Inside the White House complex, an instruction manual is hidden in a secure location for use only in national emergencies. Few people know where it is, and even fewer people are allowed to access it. Informally dubbed the “Doomsday Book,” the manual contains the president’s break-glass options for keeping the country running in situations ranging from global nuclear war to an armed foreign invasion of the United States.
The options are known by an anodyne name—PEADs—or “presidential emergency action documents.” Recently declassified records suggest that the PEADs allow the president to invoke extraordinary powers. The records hint at draft authorizations to enable the White House to unilaterally detain “dangerous persons,” censor the news media, flip an internet “kill switch,” take over social media, and suspend Americans from traveling. These might be the type of actions a president would take if the nation’s capital was destroyed, enemy forces were hunting down U.S. leaders, or the survival of U.S. democracy was in doubt.
Mark Harvey was once the keeper of the book. He served on the NSC during the Trump administration and referred to the manual as “the Mad Libs for the most extreme measures of government.” While Harvey wouldn’t confirm or deny the PEAD contents, his job was “to advise whether to pull out that book and go through these extraordinary decisions,” which he said could be implemented by the nation’s chief executive “with the stroke of a pen.” He was always on hair-trigger alert.
When Donald Trump was in office, senior aides like Harvey were concerned about protecting access to the PEAD documents. Inexperienced MAGA types roamed the White House halls daily, and NSC experts knew that, in the wrong hands, the special powers could be dangerous. Would someone suggest that Trump try to use the documents for non-emergency situations? Would they try to manufacture a crisis so that he could invoke presidential emergency actions?
The nightmare nearly came true. In Trump’s final year in office, the White House sought to put a loyalist into one of the jobs with access to the Doomsday Book. According to sources, that person was Christina Bobb. The Trump staffer—who later became a reporter for the MAGA-friendly One America News Network (OANN) and served as a personal attorney to the ex-president at Mar-a-Lago—was seen by the White House as a diehard Trump supporter. They wanted her on the NSC.
“I worked every person I knew to make sure that Christina Bobb didn’t get assigned to the National Security Council,” explained an individual closely involved with the situation, noting that the woman was dangerously unqualified. Career officials believed that Bobb was the type of ideologue who might misuse the sensitive NSC perch. “We were a hair’s width away from her taking the role,” the former official remarked.
Bobb was later involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Former NSC staffers believe the coup plot would have been dramatically heightened if someone like Bobb had been given access to the Doomsday Book. Indeed, the president and his lawyers might have tried to use the orders to justify seizing Americans’ ballots, nationalizing social media companies like Twitter, or rounding up the political opposition.
A former White House lawyer familiar with the situation confirmed that Trump was in the dark. The president didn’t have full knowledge of his emergency authorities, and no one who was “in the know” wanted to brief him. If Trump had been made aware of the full extent of the powers he possessed, the person said, the result would have been catastrophic. The near-miss highlights democratic vulnerabilities that, until now, have rarely been discussed. Another administration led by Trump — or someone like him — will weaponize the nation’s domestic security apparatus to wage political warfare.
DHS is the largest federal law enforcement agency in America—the front of the “shield” that is the nation’s domestic security architecture. The MAGA movement is keen to exploit that shield in ways that will betray the agency’s post-9/11 purpose and threaten the foundations of our republic. I beseech you to trust me. I’ve lived it.
The homeland defense system should be a formidable guardrail defending American institutions. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, the security powers of the executive branch are crucial for “the protection of the community against foreign attacks . . . the steady administration of the laws . . . the protection of property . . . (and) the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.” But that’s if we have a trustworthy commander in chief.
If we elect another hyper-populist president, the shield will be turned into a political weapon. DHS will be used to bludgeon those who want to become Americans. And if Trump’s past designs are any indicator, the department will be used to enforce the law through political favoritism and to welcome the “assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy” in the anti-MAGA enclaves of the country. In the eyes of aspiring immigrants, America will go from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to a fortified bunker in a mountain.
The Trump philosophy of leverage has infused the entirety of the Republican Party. MAGA leaders regularly propose using the levers of government to coerce or punish political enemies on the left, and they are keen to institute a system of selective protection in the United States.
Imagine a burglar enters your home. You call 911. The police answer and tell you that before dispatching the nearest squad car, they have to check your voter registration. Republicans get priority. Democrats have to wait.
Now picture this on a national scale. Under the Next Trump, DHS might automatically respond to emergencies in red states but hold out on blue states unless they capitulate to White House demands. This was how Trump wanted to handle the disbursement of disaster aid to everywhere from Puerto Rico to California.
The possibilities for corruption are limitless. DHS spends billions of dollars every year in federal grants to states for cyber defense, protecting soft targets, breaking up drug networks, and more. DHS has wide discretion to adjust how the money is allocated. During my tenure, we resisted political pressure to manipulate the formulas to favor certain regions over others, but a new MAGA team won’t be so reticent.
Elected leaders should conduct an end-to-end review of DHS with an eye toward insulating the department from this kind of political abuse. No agency is fully immune to presidential misconduct. Yet with such a long roster of White House appointees, “the shield” of American government is particularly susceptible to it. In particular, Congress should put career officials in charge at key agencies for multiyear terms, spanning presidential administrations, and should pass legislation to rein in domestic security powers.
“Politicization of the department is a huge, huge concern,” explained Tom Warrick, who served at DHS under Trump. “There are so many things DHS can and should do, and if it does these things in a partisan way, it loses the trust of the American people.”
Warrick cited Portland as an example. In 2020, anti-racism protests in the city grew unruly when activists clashed with police. The Trump administration intervened against the wishes of state and local officials, deploying federal authorities to quell the nighttime rallies, which in turn became more contentious. DHS sent agents of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, into the city as part of the response.
The images went viral. Armed men in helmets with long guns, bulletproof vests, dark camouflage, gas masks, and night vision goggles patrolled Portland’s streets in the dark—in some cases without any clear indicator of who they worked for.
“These guys are the Delta Force for keeping terrorists out of the United States,” Warrick noted. “You can’t turn them into a junior gestapo. You don’t want people who look like they are working on the Death Star roaming the streets of the United States. But that was a conscious decision by the Trump administration—to send a message.”
The move set the stage for future abuses of power.
“It was seen as a one-off, but if Portland becomes the norm—especially if you have BORTAC . . . going after U.S. civilians like you did in Portland, you will have a department that is rightly no longer trusted.”
Harvey, who protected the Doomsday Book at the White House during the Trump administration, echoed Warrick’s assessment. He speculated that the Next Trump could use DHS forces in perverse ways across other areas, such as federal elections.
“It would be the inverse of election security. They would militarize the elections process,” Harvey said. “They would have sheriffs that agree with them, reservists, potentially even active duty soldiers standing outside of polling places. They would do anything possible to intimidate their political opponents from casting a ballot.”
He and I spoke before the 2022 midterm elections. When the vote rolled around, reports surfaced about armed men in Kevlar vests (self-described “ballot watchers”) monitoring polling places in states like Arizona. Voters said the MAGA-aligned private citizens were trying to intimidate them, and some took the complaints to federal court.
If the Next Trump deploys DHS forces as ballot watchers, there won’t be any such recourse. All of it will be done under the guise of preventing fraud in the elections and providing security for the voting public. In reality, the goal will be to terrify the political opposition. The playbook has been around for many, many decades—in foreign dictatorships.
The MAGA movement learned a hard lesson in Trump’s first term: people are policy. The president appointed a vast array of public figures to key government posts, most of whom didn’t know the mercurial businessman. And they certainly weren’t willing to carry out policies that were plainly irresponsible, immoral, or illegal. In some cases, the internal resistance set Trump back years in carrying out his true intentions.
John Bolton saw himself as one of those people. The former ambassador agreed to serve as White House national security advisor part-way through Trump’s term. For a time, Bolton thought he was shielding agencies from Trump’s disruptive mood swings and sudden changes in policy direction. But the more the ambassador objected to the president’s bad ideas, the more he got left out of the conversation.
“There would be secret meetings at Mar-a-Lago on national security issues,” a former aide to Bolton told me, “and (John) would call me and say, ‘What the fuck is going on? Why am I not in this meeting?’ ”
Afghanistan was the tipping point. Trump was angry about the modest Afghan War plan we’d persuaded him to adopt in 2017 and returned to demanding a sudden pullout. He wanted to host Taliban leaders—the same people who’d harbored the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11—on U.S. soil at Camp David for talks just days before the anniversary of the tragedy. Bolton objected strenuously. Trump cut him out of the decision-making process, tweeted the summit into existence, and fired his national security advisor soon after.
Then Trump put in motion a hasty framework for exiting Afghanistan. What was the point, I wondered, of the months, the meetings, and the misery we had endured trying to get Trump to do the right thing, only to have him reverse the decision?
I put the question to Warrick, the DHS civil servant who led counterterrorism policy. Warrick was less defeatist.“We bought an extra two years of the United States staying (in Afghanistan) and killing terrorists and protecting the country,” he said.
Bolton agreed that moments like this—when staff persuaded President Trump to take the prudent course, even if only temporarily— bought just enough time to protect the country from the worst possible outcomes.
But a second MAGA administration “would do damage that is not reparable, especially in a White House surrounded by fifth-raters,” he predicted.
Nearly every Trump appointee I spoke with made a similar prediction. Another MAGA president won’t hire a stable of experienced public servants. From the start, he or she will populate the administration with a “D Team” of political operatives who pledge allegiance to a cult of personality, not the Constitution.
“(Trumpism) is like a progressive disease,” Bolton explained. “It might remit for a while, but it never gets better.” Or as a Pentagon leader under Trump told me: “In Round Two, you won’t see Jim Mattis and John Kelly. It will be the fucking enablers.”
People I spoke with predicted widespread career resignations under another MAGA presidency. The result will be a younger civil service without the knowledge, experience, or wherewithal to run government agencies. White House appointees will be forced to fill in the gaps as a result. In a hurricane, for instance, you might have inexperienced political operatives trying to handle the crisis instead of experts.
Mass resignations will be made worse by mass recriminations.
A future MAGA president will purge careerists who dare to dissent against the commander in chief. Trump put such a plan in place in October 2020, issuing an executive order that would have allowed him to fire tens of thousands of career officials using an authority called “Schedule F.” Through an obscure administrative power, the order would have enabled the president to strip large parts of the federal workforce of their employment protections. As a result, they could be fired without appeal.
Top Republicans have praised Schedule F. Axios reporter Jonathan Swan expertly documented how the plan was concocted and the enthusiasm for it among MAGA figures. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo told Axios that “Schedule F was a step in the right direction . . . (to) hold the D.C. bureaucracy accountable”; Texas senator Ted Cruz applauded the Trump team for “thinking creatively” about how to “root out the Deep State” and wished the White House had “done more sooner”; and Missouri senator Josh Hawley expressed openness to the order and hit back at the “unelected” career workforce as a constitutional danger.
“It will be a revenge machine,” explained Monte Hawkins, who worked previously on Trump’s NSC. “They will go after careerists that were ‘problems’ last time. They know who they are. They have a list.”
Adapted from BLOWBACK: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump by Miles Taylor. Copyright © 2023 by Taggart Transcontinental Railroad LLC. To be published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.