October 30, 2020
The sky was cloudy and sullen, as if strewn with ash plumes. I exited the hotel, baseball cap and sunglasses in place, and crossed the street. Aware of everyone, talking to no one. A woman walked her dog. A man in a camouflage hat smoked a cigarette at the corner, while skateboarders weaved in and out of the bike lane. The smell of firewood smoke signaled the arrival of my favorite season, though on this morning, it barely registered. Around the block, I slipped into a bakery
for coffee and a biscuit, keeping my sunglasses on while waiting at the counter. The food lived up to the description, slow-cooked.
Outside again, I walked back to the hotel. A pair of eyes stopped me. The same camo-hat guy from earlier was leaning on a truck, holding my gaze down the street. Something wasn’t right. I changed directions as if I’d forgotten something, rerouting toward my parked car on the other side of the road. Settling into the driver’s seat, I holstered the coffee in the cupholder and watched the man in the rearview mirror. He dropped his cigarette and flattened it with a twist of his boot.
I pulled out of the parking space, planning to do a lap around the block to shake the suspicion. Headlights lit up behind me, and the truck pulled out, too.
It’s a coincidence. Calm down.
As I wound through the still-sleepy North Carolina town—knowing it no better than the distance covered by my high beams in the dim morning—the man seemed to stay with me. Right turn. Left turn. I was being followed, stalked maybe.
I sped a little faster along Asheville’s streets and recalled advice from an ex-CIA mentor. Time. Distance. Direction. It was a technique called a “surveillance detection route.” You tested whether someone was following you by measuring how long, how far, and how directly they remained on your tail. I tried to cool my nerves by running an ad hoc route, even though I had no idea where I was. I vectored away from downtown and took unusual turns, continually checking my rearview mirror.
On the outskirts of Asheville, the truck was still behind me. My heartbeat throbbed in my ears, racing so fast I worried that when it slowed I’d pass out at the wheel. I veered toward the shoulder and braked abruptly. My car shuddered to a halt over the gravel and kicked up a dishwater dust cloud. The truck drove onward and took the highway on-ramp, seemingly oblivious to my abrupt stop. I drove to a nearby parking garage and sat inside waiting, just to be sure. The street was quiet. The truck, nowhere to be seen.
You’re losing it, man.
The paranoia was metastasizing. Before daybreak, I had received a note from a U.S. Secret Service agent: “You should get a security team, fast. I can connect you.” And another from a Silicon Valley billionaire: “I’ll pay your protection costs.” While these were generous offers, I was five hundred miles from home, so for now, I was on my own.
It had started the prior afternoon. The president of the United States launched an “all-out assault” against me (as one news outlet put it) while in Tampa, Florida, at a campaign rally. Or was it a mob riot?
"Bad things are going to happen to him!” Trump warned ominously about the “horrible,” “treasonous” Miles Taylor.
Are you listening to me back in Washington? He should be prosecuted!” he roared, face contorted with rage, apparently directing his words at the Justice Department. The audience lapped it up.
“Traitor!” they shouted back gleefully. His followers began to search for me, online and in real life.
Why? Because I had just deliberately blown my own cover, revealing myself to be a longtime Trump detractor and—most infuriatingly to the president—one of his former aides. Internal dissent was one of Trump’s worst fears. By his own admission, he had spent two years eyeing everyone who entered the Oval Office warily, wondering who in his midst was the elusive inside critic known only as “Anonymous.”
It was me.
Years earlier, I had written an unsigned essay from within the Trump administration, blowing the whistle on White House misconduct. As the unknown author, I detailed the president’s character defects, an administration in chaos, and the alarming views of Trump’s own cabinet members—some of whom contemplated invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove the commander in chief amid the instability. I knew these anonymous revelations would lead to a tidal wave of attacks, but I also hoped they would persuade other rational Republicans to tell the truth about the man in the Oval Office.
I was right, at least about the tidal wave.
As I hunkered down in a North Carolina parking garage, Trump’s words from the rally—“Bad things are going to happen to him!”—replayed in my mind. I caught my breath.
No one is following you. You’ve taken all the precautions.
I had locked down my life before going public. While I will refrain from detailing the security measures or trip wires put in place (others are relying on the confidentiality of similar techniques to protect their families), I will note that I was obsessive. The process took months, and not all of it worked, as I soon found out. My accounts, devices, and phone numbers were all new, and my video backdrops became the peeling wallpaper of hotels, lest I give away my location while traveling the country to campaign against my former boss.
When I drove back into Asheville, the smoke-wood fog had burned off. It was light. An optimistic blue sky allayed my anxiety, until I got back to the hotel.
More vitriol had poured into my cell phone while I was gone, flooding the device. Emails, text messages, Twitter posts. They buzzed menacingly on the desk, each of them a digital grim reaper:
“Hope u die a slow painful death and suffer during the entire process, then burn in hell.”
"Your blood will be in the streets traitor.”
“Snitches get stitches.”
My data was littered across the web—my home address, new cell phone number, new email addresses, personal details about family members, and surprisingly accurate guesses about where I was holed up.
Time to go.
I packed my belongings, reloaded the car, and drove several hours east to Charlotte. In the crucial swing state, I planned to get out and triumphantly persuade voters to “put country over party!” by opposing Trump. Now I was little more than a prisoner reassigned to a new cell, shuttling between rented rooms booked under fake names.
Nighttime brought the first in a series of reckonings.
I placed a pillow over the loaded pistol that was my sidekick on the road trip and settled in, eyes on the door. My new accommodations were cheaper than the last, marked by the permeating smell of mold and mildew and by a rust-stained sink and tub. Mattress wires poked through a threadbare comforter, and an increasingly familiar emotion—doubt—did the same.
You think you’re clever? This was a mistake. You did this wrong. All of this.
Without the mask of anonymity, I felt exposed and, for the first time ever, hunted.