.
What follows is transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Leonnig: What motivated you to publish the op-ed?
Taylor: In the first year and a half of the administration, virtually everyone in the national security cabinet was spooked by the president’s behavior. From the White House to the Cabinet on down, what people were seeing with Donald Trump in the White House Situation Room, in the Oval Office, literally scared them. And they felt like he was really unstable.
For me, the breaking point for writing the op-ed was we flew on a trip to Australia, to meet with our “five eyes” intelligence community partners, and while we were there, in the middle of the night, I get a phone call from the White House. DHS just had the flag lowered around the country in honor of the late senator John McCain, which was right and appropriate, and no one thought anything of it. I was awoken in the night by the White House and our military aide frantically trying to get in touch with me and with the secretary to say the president is furious that the flags are lowered for John McCain and he wants you guys to order them raised back up.
It’s probably three in the morning at this point in Australia, and I literally felt sick to my stomach. That was like a gut punch in the middle of the night to be like, the man you’re working for now wants you to dishonor a man you’ve revered throughout your career. Over the course of that night into the next morning we went back and forth with the White House and said, “Look, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to [raise] the flags unless we get a written order from the president.” People around the president, the White House, [chief of staff] John Kelly, and others, convinced the president how petty he looked, and convinced him to issue a proclamation instead for the flag to be lowered.
That night, I got up in Australia, and I went over to my laptop, and I wrote the op-ed for the New York Times probably in the course of 30 or 45 minutes, probably the fastest thing I’ve ever written, and edited it very, very lightly. Basically, what you saw published in the paper was what came out of my brain in that 30 to 45 minutes, because I was so infuriated. And I felt like people just needed to know that, even though our president on a daily basis seems crass and unstable, and increasingly unqualified for the job, there were at least people in the administration from John Kelly to [secretary of state] Rex Tillerson to [national security adviser] H.R. McMaster that we’re really trying to do good things. And in moments like the John McCain moment, we’re at least there to say, “No, we’re not going to do that.” No, does that mean we stopped everything? Absolutely not. We weren’t saints. And we’re not heroes.
Rucker: The New York Times identified you in the editorial as a senior administration official. At the time, you were the deputy chief of staff at the Homeland Security Department. But you probably saw the pretty widespread public speculation in the days that followed the publication that the author was somebody far more senior, a Cabinet secretary, Vice President Pence even, someone who was directly in the room advising the president. And did you think the attribution to you knowing that you are the author, did that mislead the public?
Taylor: Look, first of all, I would say I very often was in the room, and I was with the secretary for almost every conversation she had with the president of the United States, so that’s first and foremost.
Second, I would say at that period of time, the White House itself was having to do background calls with reporters, including your paper, in which they told me to identify myself as a senior administration official.
Third point I would say is every major outlet in this country during that time I was in the administration, and the subsequent period, would identify me as a senior official when I have conversations. That’s not my job to make that determination. I’ll leave it to the media to decide what they want their standards to be.
Leonnig: At some point, the White House asked you about a possible list of folks who could be “Anonymous.” There was quite a firefight over trying to find out who this was. Tell us a little bit about those conversations you had with a specific White House person or persons about who might be Anonymous and what they were thinking. And then second, what was going on inside your head as you kept this secret?
Taylor: Yeah, I remember the day that it dropped. My thought that day was, okay, there’s a good chance that this will leak out, and if it does, I’m fully prepared for everything that will come next — including it was a certainty that I would be fired from the administration, and that I was ready to take that and any and all other consequences. The president had demanded that an effort be started within the administration to hunt down and punish the author. And that’s what I was told directly by the White House: “Hey, we have this effort underway, the president wants us to hunt down and punish the author” and [using] the word treason. And then he had the Justice Department and others looking into the process, into the possibility [of prosecution the author].
But I thought someone has criticized the president purely on the grounds of character and you’re launching an effort, as if serious national security secrets had been spilled by a traitor who needed to be imprisoned. And it felt bizarre, I mean, truly bizarre to watch …
But, after a short period of a couple of days, they wrote it off, although one weird thing happened. If you guys remember, the president was so apoplectic. He demanded that every single Cabinet secretary of the administration personally write him a letter, denying that they are the author. That came from the president himself; he demanded it. But it just displayed how thin-skinned this man actually was.
Rucker: You were asked repeatedly by different media organizations, including The Washington Post but also Anderson Cooper on CNN, whether you were Anonymous. You denied it, which was effectively a lie. And at the same time, there were efforts inside the White House to point a finger at Victoria Coates to try to spread a rumor that it was her. She actually lost her job on the National Security Council, in part because of this. Why didn’t you ever come forward then and say, “Actually, it was me,” and tell the truth?
Taylor: In a way I did, and I’ll tell you why in a second. But let me start with the first part of your question. That day, I had dozens of reporters message me, like they were messaging all of their sources, to say, “Is it you?” Of course, I told them it wasn’t me. It would be pretty stupid of me to publish an anonymous op-ed, only to say, “Well, if someone asked me, though, I’m just going to say, yeah.” I mean, that would have defeated the whole purpose. The whole purpose of the thing was to make Donald Trump focus on the actual contention of the argument, and not on the person. And it forced him to have to do that.
And the same thing with the book. Really clearly in the introduction of the book, I said, if asked, I will strenuously deny that I’m the author, but for this specific reason, because I don’t want this to be about me; it needs to be about the commander in chief. I felt strongly that at some point I needed to expose myself to all of the criticism that would ensue from writing that type of paper, and so I said, “I’m not going to hide my identity forever. Right now, I want to force Donald Trump to contend with these criticisms of his character, and those alone, without resorting to schoolyard bullying.”
As people did get accused of being the author, the people I was working with at the time were advising me no matter who he points the finger at, we cannot confirm or deny it, because then we’re going to start ruling out and they will get closer and closer to you. But I made an exception to that rule because no one got fingered as the person until they started to become very suspicious of Victoria Coates, which I think was wrongheaded. And it was based on a completely Keystone Kops investigation, and Victoria, who I know and is a lovely person, is a smart person, is a very talented national security professional, I felt sickened by it. And I talked to my small team and I said, “Guys, we got, we got to make an exception here. We need to come out. And even though we have not confirmed or denied anything, we need to forcefully and vocally deny, by my agent, that Victoria Coates has anything to do with it. Because she doesn’t deserve it.” And they drafted up a really spicy, sharp, wonderful statement.
I’ll also add that since I’ve come out in the past 24 hours, I sent Victoria a note, and I’ll keep the contents of that confidential, but to apologize and say, “I’m really sorry that you had to go through it, but that just goes to show the type of White House that is.” I mean, without any evidence, they’re going to try to wreck someone’s life, based on an assumption that they wrote something critical of the president.
Leonnig: One thing that comes up over and over again is the separation of children and the zero tolerance policy. This is something that has really sickened a large part of the American public, this idea that the zero tolerance policy led to [immigrant] children being separated from their families, and some of them unable to return, what do you have to say for yourself about staying with this administration as they pursued zero tolerance policy? And did you try to do anything to mitigate, rescind or relax that?
Taylor: Let’s start with the policy itself. I think it’s one of the most sickening things that happened in the Donald Trump administration — an absolute humanitarian disaster. That was a self-imposed humanitarian disaster, because the White House was so hellbent on Nazi-like immigration policies that they wouldn’t take the time to consider the foreign, secondary and tertiary consequences of what they wanted to do at the border. Now, by way of background for both of you, I didn’t actually come into DHS doing immigration. I was the secretary’s national security adviser, so I did counterterrorism and intelligence. And the week that [attorney general] Jeff Sessions announced zero tolerance, I took over as deputy chief of staff, so literally my first week on the job, where all policy issues in the department fell under my purview.
So I wasn’t a part of the discussion leading into it. I was a part of the absolute chaotic, disastrous aftermath. And what I can tell you is this: we were feverishly trying behind the scenes to slow this thing down or stop it. The White House and DOJ were hell bent on doing this …
The Attorney General kept saying to us, “I’m the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, if I’m telling you I’m going to prosecute these people, are you going to harbor criminals?” And finally, Stephen Miller got so [angry] that we weren’t doing it that he called a meeting at the White House with the top cabinet secretaries and other senior advisers of the White House working on immigration and border and said, “That’s it, we’re taking a vote. However, this vote ends is what the administration is going to do.” And they voted [to start the policy]. The only person to not raise their hand was [homeland security secretary Kirstjen] Nielsen.
Rucker: Why did you not resign?
Taylor: It’s one of the things that I still tussle over, because I kind of think I should have in that period. Frankly, I think it might have sent a message, but probably only for a one-day news cycle before the president just steamrolled it and moved on. But here’s the real reason. Around that same time period, basically that same month, around August, September 2018, we were being told by people at the White House that there was going to be a purge at DHS, because the president was so sick of being told by the DHS being told “No” about crazy things he wanted to do that they were going to do a purge. I got ahold of the list. They were going to replace the secretary, deputy secretary, myself and number of other people, and it was a cabal of crazies. It was people who I guarantee you would have said yes to anything the president wanted to do. And we were mortified by that.
Rucker: In your book, you’re pretty critical of officials at the Homeland Security Department, when it comes to the family separation policy. You wrote that it “left a stain on their reputations, their department and the country.” You were a senior official at the department at the time. So were you implicating yourself in that characterization? And do you think by staying there and not resigning or not speaking out publicly by name at the time, you’ve left a stain on your reputation?
Taylor: Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah, I really do, and I wish I’d done more. I mean, I feel if I could, I literally wish I’d laid my body down on the train tracks to stop that from happening, and call attention to it. And people can be plenty critical of this if they want to. But I mean, it’s one of the reasons that a couple months later, when no one was saying anything, and I couldn’t get anyone else that was more significant than me to resign, that I wrote the opinion piece, to basically let people know, whoa, this is how insane this administration is. I felt like, Okay, if we’re going to stay in our job, to keep trying to be the guardrails around the president, at a minimum, someone needs to communicate that it is worse than it looks. But people are at least trying to keep it together.
Rucker: When the book came out, Anonymous said that the proceeds were going to be donated to charity. The book was a national bestseller for many weeks, and so I’m wondering, what did you do with the proceeds? What charity did you give them to? And did you end up pocketing any of the money from the book?
Taylor: It actually takes a really long time for book proceeds and royalties come in. I turned down an advance for the book. And, you know, I was told that I could get about $1 million or $2 million to do it. And my first answer to my team was, “No.” I mean, this is not about money. We’re not going to do this for a seven-figure advance. My commitment remains that the absolute vast majority, if not the totality of the profits, royalties, would go towards organizations dedicated to holding governments accountable. One of those that I listed was the White House Correspondents’ Association, to make sure that they could give money to emerging journalists intent on shining a light in government, but also to organizations in autocratic countries around the world focused on shining the light. It’s still my intent to do that. Some of the proceeds I have are in a protected account and not a single penny of that has been used for me or has been spent on anything, period. There was no intent whatsoever to make money for myself on this publication. And in fact, I want to add further, that speaking, out against this president and doing this project has actually caused me to hemorrhage money significantly and to drain my life savings. So I’m not only not profited. I’ve nearly bankrupted myself.
Rucker: The final question I have is that Trump, you know, he’s called you “treasonous.” He said you’re a “sleazebag.” He said he should be prosecuted. And just an hour or so ago, at a rally in Tampa, he said, and these are his words, “bad things are going to happen to him.” When you hear that out of the mouth of the president of the United States, what do you think? Do you fear somebody might come arrest you or slap a massive lawsuit on you or threaten your personal safety?
Taylor: Well, I think if you had told me in the first week of the Trump presidency, that he was going to say things like this, and that Trump was an autocrat or a dictator, I would have laughed at you and said, “Come on. That’s hyperbole. Let’s not overblow this thing. Trump may be a man of deficient character, but he’s not a dictator.” The way the president talks now, is, by its very nature, autocratic, dictatorial, and undemocratic — and, frankly, un-American …
Since I started speaking out against the president, under my own name, months ago, it has had an enormous toll on my job, my personal life, my marriage, my finances, and now my personal safety, to the point that there are active conversations underway about me on me imminently receiving a 24-7 personal security detail, in addition to other measures that have had to be taken. For me to be able to do what I’m doing now. I’m currently in an undisclosed location. I’ll be moving within days to another undisclosed location. Is that how it’s supposed to be in the United States of America, that political dissidents have to go on the run, like we would expect them to have to do in Russia, or China, or North Korea? That’s not who we are. That’s not what the United States of America is. And my final message would be, you can agree or disagree with me. You can think I’m a patriot, or a coward. I don’t care. But what you should take away from this episode, is that the president of the United States is disgracing his office. And this is not what America should be.