Two former top Homeland Security officials in the Trump administration have told The Daily Beast that there was an unwritten policy to not utter phrases like “domestic terrorism” and “white supremacy” around the president, for fear that he would take such conversations as implicit criticism of him.
The directives, said Elizabeth Neumann, previously assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat prevention, were never formalized. But both she and Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at DHS, say that they were explicitly told by White House brass not to use such phrases or terms around Trump.
“Following the El Paso mass-shooting last year, the White House was looking to find a way to show that they were handling the situation,” Neumann, who worked on countering extremism and domestic terror, recalled. “I was advised by senior officials in the White House at the time that I should couch this in terms of countering violence, rather than countering domestic terrorism or white supremacy, when discussing it at the White House or in front of the president… The subtext was clear, that by using those words, we would be distracting the president from the core issue.”
Neumann’s recollections are just the latest in a string of critical revelations she’s offered after becoming the latest former senior Trump official to publicly endorse Joe Biden and trash the sitting president. She served in the Trump administration for almost all of the president’s first term in office, and says she voted for him in 2016.
Neumann is coming out now to describe what she saw as a culture of fear, reprisal, and cultish “loyalty tests” within the upper levels of the administration; a climate in which key decision-making during a global pandemic was hampered by Trump’s tweets, whims, and wishful thinking.
Asked for comment on the story, White House spokesperson Sarah Matthews said the accusations from Neumann and Taylor were “absurd.” “They were honored to serve in the Trump Administration until they decided it will be easier to get or keep private sector jobs if they ham-handedly ingratiate themselves to the left,” she said.
Neumann said that it’s been standard operating procedure for years among top officials and Trump aides to avoid “trigger words” when briefing the president—severely complicating efforts to respond to high-profile killings that have occurred during the Trump presidency. She said that such trigger words have included “white supremacy,” “Russia,” “election interference,” and “domestic terrorism.” Taylor, who announced his break with Trump and support for Biden shortly prior to Neumann, confirmed her recollection.
“I can certainly testify on firsthand experience that we were asked [by the Trump White House] to avoid using ‘domestic terrorism’ and terms associated, and especially, ‘Russia,’” he told The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon. “We were explicitly told at one point by the White House to not bring up Russia in front of the president anymore.”
Trump’s abhorrence for the term “domestic terrorism” did eventually soften, Neumann recalled. But that occurred only when he concluded he was able to use it against the anti-fascist group Antifa and other “left-wing radicals” he didn’t like.
“There is a problem when a president can’t seem to have a conversation with certain words that remind him of criticism,” she continued. “His advisers have learned over time: Let’s not use those words. It’s not worth the pain of enduring a rant, or worse yet, he might just tell you not to do something. Cabinet members don’t want to bring up the whole issue with him, in case he might be having a bad day.”
It wasn’t just the terminology surrounding white supremacy that bothered Trump. Over the last four years, national security and intelligence officials said there are multiple subjects they often avoided bringing up in front of the president because they feared he would lash back at them in meetings or behind closed doors. The best-known example—the subject that was completely off limits from the start of the administration—was Russia, particularly Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“That was something that no one felt comfortable bringing up,” one former senior national security official said. “We tried to address the election security issue at the beginning of the administration and [Trump] never engaged on it. He actively avoided the topic.”
Over time, it wasn’t just the topic of election interference that Trump avoided—it was most things having to do with Moscow, three former senior national security and intelligence officials told The Daily Beast. “Who wants to work on the Russia portfolio right now? Seriously, who wants that job?,” another former senior official said. “No one. No one wants to have to deal with that blowback from the president.”
The issues that Trump’s aides confronted, however, extended beyond fear that the president might get triggered by certain words and phrases. Neumann and others accuse the president of being wholly ill prepared and unknowledgeable about major geopolitical matters, among them that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory.
“After the hurricane, the president demonstrated ignorance about Puerto Rico’s status in the United States multiple times: Was it a territory? Were Puerto Ricans Americans? It seemed basically like his first time learning about Puerto Rico,” Taylor recalled. “It was a joke in the administration that he doesn’t understand it’s a U.S. territory, or even what it means to be a U.S. territory. It baffled us. It was one of those things that would have been amusing, if it weren’t also so terrifying.”
Neumann and others also described how Trump’s attention would drift if there were too many advisers or experts in the room where he was being briefed.
“It tended to distract him, and he would turn on ‘entertainment mode.’ He would just start riffing on different topics, and go off-topic,” Neumann said. “What we found was that if you put too many people in the room, you can’t actually have a discussion about the [national security, immigration, or science] policy. Three, four, five people, and he’d focus better.”
One former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast that during the president’s briefings it was often difficult to hold his attention, even during portions where officials honed in on pressing national security issues.
“It became a sort of a game where we’d try and find ways to get him to listen,” that official said. “We were never sure what got through to him. But we were always sure what pissed him off.”
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said he briefs the president “constantly during the day on the latest intelligence on national security matters.”
“I also attend all of his Oval Office intelligence briefings. President Trump has great rapport with DCIA Haspel, DNI Ratcliff and his senior briefer, Beth Sanner,” he said. “Those briefings are characterized by an atmosphere of respect. There is real give and take between President Trump and those briefing him.”
But aides say briefings were often marked by not just disorganization but also confusion. That, aides say, has been especially pronounced during the White House’s attempts to message around reopening the economy during the COVID pandemic.
The president and his most loyal advisers have repeatedly demanded that various agencies adhere to language about the country being back in business, even as cities across America were seeing dozens if not hundreds of people dying every day from the virus, officials said.
“The ironic thing is that the interagency process under Trump very rarely works as it should,” one official said. “And in this case, that message made it to everyone it needed to make it to. And people mostly stuck to it.”
But that adherence to message has caused problems for the president’s own team. Officials inside agencies working with the task force have refrained from publicly dissenting, even as the scientific evidence showed that it was too soon to open up in certain regions across the country. And top advisers themselves have been confused as to whether the president’s public utterances mean that they too are being required to come into their offices.
During one DHS senior-leadership meeting in early April, less than a week before Easter Sunday, Neumann said she and the other principals had just finished a long stretch of discussing COVID-related data. Near the end of the meeting, according to Neumann, one member piped up to ask: “Do we need to start preparing our workforce to come back to work [next week], since the president had said that we should be able to reopen hopefully by Easter?”
Soon enough, a top official chimed in to politely advise that none of these leaders should start bringing their entire staff back into the offices, due to obvious health precautions. But for the now-former DHS official, it crystalized in her mind exactly how much Trump’s ravings and Twitter-fueled outbursts had come to affect policy-making, and how many senior officials were willing to contort and bend reality in the service of making the president happy.
“I remember the sense in the room, and there were a lot of eyes looking this way and that way, nobody knowing really what to say, because by that point, there was a clear sense that you shouldn’t say anything that might be considered brushing up against what the president said,” Neumann said. “It was such a telling moment for me because I don’t think I appreciated how much the president’s rhetoric and commentary in public had apparently influenced the senior leadership of the department and how they were choosing to lead their agencies and protect their employees during a pandemic.”
Elizabeth Neumann will be a guest on Sunday’s edition of The New Abnormal podcast, available only to Daily Beast subscribers.