WASHINGTON — A forthcoming book by an ex-Trump administration aide describes an episode in which officials worried that then-President Donald Trump was cavalier in his handling of classified information while talking to reporters, according to a copy obtained by NBC News.
Miles Taylor, who was a top aide to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, writes about the 2018 episode in a book set to be published this month. As a sitting president at the time, Trump had broad powers to declassify information. Yet the incident Taylor describes suggests that his aides still believed he needed to show more care toward state secrets — an issue that landed him in legal peril after he left office and took sensitive records with him.
Taylor is a prominent critic of Trump. He authored an anonymous op-ed while working at the Department of Homeland Security, in which he said that many senior administration officials were trying to limit Trump’s impulses and frustrate his agenda.
Also in the book, excerpts of which were obtained first by NBC News, Taylor describes having heard about Trump’s interest in “tapping” the phones of White House aides in a bid to stanch press leaks. Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said in an interview with NBC News that Trump had wanted to pursue leakers by tapping phones, but that Kelly pushed back and never carried it out.
Trump had long been angry over press leaks, as have past presidents of both parties. In his book, “The Briefing,” Sean Spicer wrote that he was “under relentless pressure to find leakers” as press secretary during Trump’s first year in office. Former senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway wrote in her book, “Here’s the Deal,” that in Trump’s view, “leakers were traitors and weaklings.”
Trump was still president when the episode Taylor described unfolded Oct. 18, 2018. Taylor writes that he was in a private meeting in the West Wing with John Bolton, who was then Trump’s national security adviser.
Then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders came into Bolton’s office and described an interview that Trump had given in the Oval Office, according to Taylor’s book, “Blowback.” (It’s common for White House press aides to sit in when the president gives interviews.)
Trump had been talking to the reporters about Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and journalist who was killed that month by Saudi assassins in Turkey.
Sanders told Bolton that the president had picked up classified documents relating to intelligence on Khashoggi’s death and displayed them, Taylor writes, but that the reporters were unlikely to have been able to read the text.
Bolton gasped at first, but “breathed a sigh of relief” when Sanders told him there had been no cameras in the room, according to the book.
Still, “We were all disturbed by the lapse in protocol and poor protection of classified information,” Taylor writes.
Bolton, in an interview with NBC News, said he did not recall the conversation with Sanders. He did not dispute that it happened. A spokeswoman for Sanders, now the governor of Arkansas, declined to comment.
Asked about Taylor’s book, a Trump campaign spokesman, Steven Cheung, said: “Miles Taylor is a loser and a lying sack of s--- His book either belongs in the discount bin of the fiction section or should be repurposed as toilet paper.”
During his time in office, some senior aides worried about Trump’s treatment of state secrets. In an interview, Bolton said that when Trump would get briefings, aides would “show him graphics, and that’s where the danger came of him grabbing something and keeping it.”
Asking Trump to return material he’d been given wasn't so easy, Bolton said.
“He’s the president of the United States,” Bolton said. “Are you supposed to say, ‘Mr. President, let’s be clear. We don’t trust you. Give us the document back.’ ”
Trump now faces criminal charges for his handling of classified documents after he left office. An indictment filed in a Florida court last month included a redacted transcript of a 2021 conversation Trump had with a writer, publisher and two of his aides at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump appeared to discuss a sensitive military document that he describes as a “plan of attack” against Iran that had been given to him by a U.S. military official. In an audio recording of that discussion that was separately obtained by NBC News, he says the document includes “secret information.”
“I have a big pile of papers,” Trump says amid sounds of rustling papers. “They presented me this. This is off the record. But they presented me this.”
The indictment states that none of the people meeting with Trump that day had either the security clearances or “need-to-know” about the attack plans.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty in the case. Last month, he told a Fox News anchor that he did not have a classified document and that he was referring to “newspaper stories, magazine stories and articles.” He told the news outlet Semafor that he had been holding up papers and engaging in “bravado” but “had no documents.”
As a sitting president, Trump, of course, was entitled to see classified information and empowered to declassify material. There is a process for declassifying information before disclosure. Kelly, his second of four White House chiefs of staff, said in an interview that he put in place procedures meant to safeguard classified material.
Kelly, a retired four-star general, said that he had cautioned Trump “that he should never, ever share classified information with anyone that does not have the proper security clearance, as U.S. national security and lives are put at risk.”
Explaining some of the practices he adopted from his military career, Kelly said that after displaying classified material as part of a briefing, White House aides were supposed to “collect it back in order to secure it properly.”
“We did not leave classified material with him, and the same procedures applied to me and the rest of the staff, as well,” Kelly added.
Alberto Gonzales, former White House counsel and attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview: “I would certainly advise [any] president not to even discuss classified information in front of reporters or someone who doesn’t have a security clearance. You can argue, ‘I have the authority as president of the United States to declassify it,’ but you classify information to protect the nation’s secrets.”
Taylor’s book does not specify which news outlet interviewed Trump when he discussed the Khashoggi killing, but he said in an interview it was on Oct. 18, 2018. A New York Times article published that same day describes an interview that Trump had with the paper in the Oval Office. The lead paragraph said that Trump voiced “confidence in intelligence reports from multiple sources that strongly suggest a high-level Saudi role in Mr. Khashoggi’s assassination.”
The New York Times declined to comment.
Taylor has become one of the most outspoken Trump administration alumni to turn against the former president. His op–ed article appeared in The New York Times in September 2018 under the headline, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” In it, he wrote that Trump “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.” Taylor’s identity remained a mystery until he outed himself in 2020.
Trump savaged the author after the unmasking, calling him “a sleazebag who never worked in the White House” and saying he should be prosecuted.
Taylor, then a Republican, opposed Trump’s re-election that year, appearing in a video supporting Joe Biden’s candidacy and denouncing Trump as “unfocused” and “undisciplined.”