Elizabeth Neumann is a former Department of Homeland Security official who has spoken out about her experiences in President Donald Trump’s administration, describing how the “constant chaos” coming from the White House has endangered American lives.
In several recent TV and podcast appearances, Neumann has detailed the administration’s failure to seriously address the threat of white supremacy and its refusal to attach a “domestic terrorism” label to far-right extremists, accusing Trump of bolstering radical ideologies and promoting violence with his rhetoric.
The 43-year-old Neumann joined DHS in February 2017 as deputy chief of staff for Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, then became assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention when Kelly left DHS to become Trump’s chief of staff. Neumann, a Virginia resident, resigned in April.
Here’s what you need to know about Elizabeth Neumann:
1. Neumann Was Instrumental in Shaping & Reshaping National Policy on Counterterrorism, the Department of Homeland Security Said
When Neumann joined Trump’s Department of Homeland Security in 2017, it wasn’t her first time on the national security scene — she was part of the inaugural staff of the Homeland Security Council, which was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“My career started in the Bush administration, and I was initially focused on domestic policies, and then of course 9/11 happened and the agenda completely changed,” Neumann told host Charlie Sykes during a September 4 episode of The Bulwark Podcast.
Neumann, a graduate of the University of Texas, had a front-row seat and a hand on the steering wheel during the creation of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Neumann’s now-archived bio on the Department of Homeland Security website details at length her “extensive experience” and “expertise.” Her LinkedIn profile highlights that she “launched (the) nation’s first terrorism prevention program” and “developed and championed (the) first DHS counterterrorism strategic framework.”
“My entire career has been focused on this concept of counterterrorism within the homeland,” she told Sykes. “For 15-plus years post-9/11, those threats were predominantly international terrorism — al-Qaida and ISIS and others.”
When Neumann returned to DHS in 2017, she was expecting more of the same. She told Sykes she started to sense things had changed after a series of vandalism incidents at Jewish cemeteries. And then Charlottesville happened.
“When you saw the images, it just was very jarring,” Neumann told Sykes. “You had people walking through the streets of Charlottesville clad in khaki pants and a button-down shirt saying, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and you’re like … this is something that I think we all thought had gone away, that if you have people with these views, they hide under rocks, they operate in the deep web, that it is not acceptable to talk that way, to act that way anymore. And just to have it full out in view was really really shocking.”
The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, and Neumann and her DHS colleagues saw the bigger picture: the country has a white supremacist problem.
When a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March of 2019 — and shared a manifesto espousing white supremacist beliefs — Neumann knew the problem had gone global.
“What we had feared, what we knew was increasingly globalized, was on the world stage,” Neumann told MSNBC’s Nicholle Wallace. “It is a globalized white supremacist movement, the U.S. is an exporter of this movement, and the world was coming to us and asking us to do something about it, because we were making their countries less safe.”
Neumann and her colleagues at the DHS got to work creating the Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which was released in September 2019. It was groundbreaking in its assessment of white supremacy, Neumann told Wallace.
“(It) was the first strategy that the federal government had issued by any department or agency that called out white supremacy and anti-government extremism as a rising threat on par with ISIS,” she said. “The FBI agreed with us about six months later, and now thankfully the counterterrorism community is going after this threat, at least at their level.”
2. Neumann Initially Refused to Work for Trump’s Administration
Driven by her Christian faith and a commitment to anti-abortion ideals, Neumann “very reluctantly” voted for Trump in 2016, she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep on September 2. She experienced that same hesitation when deciding to rejoin the DHS under the Trump administration. On The Bulwark Podcast, Neumann said she declined two invitations before relenting.
“It was the third time that somebody asked me (to come on), and they were describing what they were seeing during the transition period,” she said. “That backstabbing, the folks that were coming in were only about themselves, they didn’t have any experience in the homeland security space. I was really concerned for our country.”
Neumann said seeing John Kelly’s confirmation hearing was reassuring, because she views Kelly as “a man of experience and integrity.”
“If I could work for (Kelly), it would be worth the effort to endure the chaos that is Trump world,” she told Sykes. “But it was a hard decision to come in.”
Neumann said she took on the role with low expectations, and she still found that the experience fell short.
“I did not have high expectations of accomplishing certain policy goals. It was about how can I help John Kelly do what he needs to do to be able to help the president make as good of choices as possible and prevent bad choices from being made,” she told NPR. “It became very clear that most of our time and energy was spent around … how can I prevent the bad choices from happening.”
And it only got worse, Neumann explained to Sykes.
“At the beginning there was a time period where the president was steerable. You could move him in the right direction,” she said.
In an ad for Republican Voters Against Trump, Neumann doesn’t mince words when describing what it was like working with the current administration.
“A very common refrain that I was asked was, ‘Does the president’s rhetoric make your job harder?’ And the answer is yes,” she said. “The president’s actions and his language are, in fact, racist. … And I do think that the president’s divisive language is indirectly tied to some of the attacks that we have seen in the last two years.”
Neumann explained to NPR’s Inskeep that Trump’s signature style is “chaos itself,” which has trickled down through all other levels of government.
“That means we cannot perform our security functions well,” she said. “The first and primary job of a president, the first and primary job of the federal government, is to protect us.”
3. Neumann Knew It Was Time to Resign When She Decided to Vote Democrat
Neumann struggled with the decision to join “Trump world,” and she said she also struggled with the decision to leave.
“I had many moments where I was on my knees praying and asking if it was time to go, because it was exhausting, it was chaotic, it was toxic,” Neumann said on The Bulwark Podcast. “You couldn’t trust anybody, but the reason that we stayed in, those of us that were of like mind — and there were quite a number of us — the reason we stayed in is because we love our country.”
Neumann added that she and her like-minded colleagues made it their mission to act as a buffer protecting the lifelong civil servants in the lower ranks from the chaos reigning above.
Neumann told Sykes that by the end of 2019, she decided it was time to move on, and she began planning her departure. When she realized she could no longer, in good conscience, cast another vote for Trump, that sealed it.
“Part of my own process of coming to grips with the fact that I could not vote for him … is realizing how dangerous his rhetoric is and his unwillingness to change,” she said. ”It is so clear to me that his values, what he cares about is himself. He cares about his political power. He cares about winning. And at the sacrifice of people dying.”
Beyond withholding her vote from Trump, Neumann is taking things a step further: she plans to vote for a Democrat — former Vice President Joe Biden — for the first time in her life. She’s joined a coalition of more than 70 other former national security officials who served under Republican presidents and are now pledging support to Biden.
4. Neumann Discredits Trump’s Classification of an Antifa ‘Threat’
During her recent media tour, Neumann has repeatedly expressed frustration at Trump’s refusal to classify far-right anti-government extremist groups as “domestic terrorism,” and she notes his change in tone when the topic has turned to the antifa (shorthand for antifascist) movement.
“The threat of domestic terrorism is not from antifa. It is from these right-wing movements,” she told NPR’s Inskeep.
In her conversation with Sykes on The Bulwark Podcast, Neumann elaborated.
“It is widely documented both in public measures as well as the briefings I would receive … (antifa) are what we would consider a low-grade threat,” she said. “Their motive and their intention is not necessarily violence against people, so statistically speaking, they are not the ones that commit these acts that kill people.”
Neumann said the real threats come from right-wing movements that co-opt conservative talking points to stoke fear.
“Part of the way that the white power movement has been successful, is that they have capitalized on whatever the grievances are in the moment. So things that tend to be fairly political, fairly conservative causes, they often use for recruitment purposes,” she told Sykes. “It is perfectly reasonable for a conservative to have a conversation about gun rights or about the proper way we bring refugees in and make sure they’re screened and vetted, but the moment you go into that fear place … it allows individuals to become vulnerable to being recruited into deeper, darker things.”
Neumann said Trump’s rhetoric only serves to fan the flames of that fear, which became clear after last year’s mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
“I can appreciate that maybe (Trump) did not understand that his words were having this effect. Post El Paso, there is no excuse. The correlation was so clear that this individual carried out this attack because of this language,” she said. “When it comes from the top, it carries a lot more weight, and it spreads in a way that just normal chatter online doesn’t have the power to spread. The moment that you realize that your rhetoric is aligned with this attacker’s justification for killing people, the proper response is to come out and condemn it.”
5. Neumann Worries COVID-19 & Election Could Spark Further Violence
Neumann has expressed concerns about violence in the weeks leading up to the general election in November.
“As a security professional … you worry that we’re sitting on a tinderbox about to explode, because more fuel keeps being added to the fire,” she told NPR.
In an interview last month with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Neumann said Trump’s campaign is intentionally sowing seeds of fear.
“It’s very clear that the campaign’s approach is to instill fear, to use divisive language. He is intentionally scaring people that their way of life, whatever that way is, is at risk if they don’t vote for him,” she said. “Sadly, for certain parts of our country, that rhetoric can lead to taking matters into their own hands, it can lead to radicalization of ideals.”
Neumann told Sykes that Trump’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic response has increased the likelihood of violence.
“The Secret Service’s research, the FBI’s research, one of the commonalities in an attacker is that they usually had a series of stressors in their life, so they’ve lost a job, they’ve lost a loved one, they’ve had a bad breakup or something significant in their life changed,” she explained. “All of these stressors are universal for our society right now, so you take somebody that already was maybe disaffected, didn’t feel a sense of belonging, socially isolated, now they’re even more socially isolated, then you add the additional stress of maybe the economy, or death or just what they’re seeing on TV and the president’s rhetoric, all of that is just a really really scary mix of the type of thing that leads somebody to carry out an attack.”