Capitol Siege Has Been A Success For Recruiting Extremists, Former DHS Staffer Says 1

Elizabeth Neumann resigned from the Department of Homeland Security in 2020. She says the Trump administration ignored the threat — and fanned the flames — of violent domestic extremism.


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. The increasing threat of domestic terrorism from right-wing extremists was something my guest, Elizabeth Neumann, warned the Trump White House about when she served as the assistant secretary of homeland security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. Trump not only ignored the threat, she says, he added fuel to the fire of extremism. So she quit in April 2020. Before the 2020 election, she wrote about why she thought Trump was so dangerous for our country. Lately, she’s been writing articles and op-eds about domestic terrorism, the storming of the Capitol and what it means for the future of our national security.

She sees a connection between many people on the far right and Christian nationalism, which teaches that America is not only a Christian nation, it’s God’s chosen nation. As a Christian, she finds this very disturbing. Elizabeth Neumann has more than 20 years’ experience in homeland security, dating back to when she served on George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council. She initially joined Trump’s Department of Homeland Security in 2017 as then Secretary John Kelly’s deputy chief of staff. She’s now co-director of the Republican Accountability Project, which was founded to push back against the lies and conspiracy theories about voter fraud and claims that the 2020 election was rigged, and to hold accountable elected leaders who have supported those claims and tried to overturn a legitimate election.

Elizabeth Neumann, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start with the January 6 insurrection. In a lot of ways, it did not succeed. It didn’t succeed in overturning the election. It didn’t return Donald Trump to the presidency. Over 300 people have been charged by the Justice Department. Some of the Q followers were disillusioned that the prophecy about Trump remaining president didn’t come true. So in that sense, the insurrection was a failure. Are there ways in which it was a success for the far right?

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: Thanks for having me, Terry. And unfortunately, yes, it was viewed as a success for white supremacists, for anti-government extremists and, quite frankly, probably, many of our enemies overseas. They saw it as a success in that we have such societal discord that we can’t seem to find, even post-January 6, the ability to come together on a basic thing like a commission to study domestic terrorism in our country and what happened on January 6. So we are very fractured as a nation at this point, very polarized. And that plays into our enemies’ hands.

So while the guard rails held up and the presidential transition happened on January 20, there is damage to our democracy that persists today, including the fact that you see so many Republicans at the state level and at the national level spending so much time and energy on voter suppression, because a sizable portion of the Republican Party, the Republican voters, believe that the election was stolen from them. That is not healthy. We are in a very precarious place in our country.

GROSS: Are there ways that January 6 empowered the right-wing groups, the hate groups, the white supremacist groups, the militias?

NEUMANN: Yes. In particular, if you look at white supremacists, they have this ideology behind them. And not every white supremacist holds to this. But going back 40, 50 years to the ’80s when the white supremacist movement kind of consolidated and came to the conclusion that they were no longer going to be able to establish or achieve their aims through the government, they realized that they needed to make the government their enemy. And they basically declared war on the government and stated that their aim was to overthrow the U.S. government, to establish a white nation. So when you see the Capitol being attacked, which is this symbol of our seat of government, it has this rallying effect for a white supremacist who holds to this ideology that, eventually, there’s going to be this massive war. And the U.S. government’s going to be overthrown. And they’re going to be able to establish this white nation.

So it’s not like they destroyed the Capitol. It’s not like they disrupted the transition of power. But it was seen as kind of almost the starting point, perhaps, of the civil war that they have believed in their mythology was going to come at some point, a race war. And so you see on online chat rooms that you have groups using this as a recruitment tactic, that it’s finally happening, if – you know, there’s going to be this race war, that we’re finally going to be able to achieve our aim of ridding the country of all of these people we don’t think should be here, establishing our own country. And any time you have, for an extremist group or a terrorist group, something that symbolic, it affects and helps them with their recruitment, with their morale. So these – certainly, on the white supremacist side, we see an emboldening effect for those groups.

GROSS: Which of the groups want to see a race war and want to see, like, a civil war that leads to a white nation?

NEUMANN: So that particular strain is going to be in your white supremacist group, so neo-Nazis and other groups that borrow their mythology largely from Germany and Nordic countries. What you also see, though, is there’s this other movement called the boogaloo boys. You may have heard of them as well. They also believe in a coming civil war. They also subscribe to an ideology of accelerationism, which a white supremacist might also ascribe to. That concept is that we are going to commit certain acts to accelerate societal collapse, to encourage the oncoming of a civil war. So it’s not just a belief that someday there will be a civil war, as if you’re being prophetic and you have awareness of something happening in the future. The accelerationism is it is my job to help bring it about.

So boogaloo boy believes in civil war. And it may also have a white supremacist viewpoint, might believe it’s a race war, but not necessarily. There are a lot of boogaloo boys who just believe that there’s a coming civil war and it has nothing to do, at least at a witting level, with race. So the – (laughter) one of the hard things in studying extremism, especially today, is that increasingly, we have these groups kind of morphing. An individual may have multiple ideologies that they have cobbled together to form almost their own version of an ideology. And so you might easily have a white supremacist who is also a boogaloo boy. You also see that the melding between the white supremacist groups and the anti-government extremist groups, there tends to be a lot of overlap there.

But you could find somebody easily – you could find a militia or a member of a militia who hates racism, who hates white supremacy. They are just about the right to bear arms and be able to exercise protection for their neighborhood through a militia. So it’s really hard to categorize with broad brush strokes. And part of the reason that, perhaps, we haven’t been able to take domestic terrorism as seriously as we should have is because of that decentralized lack of organization to many of these groups. I mean, you often see infighting between supposed leaders of these groups. And it can give this false sense that they don’t have their act together, they’re not actually that dangerous because they’re always fighting with one another. And they can’t even agree on the issues that they stand for.

GROSS: Well, did January 6 and the insurrection have the effect of bringing these groups together and creating a previously un-existing alliance?

NEUMANN: Definitely did. In fact, that’s one of the biggest concerns that we had is (laughter) you had groups that maybe wouldn’t have interconnected before, have an in-person, in-real-life experience, which during a pandemic is kind of rare to begin with, where they’re meeting people. So that networking effect can be very powerful. Not only did they meet in person, they’re having an experience that for them it had a lot of adrenaline, a lot of euphoria. It bonds you. It’s like being in the foxhole together in war. It bonds you in a way that just meeting on the street would not bond you.

So there is a concern then on the other side of January 6, you have groups interconnected in a way that they weren’t before. We heard in the news on Wednesday that prosecutors have found interconnection between Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and Three Percenters. I think we’re going to see more of this to come as the investigation unfurls. But the knowledge that they had been coordinating in the weeks up to January 6 is rather significant. These are not groups that necessarily share the same ideology. They shared a common purpose clearly and showing up on January six. And what has been revealed so far is basically coordination to be able to attack what they expected to be antifa showing up on January six. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any more coordination specific to the capital, though, in the messaging traffic that was released, they were talking about an insurrection.

So there clearly was this understanding in the weeks prior to January 6 that something that they labeled an insurrection was going to happen on January 6 and that they needed to coordinate to be able – to achieve that common purpose. That is rather concerning in that heretofore most of these groups kind of kept to themselves. And so, again, it’s – something about January 6 definitely shifted the makeup and the threat that we were facing. It used to be small groups. And we were predominantly worried about the white supremacist groups because historically they have been the most lethal in their violence.

But the other major problem with January 6 is so far of those indicted about, 85 to 90% – the numbers will change depending on, you know, who gets indicted next – but it’s somewhere in that 85 to 90% of the individuals indicted are unaffiliated. That means they’re not Proud Boys. They’re not neo-Nazis. They’re not Oath Keepers. They are just people that are passionate about Donald Trump. They are MAGA. To have that many unaffiliated people doing what happened on January 6 – and clearly, they were led by people that were more coordinated, more organized – they crossed into acts of terrorism by what they did to the Capitol on January 6.

That’s really concerning to most extremist researchers because it demonstrates we’re kind of in a very different threat environment. It’s not just these organized groups. It’s that we have mass violence justified for political purposes. It’s rather stunning, actually, the more the data comes out about who actually crossed the threshold into the Capitol.

GROSS: Are you saying that when Trump was president, he was able to accomplish the kinds of things that these disparate groups, the Proud Boys, the white supremacist groups, the Three Percenters, all the accelerationists (ph), what they were not able to accomplish?

NEUMANN: That’s a great way to frame it. Yes. You know, if you’re a Boogaloo boy or you’re a white supremacist, your aim is for the U.S. government to collapse so you can establish kind of your own form of government. If you’re in a very extreme anti-government militia type, you think that the U.S. government has basically violated its constitutional duties and needs to be scrapped and started over. So in a way, yes, you have, in Trump, kind of radicalized some portion of his followers, not all. But some portion of his followers have been radicalized to the point where they believe they are justified in using violence to overthrow the U.S. government.

GROSS: Let’s take a short break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Neumann. She served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit in April 2020 because of her concerns that Trump was fueling extremism instead of fighting it. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview about the growing threat of domestic terrorism with Elizabeth Neumann. She’s worked in Homeland Security ever since 9/11. She served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit in April 2020 because of her concerns that Trump was actually fueling extremism.

If what you’re saying is true, that Trump himself inspired a lot of the insurrectionists on January 6, do you think that he should be held legally accountable for that? And would there be any way of doing it?

NEUMANN: I do believe he should be held legally accountable. I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer by background, so I’m following the investigations closely, hoping that they might discover connections. But I’m guessing that the people around the president were careful to keep the president himself out of whatever they were planning on January 6. But I suspect we’re likely to see some connection points between those groups that I just referenced – the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers. That coordination that was happening in the weeks leading up to January 6, I find it really hard to believe that there wasn’t also connection points with people around the president.

So I think it’s important for us to find out and understand how coordinated this really was. I have – I still have very – I’m very concerned and very – I think there are a lot of outstanding questions about why it took so long for the National Guard to respond. I really don’t want the story to be that our government was actually – that there were political appointees actually, you know, looking to see if the president could declare martial law if things got out of hand enough. I really don’t want that to be the answer. But, you know, there’s something that is just off about the timeline and the delays. And we need that question answered. And if, in fact, there was a nefariousness to it, not just a bad judgment call, those individuals need to be prosecuted and held accountable.

Does all of that reach to the president? I think that’s a tougher burden. But it does sound like from some of the stories that we’re hearing from both former prosecutors as well as people that know this area of the law, there’s at least a case to be made about incitement to violence or about obstructing the peaceful transfer of power. So seeing that the president lied to his followers for weeks and that by doing so deceived people to the point of believing that it was well within their rights and in some cases their duty to violently attempt to overthrow the election, we really need the truth to come out so that we can start to rebuild and lift that deceit from those that are still believing in it.

GROSS: So some of the people who stormed the Capitol were members of the Oath Keepers or the Three Percenters which recruit from the military and from the police. And some of the people I’m referring to here were former members of the military or the police. And I’m wondering how much that concerns you if you see, for instance, the military as a training ground, not only for protecting the country, but also for the people who are accelerationists and want to start a civil war here.

NEUMANN: I mean, certainly it’s very concerning that we have former military, maybe even current military or current National Guard participating in any extremist group, especially extremist groups that are violent in nature. It’s important to understand, though, the way that militias recruit. It’s not necessarily obvious that what they’re recruiting to is illegal. There’s a big misunderstanding in our public about what a militia is. Militias are referenced in the Second Amendment, so there’s this belief that it’s legal, that it’s constitutionally-protected activity. Turns out that’s not the case.

A hundred years ago, the militia turned into the National Guard. So if you want to participate in a Second Amendment-protected militia, you go join the National Guard. But that is not widely understood. And it’s often manipulated by the militia. And consequently, when you’re recruiting somebody that might be in the military, a member of the National Guard or former military and law enforcement, it’s often framed as we get together, we run drills, and we’re just there in case the governor needs us, in case we have a bad day, a natural disaster, war hits. We’re there to protect our community.

Well, hey, that sounds like a good deal. And if you’re former military, former law enforcement, hey, that’s what you signed up for when you joined those forces is to protect your community. So it on its face sounds like a good thing as compared to some of the other extremist groups that have as their ideology this idea of hatred towards somebody. A militia often is not about hate. It’s about protection. The problem is that, one, they’re outlawed in all 50 states. You cannot be a part of a private militia and conduct law enforcement activity. It is outlawed. Two, some of these groups over time kind of take on pretty extreme viewpoints that are anti-government in nature.

It’s not just about protecting. It’s about pushing back against the authorities. And that’s very much what we saw on January 6. You saw organizations that believe that the federal government had superseded its constitutional powers, that the government was trying to steal the election from Donald Trump. And they felt like it was time for revolution, time to go back to the basics of – you heard them screaming 1776 through the hallways. It is very much, they believe, about protecting their rights, protecting the Constitution. But that led to violence on January 6. And we sadly have a history in this country of anti-government extremists conducting some very violent acts. Probably the most notable was Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing.

GROSS: And let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Neumann. She served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit in April 2020 because of her concerns that Trump was fueling extremism instead of fighting it. We’ll be right back after we take a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with Elizabeth Neumann about the growing threat of domestic terrorism. She served as assistant secretary of homeland security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit in April 2020 because of her concerns that Trump was not only ignoring the threat of domestic terrorism, he was fueling it. She’s now co-director of the Republican Accountability Project, which was founded to push back against the lies and conspiracy theories about voter fraud and claims that the 2020 election was rigged, and to hold accountable elected leaders who have supported those claims and tried to overturn a legitimate election.

During your years working in Homeland Security, was there a turning point for you when you realized that these far-right extremist groups, including white supremacist groups, including groups that want to create a civil war, that they were more than just kind of background fringe, that they posed a serious threat to our national security?

NEUMANN: I think that there are two moments that stand out to me. The first was in August of 2017 when we had Charlottesville, the protests that turned violent. And people were killed. It wasn’t so much that we had a protest – counterprotest death. That – I mean, it’s horrible. But that has happened before. It was that you had people so unabashedly walking about, carrying their tiki torches and saying these horribly racist things. That was very shocking to many of us at DHS. I think we all knew that racists exist in our country. I don’t think we realized that they felt so comfortable that their face was associated with this. That they wanted to wear it, that it was their identity, that was rather stunning. So that moment certainly raised a lot of questions. We turn to our analysts in the intelligence community. What is happening? What does this mean? And sadly, we could – probably an answer to a different question.

But we did not get good information from the intelligence community. I learned later that the best data was, actually, outside of the government from nonprofit organizations and researchers. So on the inside, we were not getting a good understanding of the trend lines, of the fact that hate crimes had increased, the fact that the president’s rhetoric was increasingly being tied to hate crimes in court documents. And so it wasn’t really until we get to October 2018 and we had another shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh – the Tree of Life shooting – that we started to realize that this problem was metastasizing. And not very long after that, you had Christchurch.

And at that point, the counterterrorism community’s eyes are very wide. And, oh, my goodness, this thing is global. We have been talking to our counterparts overseas. And they kept referring to things like the rise of right-wing violent extremism, the rise of nationalism, the rise of fascism. But we weren’t quite understanding, I think, until Christchurch, how dangerous this – these conversations that had largely happened online – although, there was some travel between U.S.-based groups and other parts of the globe. Most of what was happening, most of what was metastasizing was online. And the U.S. was the exporter of this sick ideology. And so it was a recognition that we have this new threat. And we are not going to be able to stop it.

GROSS: When you’re talking about Christchurch, you’re talking about the massacre at a mosque in New Zealand.

NEUMANN: Several mosques.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about when you were assistant secretary of homeland security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. Did you talk to Trump directly about the threat of domestic extremism?

NEUMANN: I did not. But I am aware that several of my secretaries did. And I say several. We had five during my tenure there.

GROSS: But you knew that Trump didn’t want to use the word domestic terrorism. And – because you’ve written about how he stood in the way of the department talking about the threat of domestic terrorism. What was his problem with that?

NEUMANN: This was shortly after the attacks in El Paso. This is August 2019. And we had already been working on some prevention capabilities that we were trying to convince Congress to fund. We were in the process of writing a strategy around how we were going to strengthen our prevention efforts and then briefing members of the president’s senior staff. These are people that do brief him directly. They made it clear that the work that they were doing, especially after El Paso, was about violence prevention. And that’s certainly an important lens through which to view the problem set. But it was interesting because I, of course, coming from the counterterrorism community, would – was explaining we also need to look at it through the terrorism lens, because what is being done is in the – meets that definition. And the national security community always defines the threat before we develop a strategy to counteract it.

And I was told pretty directly, we cannot use that term. You guys can use that term, which was good because my secretary at the time, Kevin McAleenan, was very clear that we would be talking about domestic terrorism and calling it what it was. But it was clear to me – and, of course, at this point, it’s three years into the administration. You learn how to read the cues. And working with Trump, he had trigger words. He had things that it just was not worth the time and the energy to try to bring up to him. Russia was one of those things. And apparently, domestic terrorism was one of those things. Not exactly clear why they were trigger words. I still don’t know that we know the full story about him in Russia.

But certainly, he would go off on tangents any time those things were referenced. And so it just wasn’t worth bringing them up. And the senior staff and the cabinet members learned how to work around that and avoid those issues for the sake of trying to get something done. And that was the nature of the conversation in September 2019 that I was having with these White House officials. It was, we want to support you. We are trying to make sure that you get the funding that you need to be able to do this important work. Just so you know, we can’t call it domestic terrorism. And I responded back, I understand. Just so you know, we will be calling it domestic terrorism. And it was kind of left at that.

GROSS: Trump demonized so many groups when he announced his campaign. He demonized Mexicans. One of his first actions was the Muslim travel ban. The pandemic – it’s the China virus. And suddenly, there’s attacks against Asian Americans. He’s accused of sexually harassing and assaulting women. He certainly insulted women. He said things that were insulting to Jews. And I’m wondering, following, like, spikes in activity when Trump would do any of these things that I just mentioned, could you see that? Could you see spikes in organizing activity in online comments? Like, how could you tell the impact that that was having? What impact do you think it had?

NEUMANN: On the inside, when we were – when I was at DHS, we were not able to track that type of information – several reasons for that. But what is interesting, though, is over time you’ve had a number of researchers, news organizations dig into, you know, is there a cause and effect here? And since being out of government, I’ve had more time to read some of those studies. And it is quite remarkable. It is not even just a political assertion or commentary to – it’s been so researched that I feel very confident, saying there is a direct connection between the words that he uses and the hate crime that we see shortly thereafter.

A number of studies that have been done on this, but one in particular that I recall, they studied when he would tweet or give a speech in an area. And he would talk about Muslims, usually in a derogatory way. They were able to hold for, like, what the normal amount of hate crime or activity in a particular area would be and show the spike when the president had tweeted or when he might be in the area giving a rally-type speech. They could show the increase in the hate crime or the increase in the hate-filled language on social media. There was another news organization that looked through court records during the Trump presidency and found – and this was only 2 1/2 years into his presidency – they found over 50 cases of individuals being prosecuted for hate crimes that cited the president as the reason why they felt that they were justified in doing whatever they did.

GROSS: It’s clear from what you’re saying that you think when Trump was president, he activated a lot of hatred. He activated a lot of people to take action on their hatred, either – whether it was a death threat or storming the Capitol. And also, I think you’ve pointed out that although Trump can turn this on, there’s no indication he can turn it off. And so what are the implications of that for our future?

NEUMANN: I think you said that so well. He’s activated something that existed before he was here. We have to recognize that it was created through political and cultural means, and we need politics and culture to help fix it. So we need elected officials, especially on the Republican side, those who maybe even participated initially in supporting Donald Trump in the arguments that the election was stolen. We need people like that to come out and say the election wasn’t stolen. You do that, and it shrinks a sizable portion of people we have to be concerned about.

Now, that does not take care of the violent extremists out there. And it doesn’t take care of, you know, other ideologies that might not have been so tied to Trump. But right now, you have this confluence of violent extremist organizations that, you know, have been emboldened by him, new groups that have kind of sprung up around him like the Proud Boys and then this big lie that many in the country believe is true, and it’s just too much. So we need to shrink the pool of vulnerable individuals that might mobilize to violence. And that’s part of the reason why I joined the Republican Accountability Project because this is inherently being fueled by politics.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Elizabeth Neumann. And she served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit in April 2020 because of her concerns that Trump was fueling extremism instead of fighting it. We’ll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview about the growing threat of domestic terrorism with Elizabeth Neumann. She’s worked in Homeland Security ever since 9/11. She served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit in April 2020 because of her concerns that Trump was actually fueling extremism.

When you quit the Trump administration in 2020 and left your job in Homeland Security, what was the turning point for you where you decided you couldn’t stay anymore? Was there a specific turning point?

NEUMANN: You know, it was probably most directly El Paso, coming out of that. And, you know – when you’re outside, it’s very easy to see the evil. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re constantly pushing back against it. And it’s so exhausting. You’re just trying to get through each day. So the El Paso moment was the moment when he could have said, oh, my goodness, my words ended up in a terrorist manifesto.

If you recall, the shooter talked about needing to stop the Hispanic invasion. Those were words straight out of Donald Trump’s campaign. They had been used on thousands of Facebook campaign ads just that year alone. And he had spoken them personally. It ends up in a terrorist manifesto. And the proper response is, oh, my gosh, that’s not what I meant. I never meant for somebody to kill somebody over this. Like, I’ve learned my lesson. He could say it in his own Trumpy way, but he could have said, I’ve learned my lesson. This is not who we are as a people. We respect one another.

And I would have been willing to offer him grace that he genuinely didn’t understand that his words were having this kind of impact. He did not choose to do that. In fact, he followed the normal pattern that he usually does, which is he kind of brushes aside any sort of question associated with, hey, do you realize your remarks are in a terrorist manifesto? He feels attacked. He attacks back. Then he reads some script that his staff wrote him that sounds conciliatory. And then a day or two later, he reverts back to his attacking style. I don’t know if that’s because in his heart he is racist. I think that’s something between – that only he and God know.

But I do think that he has exhibited that his ego prevents him from acknowledging wrong, from acknowledging that he’s human and makes mistakes. And that is very dangerous for us to have in any form of leadership. So that was probably the moment that I realized he not only is ignoring the problem that Secretary Nielsen had raised multiple times to the White House, that my colleagues and I were trying to get the White House to act on. But he was actually making the problem worse. He was creating the problem for us. He was, as you have shared, pouring fuel on the fire of it. And so that was kind of that really remarkable moment for me of it’s time for me to leave. It took a while for me to put things in place to step out, but it was definitely kind of the shifting point for me that I needed to move out.

GROSS: What about the policy of immigration on the southern border with Mexico, of separating children from their parents and children ending up basically in cages? And many of those children have never been reunited with their parents because no one can find their parents. And that’s in part because no one was really keeping track. There wasn’t enough paperwork that was done. I don’t know whether that part of policy came under your purview. But, you know, how did you deal with that aspect?

NEUMANN: Yeah. Those were dark days. It did not fall under my purview – other people that dealt with immigration issues. When I heard about it, I was sick to my stomach. I attempted to try to – the best I could, are you – why this was the wrong approach. It was kind of explained to me that we at DHS had not actually made the decision, that it was a decision made at DOJ. And we were kind of caught flat-footed because we didn’t know the decision was coming down. And everybody was scrambling to try to figure out how to handle it.

I do know that you had career and political officials under tremendous pressure to get immigration numbers down. And some of the career officials really felt like the only way to get the numbers down was to do something drastic as a deterrence measure. And they – that’s how they get to the place where they think family separation would send that signal. I was very grateful that the strong outpouring of anger by the American public kind of forced the president to change tracks on that pretty quickly. It was a – it is a stain on our country, and it’s going to be with us for some time.

GROSS: So, you know, we’ve talked about domestic terrorism. You served in Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration and in the Trump administration. You’re no longer in government. You’ve been writing. You’ve been speaking out against Republicans who support the stop the steal point of view. But what do you see for yourself in the future?

NEUMANN: That’s a great question. A year ago, this is not what I thought I’d be doing. I certainly have enjoyed spending more time with my kids and getting involved in our local community. And I hope I get to continue to do those things. I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I feel called to try to persuade the community from which I came, the Christian community, the conservative community, that there is a path that is not governed by fear, that there is a path where we can lead with principles and with love that still embraces some of the things that you think that you hold dear but have been co-opted by people like Trump and others around him for their own purposes, for power and for evil.

So right now, I know that I’m searching for how to best communicate and encourage that change. There’s opportunity and maybe responsibility to try to encourage evangelicals that our faith is so much bigger than any problem that you perceive in this moment. And if we follow what Jesus taught us, it is much more about loving one another, serving one another, as opposed to being obsessed with having power and getting things your own way.

GROSS: Elizabeth Neumann, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

NEUMANN: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Elizabeth Neumann served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat reduction in the Trump administration. She quit last April and is now the co-director of the Republican Accountability Project, which is pushing back on political conspiracy theories and trying to hold accountable elected leaders who’ve supported those theories. This is FRESH AIR.


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