Whatever became of the anti-Trump prophets?
For years, the actor Tom Arnold occupied himself with a singular goal: ending Donald Trump's presidency. And what does he have to show for it?
"My ex-wife did put in her divorce filings that I was suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome," says the comedian, who became famous in the '90s for his TV sitcom and movie roles - and for being married to Roseanne Barr (his first ex-wife).
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Perhaps his fourth ex-wife, who did not respond to requests for comment, had a point. After all, Arnold had gone down some deep rabbit holes. He made a mission of trying to find a rumored cache of video recordings - outtakes, supposedly, from the filming of "The Apprentice" - that he believed could be damaging to the president. He secretly recorded a phone conversation with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, in which Cohen walked back crimes he had pleaded guilty to, and leaked it to the press. Arnold attacked the president so much on Twitter, and onstage during comedy sets, he says, that the Secret Service knocked on his door to assess whether he was a national security threat. It was an interesting new chapter for an actor who once told Austin Powers to "show that turd who's boss."
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But if Trump's election sent Arnold tumbling into a bizarre new reality, he was not alone. Many Americans were so desperate for a deus ex machina that they put their faith in an array of figures who, in a universe in which Trump could become president, seemed like they could be credible prophets of his downfall.
There was Arnold, the fast-talking comic actor. There was the low-level Bill Clinton staffer and former photography shop owner and his Twitter running buddy, the novelist and former member of British Parliament. There was the mysterious insider who reassured anxious Americans, in the pages of the New York Times, that there were Good People - like him - working to foil Trump from within his own administration. And, of course, there was the bulldog lawyer representing Trump's alleged porn-star paramour.
Four years ago, these figures formed a kind of Little Rascals version of the Justice League, and convinced many liberals that they were on the brink of something huge.
We all know what happened to Trump: Two impeachments and one election later, he is no longer president - for reasons having little to do with any of these erstwhile heroes of the #Resistance.
But what happened to those guys?
The aftermath of those heady Trump years has been rough for some members of this informal club. There have been broken families, falls from grace and multiple convictions. One claims to hardly ever think back on their days in the fray, while another frets that, with another Trump run looming, we are on the precipice of a new era of wishful thinking about what, and whom, might intervene to keep Trump out of the White House.
"I'm worried that it's about to happen again," says Miles Taylor, aka "Anonymous," the author of the much-ballyhooed New York Times essay from inside the Trump administration. Taylor said he has already seen Democrats indulging in scenarios where Trump is thwarted by external forces: an attorney general's indictment, maybe, or a constitutional clause that would disqualify him from running.
"People need to stop hoping that there is some white knight that is going to save them," Taylor says.
If Arnold was under any grandiose illusions that he was a white knight for American democracy, it helped that he was getting calls from serious journalists. One of those was Carl Bernstein, half of the duo that investigated the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post and contributed to President Richard Nixon's downfall. Bernstein had called, Arnold said, about the theoretical Trump Tapes, but Arnold wanted to talk about Russia - the actor claimed that while filming the movie "Maximum Impact" in Moscow in 2015, he had learned about Russian attempts to compromise Trump.
"He was not coherent in presenting any kind of credible information," says Bernstein.
Bernstein may have been the most famous reporter to reach out, but there were plenty of others. The Post interviewed Arnold for a profile in early 2017, but ultimately decided against publishing it. ("At my worst," Arnold said then about his unfounded claims, "I'm doing what Trump did with the birther stuff.") Vanity Fair quoted him in a 2016 story about the hunt for the supposed "Apprentice" tapes. In 2018 Vice aired a tongue-in-cheek special about Arnold's unsuccessful quest to find recordings that could compromise Trump.
"There was a lot of time spent in the Arnold household asking myself, 'Am I crazy?'" says Arnold said, looking back. "And really, the answer was, no, this was crazy."
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"At the time you began to think that you were crazy?" asked Michael Avenatti, the porn star's former lawyer, in a New York courtroom last month.
"Correct," replied Stormy Daniels, the porn star.
It was late January, and the Manhattan courtroom drama had taken a turn to the absurd. Avenatti was on the wrong end of charges that he had defrauded Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, and was questioning Daniels about her belief in "poltergeists," "shadow figures" and possessed dolls in an apparent bid to make her appear delusional.
Surely this was not the cross-examination that hopeful liberals envisioned four years ago, when Avenatti took Daniels as a client as she came forward with claims that Trump's then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, had paid her off to prevent an alleged tryst between the porn star and Trump from coming to light.
There was a time, not long ago, when Avenatti, the pugilistic attorney with the close-cropped hair and natty suits, was everywhere you looked. There he was on ABC's "This Week," promising - what else - that there were "tapes" that would come out and be a "big problem" for the president. (The Post had recently reported that Trump's lawyer, Cohen, had secretly taped a discussion with Trump about whether to purchase the rights to a different woman's account of her alleged affair with Trump.) There was Avenatti online, tweeting a cryptic photo of a disk (the implication being that it contained some sort of bombshell evidence) and later, picking a fight with Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter ("Buckle up, Buttercup").
And there he was, barnstorming in Ohio, Florida and Iowa and workshopping what sounded like potential campaign slogans ("When they go low, I say we hit harder!"). Fans wanted selfies with the man who was giving Trump a taste of his own medicine, and television bookers just couldn't get enough of him.
"He was saying stuff that nobody was saying," says Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist who offered early political advice to Avenatti. "It was stuff we all wanted to hear. Here was somebody who appeared to be the right person at the right time."
The possibility of a run for president didn't seem far-fetched, and Parkhomenko says he tried to be helpful however he could - talking strategy, making introductions to Democratic officials. He says he remembers one dinner where one of Parkhomenko's friends asked Avenatti what would come up if they ran a background check on him, and Avenatti remarked that there would be no issues. (Avenatti last year told Politico that he did not remember being asked about "skeletons in his closet" at any such dinner and disputed "any suggestion that I led anyone to believe that I led a pristine life.")
"Unfortunately," Parkhomenko said, "he was just a bulls—er."
"I never trafficked in nonsense or bulls—," Avenatti told The Post in a message through a paralegal. "The truth is, I was the biggest threat to Donald Trump and he knew it."
Last year, Avenatti was sentenced to 2 12 years in prison for allegedly trying to extort Nike for up to $25 million by threatening the company with bad press, and earlier this month he was convicted of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft after allegedly taking $300,000 from Daniels by faking her signature and rerouting payments from her book-deal advance. His ghost-stories defense had not worked. (Avenatti has indicated that he will appeal both convictions.)
Speaking of g-g-g-ghosts: It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when a group of amateur sleuths had become so popular with a certain corner of the internet that the "detectives" earned the nickname "The Scooby Gang," a reference to the cartoon misfits who solved supernatural mysteries with their dog.
"There was this guy who contacted me and said that if I brought my van out to his shop, he would make it look like the Scooby van," says Claude Taylor, one such amateur sleuth who tweeted from the handle @TrueFactsStated. "And so I took it to this shop outside of Detroit, and three hours later I drove out in a Scooby van."
The real-life misfits were chasing phantoms of a different kind, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers by tweeting out information, sometimes wrong, about Trump's alleged misdeeds. Taylor, who worked in Bill Clinton's volunteer office in the '90s before opening up a photography shop in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, once famously fell for a hoax that Trump's defunct modeling agency was under investigation for possible sex-trafficking.
That particular scoop was promoted by another key member of Taylor's Mystery Gang, Louise Mensch, a former British politician and author of books such as "For All the Wrong Reasons" and "When She Was Bad." Back before mainstream media outlets decided that she was bad, Mensch garnered enough cachet that the New York Times Opinions section published her thoughts on how Congress should conduct its investigation of Russian interference ("What to Ask About Russian Hacking"), and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., once repeated some of her unproven claims during an interview with CNN. (He later apologized through a spokesman.)
As it turned out, much of Mensch's "reporting" was ridiculous. She claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have had Andrew Breitbart murdered so Stephen Bannon could run Breitbart.com. She wrote that Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, was likely to become president because Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan would soon be charged with colluding with Russia to steal an election. Two months after her New York Times op-ed, Mensch reported on her blog that the "Marshal of the Supreme Court" had told Trump that impeachment proceedings against him were underway.
And yet, there were always those willing to suspend their disbelief.
"Politics is supposed to be boring," said Tom Nichols, a professor who gained internet fame as a conservative critic of Trump. "But people wanted to be part of a secret club that was going to save the world and they wanted to do it all with shortcuts. So of course they were going to believe people who tweeted that Trump was about to be arrested."
Today, the former "co-writers" Mensch and Claude Taylor don't speak, according to Taylor. Mensch, who did not respond to messages seeking an interview, continues to tweet but doesn't get a lot of attention from the mainstream press anymore. Taylor is still driving around in his orange, green and blue Mystery Machine van, but he's trying to leave the rest of his attempts at investigative journalism behind him.
"You're pulling me back into a previous identity in some ways," he says now. Back in 2017, Taylor told Washingtonian that he would be happy if his reporting was right about 80% of the time - which, on the math alone, means getting lots of things wrong. These days, he waves away concern about spreading "fake news," saying he was just trying to draw attention to big stories until real journalists "entered the chat."
"When I look back, do I have regrets?" Taylor says. "Sure, I do. But I'm much more concerned about the threat we are facing now. Not sure how much point there is dwelling on that specific period. It seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far away."
And why dwell? Taylor has moved on to a new made-for-the-moment opportunity. In early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic required journalists and newsmakers to film television appearances from inside their homes, Taylor started a Twitter account, Room Raters, to assess the aesthetics of their backdrops. Because journalists with large Twitter accounts just can't help but retweet commentary - good or bad - about their television appearances, Room Raters was its own publicity engine; the account "has twice as many followers as my other account had after only two years," Taylor said.
Taylor has used it to do some good for others, raising thousands of dollars via Room Raters to send personal protective equipment to Navajo Nation when it was hard to come by. And it's been a boon for him, too.
"We got a book deal from a major publisher," he says, "with what I would say is a healthy advance."
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Identity was always at the root of Miles Taylor's complicated relationship with anti-Trump celebrity. Of all the would-be anti-Trump superheroes, Taylor (not to be confused with Claude) was the only one with a secret identity.
"President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader," wrote Anonymous, a "senior official in the Trump administration," in a 2018 op-ed, explaining that "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations."
"I would know," wrote the masked avenger of democratic norms. "I am one of them."
Guessing the identity of the unnamed author became a parlor game that extended well beyond Washington. More than 30 senior officials denied being Anonymous, including Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, and even Pence. Given the feverish speculation and high-profile denials, it might have come as a bit of a letdown when two years later Miles Taylor, a Homeland Security official in his early 30s who was scarcely known outside of Washington, revealed that he had been the author.
For Taylor, however, the aftermath of the unmasking was anything but anticlimactic.
In the weeks after his unmasking, he moved around to different "undisclosed locations" after receiving countless death threats, and for months he didn't feel comfortable being in public.
Today, Taylor isn't exactly in hiding. He's started a political organization to help elect "principled Republicans" over the "growing ranks of pro-Trump extremists." But the threats continue. "Just the other week my third or fourth phone number got doxed," he says. "I got so many voice mails my phone was melting down."
It's mostly just inconvenient, Taylor said, but somewhere in that "massive pile of inconveniences" could be a possible threat. He had to go through them all, just to be safe. Almost every week, Taylor said, he touches base with one of the people who has gone through something similar - someone who testified against Trump in an impeachment trial, or campaigned against the former president.
Being an anti-Trumper with a new and intriguing story to tell was a reliable way to become a hero of the resistance - at least, until it became clear that that story wouldn't mean the end of Trump, a pattern that only became more apparent as his presidency continued. Just as reliably, opposing the president would make you a villain in the eyes of his supporters.
"It should be a five-alarm fire for our Democracy," Taylor says, "that speaking out in this era can cost you everything."
Taylor says it cost him a lot - "my home, my job, my marriage, my personal security, my savings," he says. "No one needs to have sympathy for me. I went into this very clear-eyed about the consequences. I knew going against Trump would be deeply detrimental to my life."
He and Tom Arnold share at least that in common. Arnold says today that he lost more than just a wife during his time battling Trump: His agent and entertainment lawyer left him, he says. He believes he's missed out on potential job opportunities, and says some of his Trump-loving family members won't talk to him.
"I'm not whining about any of it," he said. "I got to see who those people were. Cowards. Good riddance."
Another thing Arnold and Miles Taylor share? They'd do it all again.
"In a heartbeat," said Taylor.
"I'd be crazy not to," said Arnold.
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The Washington Post's Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.
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