Donald Trump’s senior adviser has been the true driving force behind this Administration’s
How far will he go?
One afternoon in November, a half-dozen government officials sat at a conference table in the White House, waiting for the arrival of Stephen Miller,
a senior adviser to Donald Trump.
Miller had summoned officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Justice to discuss a new Administration policy initiative:
a series of agreements with the governments of Central America that would force asylum seekers to apply for protection in that region instead of in the United States.
Miller, who had helped make the deals, wanted to know when their provisions could go into effect.
Typically, everyone rises when top White House officials enter a room.
But when Miller walked in, wearing a dark suit and an expression of wry resolve, everyone remained seated, their eyes cast down.
“You go into meetings with Miller and try to get out with as little damage as possible,” a former Administration official told me.
Miller has a habit of berating officials, especially lower-ranking ones, for an agency’s perceived failures.
Chad Wolf, now the acting head of D.H.S., used to advise colleagues to placate Miller by picking one item from his long list of demands, and vowing to execute it.
“It’s a war of attrition,” Wolf told them.
“Maybe he forgets the rest for a while, and you buy yourself some time.”
One participant in the November meeting pointed out that El Salvador didn’t have a functioning asylum system.
“They don’t need a system,” Miller interrupted.
He began speaking over people, asking questions, then cutting off the answers.
As the meeting ended, Miller held up his hand to make a final comment.
“I didn’t mean to come across as harsh,” he said.
His voice dropped.
“It’s just that this is all I care about.
I don’t have a family.
I don’t have anything else.
This is my life.”
Miller, who is thirty-four, with thinning hair and a sharp, narrow face, is an anomaly in Washington:
an adviser with total authority over a single issue that has come to define an entire Administration.
“We have never had a President who ran, and won, on immigration,” Muzaffar Chishti, of the Migration Policy Institute, told me.
“And he’s kept his promise on immigration.”
Miller, who was a speechwriter during the campaign, is now Trump’s longest-serving senior aide.
He is also an Internet meme, a public scourge, and a catch-all symbol of the racism and malice of the current government.
In a cast of exceptionally polarizing officials, he has embraced the role of archvillain.
Miller can be found shouting over interviewers on the weekend news shows or berating reporters in the White House briefing room;
he has also vowed to quell a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump.
When he’s not accusing journalists of harboring a “cosmopolitan bias” or denying that the Statue of Liberty symbolizes America’s identity as a nation of immigrants,
he is shaping policy and provoking the President’s most combative impulses.
Jeh Johnson, who headed the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama, told me, “D.H.S. was born of bipartisan parents in Congress, in the aftermath of 9/11,
when there was support for a large Cabinet-level department to consolidate control of all the different ways someone can enter this country.”
D.H.S. is the third-largest federal department, with a fifty-billion-dollar budget and a staff of some two hundred thousand employees,
spanning the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
From its founding, in 2002, to the end of Obama’s Presidency, the department had five secretaries; under Trump, it has had five more.
“Immigration is overheated and over-politicized, and it has overwhelmed D.H.S.,” Johnson said.
“The massive changes Miller engineered in border and immigration policy required that the policymaking process at D.H.S. be ignored,”
Alan Bersin, a former senior department official, told me.
“Who do you think has filled the vacuum?”
Miller has cultivated lower-level officials in the department who answer directly to him, providing information, policy updates, and data,
often behind the backs of their bosses.
“At the beginning of 2017, none of us could have foreseen that he would wield this kind of power,” a former Trump Administration official told me.
Of thirty current and former officials I interviewed, not one could recall a White House adviser as relentless as Miller, or as successful in imposing his will across agencies.
These officials resented him as an upstart and mocked his affectations—his “arrogant monotonal voice” and tin-eared bombast
—but few were comfortable going on the record, even after leaving the government.
Miller is famously vindictive, and, as Trump runs for a second term, he is sure to grow only more powerful.
“Miller doesn’t have to get Trump to believe everything he does,” one of the officials told me.
“He just has to get Trump to say it all.”
When Miller and I spoke by phone, it was off the record.
Without an audience, he gave the same message at half the volume
—a litany of talking points about all the ways in which the President had delivered on his campaign promises.
Afterward, the White House sent me a quote for attribution:
“It is the single greatest honor of my life to work for President Trump and to support his incredible agenda.”
Miller’s obsession with restricting immigration and punishing immigrants has become the defining characteristic of the Trump White House,
to the extent that campaigning and governing on the issue are no longer distinguishable.
In the past three and a half years, the Trump Administration has dismantled immigration policies and precedents that took shape in the course of decades,
using current laws to intensify enforcement against illegal immigration and pursuing new ones to reduce legal immigration.
Trump has slashed the refugee program; virtually ended asylum at the southern border; and written a rule denying green cards to families who might receive public benefits.
Miller has choreographed these initiatives, convincing Trump that his political future depends on them—and on going even further.
If Trump is not reëlected, Miller will never again have such power.
A D.H.S. official told me, “Going into 2020, Miller is at a crossroads.”
The radicalism of Miller’s views tends to obscure how much he has evolved as a tactician since he arrived in Washington.
He grew up in Santa Monica, California, the son of Jewish Democrats, but, by the time he entered high school, he had become a strident conservative.
“He was going to a very liberal, diverse school,” Megan Healey, one of his classmates, told me.
“In a school where the nerds were considered cool, he was still the guy that nobody liked.”
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place when he was a junior, cementing his persona.
“Anti-Americanism had spread all over the school like a rash,” he later wrote.
“Osama Bin Laden would feel very welcome at Santa Monica High School.”
At Duke, where he studied political science and wrote a column for the student newspaper, he became a familiar presence on conservative television and radio programs.
His hostility toward immigrants formed part of his politics, but did not stand out.
He opposed left-wing bias in the classroom, invited controversial speakers to campus, and organized “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.”
“America without her culture is like a body without a soul,” he wrote in one column.
“Yet many of today’s youth see America as nothing but a meeting point for the cultures of other nations.”
His most notable cause was to defend a group of white lacrosse players who had been falsely accused of raping a black woman who was stripping at a party.
The editor of his column later told The Atlantic, “He picked the most contrarian of stances to articulate, wrote the most hyperbolic prose he could
. . . then sat back and waited for people’s reactions.”
After graduation, in 2008, he was offered a job as press secretary for Michele Bachmann, a Republican representative from Minnesota,
who gained national attention after an undocumented immigrant near her district crashed her car into a school bus, killing four children.
Miller pushed Bachmann to go on television.
On Fox News, she described the tragedy as an example of “anarchy versus the rule of law,” and, in a later campaign stop, blamed immigrants for “bringing in diseases,
bringing in drugs, bringing in violence.”
The following fall, after Bachmann was reëlected, Miller left his post, and took a communications job in the office of Jeff Sessions, of Alabama,
then the Senate’s staunchest opponent of immigration.
Sessions and Miller approached immigration from different perspectives.
During the nineties and early two-thousands, immigration had quadrupled in Alabama, and Sessions, a resolute populist, grew alarmed at the state’s
increasingly foreign workforce.
Miller’s concerns tended to be more cultural and inflammatory—he raised questions about the ability of Latin Americans to learn English and of Islam’s compatibility
with American norms.
Sessions introduced Miller to such think tanks as NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, which produced data-laden reports
on the societal costs of immigration.
Soon Miller was attending weekly meetings at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative-policy institute, with a small group of congressional staff.
“He’d arrive with these policy notions he’d just conjure up,” a participant told me.
“He came across as super smart, but super right wing.”
To most Republican staffers, he was known for his mass e-mails about immigration, full of links to articles from fringe Web sites.
“I just started deleting them when I’d see his name,” a senior Republican staffer told me. “Everyone did.”
Mitt Romney ran for President, in 2012, on a platform that included a commitment to reducing illegal immigration.
He argued that, if the federal government made life harder for undocumented immigrants by limiting their employment opportunities, large numbers would “self-deport.”
After Romney lost, the Republican National Committee commissioned an emergency report on the future of the Party, in which pollsters and elected officials concluded
that Republican candidates had moved too far right.
The report warned that if the Party did not “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” its appeal would “continue to shrink to its core constituencies.”
On the night of Obama’s second Inauguration, in January, 2013, his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, whose reluctance to tackle the issue of immigration
—the “third rail of American politics,” he called it—was well known inside the Administration, told White House officials that now “even a blind person”
could steer a comprehensive reform bill through Congress.
proposed a bill that would have made changes to the immigration system while creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people.
The legislation was widely embraced in the Senate, but it was premised on a compromise that repulsed Sessions:
legalization in exchange for increased border-security measures.
Or, as he saw it, amnesty for nothing.
At meetings throughout the spring and summer of 2013, Republican staffers debated the terms of a possible bill.
When Miller was allowed to sit in, he took notes and asked questions about esoteric provisions.
Sessions was one of a half-dozen senators who weren’t expected to vote for a bill in any form; Miller was there to “take the information, punch it up,
and make it into an attack,” according to a senior Republican Senate aide.
“It was sending a signal to Senate Republicans to stay away from the bill, or to give them heartburn over it.
And it was a kind of Bat-Signal to the House Republicans.”
Steve Bannon, then the head of Breitbart News, compared the work that Sessions and Miller were doing to stop the bill to “the civil-rights movement in the nineteen-sixties,”
and he began communicating regularly with Miller, who sent the Web site ideas and details for immigration stories.
The far-right press characterized a provision introduced by Rubio to distribute cell phones in border areas, so that residents could report border crossings,
as a measure to give “amnesty phones” to migrants; a pathway to citizenship would end in “benefits to line-jumping illegal aliens.”
Miller took reporters’ calls late into the night, making himself indispensable to anyone covering the policy fight in Washington.
“As a staffer, serving his boss, he was excellent,” Julia Preston, a former correspondent for the Times, told me.
She spoke to Miller regularly.
“This stuff is emotional for him.”
In a conversation about H1-B visas, “he was talking so passionately that he actually wept.”
Opponents of the bill began to feel more confident.
“Miller played a pretty substantial role” in “bruising” the legislation, the senior Senate aide said.
A crisis was developing at the southern border, where tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, as well as families from Central America,
were arriving in search of asylum.
The Obama Administration tried to downplay the situation, but the crisis coincided with the Republican primary campaigns, in which populist Tea Party members
were challenging members of the G.O.P. establishment.
On June 10th, the day before Republican staffers in the House were scheduled to present a version of the bill to the Party leadership, the second-highest-ranking Republican
in the House, Eric Cantor, of Virginia, lost his primary to Dave Brat, an academic and a political neophyte, who had run to the right of Cantor on immigration.
“That’s really when the bottom started falling out,” Cecilia Muñoz, who worked at the White House at the time, told me.
The immigration bill had already passed the Senate, but the Speaker of the House, a Republican, never brought it to the floor for a vote.
Miller “got a master’s degree in immigration policy during that process,” one of the Republican aides who worked with him at the time told me.
“Before that, he didn’t have any policy experience at all. It was all communications.
In 2013, he learned where all the bodies were buried.”
Miller studied decades’ worth of immigration regulations, rules, and discretionary judgments, which were designed to guide and temper enforcement.
He objected to the reluctance of establishment politicians to strictly interpret the existing laws.
“He’d say, ‘It’s easy to simply execute the law as it’s written,’ ” a former colleague of his told me.
“That’s actually when he would make his most impressive arguments.
Fact-based, legal arguments.
He used to say, ‘There’s a lot of bureaucratic procedure imposed on the law.
Why do we need to concern ourselves with all the extra stuff?’ ”
Miller pointed out the many loopholes in immigration laws, especially the widespread practice of “catch and release,” in which large numbers of migrants were allowed to
remain in the U.S. while they waited for their cases to be heard by immigration judges.
Sessions had proposed amendments to end the policy, but they failed to gain support among Republicans.
“Miller’s response was ‘The laws need to change,’ ” the aide said.
“He was unimpressed by the promises of more border-patrol agents, or a trillion dollars for a virtual wall.
People were taking advantage of the laws, not just of a porous border.”
In January, 2015, when Republicans took control of the Senate, Miller and Sessions published a rebuttal to the Party’s 2012 postmortem,
They wrote, “On no issue is there a greater separation between the everyday citizen and the political elite than on the issue of immigration.”
Five months later, Trump declared his candidacy, and, in January, 2016, Miller took a leave from Sessions’s office to join the campaign.
Sessions, who considered Trump an ally on immigration, had doubts about his electability, but in February Bannon convinced him that Trump could win.
Sessions became the first senator to endorse him.
Bannon, who was advising Trump, had also persuaded Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s main handler, to promote Miller to the position of speechwriter.
“You just can’t wing it. Immigration is too important,” he recalled saying.
“You need policy people on this.”
Trump’s candidacy felt more like a low-grade insurgency than like a professional operation.
The campaign rallies, with their ecstatic crowds, emboldened Miller, who often served as a warmup act for Trump.
Pacing the stage with a relaxed smile, he resembled an insult comic, leading chants of “Build the wall.”
He’d flash a peace sign, and make way for Trump, who would recite a list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
Then, growing sombre, he’d invite the parents of a victim onstage to offer his condolences.
In August, 2016, at a rally in Phoenix, Trump delivered a policy speech on immigration, written by Miller.
It was typically raucous and aggressive, full of racist fearmongering, but it also contained a detailed blueprint.
“Our immigration system is worse than anyone realizes,” Trump began.
“Countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open-border policies of this Administration.”
A ten-point list of desired policies followed: among them were an “end to catch and release,” “zero tolerance for criminal aliens,” penalties for sanctuary cities,
a vow to reverse Obama’s executive orders, and a “big-picture” vision for reforming the immigration system “to serve the best interests of America and its workers.”
Miller told the Washington Post that it was “as though everything that I felt at the deepest levels of my heart were now being expressed by a candidate
for our nation’s highest office.”
Government and congressional staffers who supported immigration restrictions were impressed by Trump’s speech.
One official, who joined a group of immigration advisers to the campaign, told me, “I didn’t like the candidate very much,
but he’s saying the right things about enforcing the law.”
Members of the group went on to join the transition team and later staff the government.
“Filling those immigration jobs in the Administration was the top obsession.
It was a shock-and-awe thing,” the official said.
“The fantasy was that there’d be a table full of executive orders that Trump would sign and then walk away.
There would be thirty things happening on Day One, within an hour, and there wouldn’t be enough lawyers to handle all the litigation.
They wouldn’t even know who to sue.”
After Trump won the election, “Miller didn’t even flirt with an agency or nomination position,” a White House official told me.
“He wanted to know what White House adviser position had the most say on immigration.”
He asked to head the Domestic Policy Council, an influential but amorphous group inside the White House.
The position gave him proximity to the President and insulation from congressional scrutiny; he would issue, rather than implement, orders.
“The rest of us have to testify before Congress.
That’s a check.
If you’re going to have your ass hauled before Congress, you’re not going to feel comfortable breaking the law,” a former top Administration official told me.
“Miller will never have to testify for anything.”
Immigration restrictionists have had a foothold in Congress for decades, but they haven’t had access to the White House in a century.
Even among the ideologues, Miller’s approach was distinct.
In his view, the more controversial the Administration’s immigration policies were, the more easily it could divide and conquer the electorate.
He had scared Republican House leaders in 2013 by caricaturing Democrats and moderate Republicans as advocates for “open borders”;
now he aimed to send the same message from the White House.
One of the measures contemplated by the President’s immigration-advisory group was an order to block travellers from several Muslim-majority countries
from entering the U.S.
The group had been preparing the ban so that it would survive legal challenges, but Miller intervened.
“Miller has two impulses that he’s warring with,” another senior Republican aide told me.
“One is to be the bomb-thrower he always was.
The other is to try to secure victories for the President.”
In the days leading up to Trump’s Inauguration, Miller and a close associate named Gene Hamilton, another former Sessions staffer in his mid-thirties,
drafted an executive order called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”
—the travel ban.
When Trump signed it, none of the top officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which was in charge of enforcing the ban, had been notified in advance.
Travellers with valid visas were suddenly trapped at American airports, unable to enter the country; refugees who, after years of waiting,
had been vetted and approved for entry were turned back.
Thousands of protesters and civil-rights attorneys began congregating at airports across the country, and Senators Graham and McCain issued a statement saying that
“we should not turn our backs on those refugees who . . . pose no demonstrable threat to our nation, and who have suffered unspeakable horrors.”
Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was enraged.
The next day, when the President’s senior staff assembled in the Situation Room, Miller told John Kelly, the head of D.H.S.; Tom Bossert,
the President’s homeland-security adviser; and officials from the State Department, “This is the new world order.
You need to get on board,” according to an account in “Border Wars,” by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear.
The ban was immediately challenged in federal court; it took eighteen months, and three versions of the order, before it passed legal muster.
Instead of censuring Miller, Trump blamed the courts and lawyers at the Justice Department, including Sessions, who was now his Attorney General,
for “watering down” the order.
Miller wasn’t so much channelling Trump as overtaking him.
Inside the White House, he was known as a “walking encyclopedia” on immigration, and the President’s political advisers,
who acknowledged that campaigning on the issue had been the key to Trump’s victory in 2016, deferred to him as an expert.
Miller could outmaneuver them if he used the right interagency channels.
He sent e-mail sparingly and avoided calling officials directly to issue orders, relaying his messages through intermediaries.
Since Trump could rarely comprehend the full substance of his own Administration’s agenda on immigration, it fell to Miller to define what victory looked like.
One of the President’s favorite routines, according to someone close to both of them, is to play the good cop to Miller’s bad cop:
“He’ll smile and say, ‘Well, that sounds O.K. to me but, Stephen, I know you’d never go for it.’ ”
Miller invoked the President constantly, especially when he encountered resistance from other officials.
One of them told me, “Someone would say to him, ‘Stephen, what you’re trying to do is not possible.’
And his response would be ‘It is possible.
I spoke to the President an hour ago, and he said it had to be done.’ ” (Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesperson, told me, “
The policies Stephen works on are not his own but, instead, a faithful and vigilant implementation of the agenda Donald Trump brilliantly laid out.”)
For the first seven months of his Presidency, Trump vacillated about cancelling Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a highly popular program that Obama
had instituted through executive action.
DACA protected from deportation some seven hundred thousand people who had come to the U.S. as children.
Trump had campaigned against it, then reversed himself.
Miller was viscerally hostile to DACA.
In an e-mail to a Breitbart editor, he said that expanding the “foreign-born share” of the U.S. workforce was an instance of “immigration” being used
“to replace existing demographics.”
In September, 2017, under pressure from Miller and other White House advisers, Trump agreed to cancel DACA, setting a six-month deadline for Congress
to find a legislative solution.
The fight that ensued led to a brief government shutdown.
Republicans refused to grant any form of “amnesty” unless they could get something significant in return, but, given Trump’s inconsistency on DACA,
the Party leadership couldn’t gauge what he wanted from the negotiations.
Mostly, Trump cared about building a wall along the southern border.
For Miller, the main goal of negotiations was to reduce the number of legal immigrants, which was not something that Congress had previously been willing to contemplate.
But, with DACA recipients as a bargaining chip, the circumstances were different.
“Miller knew the window was closing, that his only chance to force his agenda was if DACA kids were on the line,” a Republican aide who worked closely with Miller told me.
On January 11, 2018, Trump summoned Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, and Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina,
to the White House so that they could explain the terms of a bipartisan deal they’d reached.
It would offer a path to citizenship for DACA recipients in exchange for increased border security and enforcement measures.
The President told the senators that he was ready to back their plan.
But, two hours later, when they entered the Oval Office, they found that they were not alone.
The “fix is in,” Durbin told an aide.
When Graham brought up Haitian immigrants, while explaining an aspect of the agreement, Trump asked, “Why would we want all these people from shithole countries?”
He now refused to endorse the deal he had supported that morning.
In the weeks that followed, whenever Trump responded positively to an overture by Democrats, Miller interceded.
“Whoever has access to the President last—that’s what sticks,” a White House official told me.
“Miller always made sure he was that person.” Graham said,
“As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we’re going nowhere.”
The images first began appearing on Fox News in early April, 2018: a thousand migrants from Honduras, most of them travelling with their families,
massing at the border between Guatemala and Mexico before heading north toward the United States.
Trump regularly updated his Twitter feed as the group advanced into southern Mexico, more than a thousand miles from the U.S.
He renewed calls for a border wall, attacked Mexico for failing to do more, and excoriated Democrats for “ridiculous liberal laws like catch and release.”
In the first year of his Presidency, border crossings were down, owing in part to what analysts called “the Trump Effect,”
as migrants and smugglers paused to consider whether Trump’s actions toward migrants would match his rhetoric.
But by May, 2018, there were roughly fifty thousand apprehensions a month at the border, double the number when he took office.
Though the increase was largely due to instability in Central America, the White House blamed Kirstjen Nielsen, who had taken over D.H.S. the previous December,
after John Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff.
At a Cabinet meeting, on May 9th, Kelly focussed the discussion on immigration policy.
By then, the President was calling Nielsen five times a day to complain.
At the meeting, he berated her for half an hour.
“How is this still happening?” Trump demanded.
“Why don’t you have solutions?”
Miller had ideas of his own.
In 2013, during the unaccompanied-minors crisis, an official at ICE had suggested separating parents and children once they reached the border,
in the hope of deterring other families from travelling north.
The White House had dismissed the proposal as inhumane, but Miller took it up again.
“He was obsessed with the idea of consequences,” a top D.H.S. official who worked with Miller at the time told me.
“He’d always say to us, ‘They are breaking the law, and the only way we’ll change that is if there’s a consequence.’ ”
The consequences were specific. The official said, “Miller made clear to us that, if you start to treat children badly enough,
you’ll be able to convince other parents to stop trying to come with theirs.”
Miller had already led a meeting at the White House to pressure D.O.J. officials to prosecute border crossers as criminals.
(Doing so was the basis for separating families: while parents faced criminal charges, their children were treated as unaccompanied minors.)
In April, he and Hamilton wrote a Presidential memorandum directing agencies to end catch and release; they also composed a letter,
signed by Attorney General Sessions, articulating a policy, called zero tolerance, for prosecuting all adults who were arrested by D.H.S. for illegal entry.
Sessions announced the new policy at a gathering of law-enforcement officials in Arizona, saying that if parents were caught “smuggling” their children into the country
they’d be separated from them and treated as criminals.
The head of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, and the head of ICE, Tom Homan, signed off on zero tolerance, as did Nielsen.
Miller, however, forced the policy into action before D.H.S. was ready to implement it.
When border agents began separating families, the Administration hadn’t yet made plans to reunite them, a direct result of “the pressure he brought to bear,”
a top D.H.S. official said.
By late June, more than twenty-five hundred children, including a hundred and two under the age of five, had been separated from their parents,
many of whom didn’t know where the government had taken them.
In an ICE detention center in El Paso, groups of separated mothers secretly exchanged information in the cafeteria to compile lists of their missing children
and smuggle out requests to local lawyers for help.
Hundreds of parents were deported without their children.
From Central America, they called intermittently functioning U.S. hotlines, set up by the Department of Health and Human Services, in an effort to locate them.
Miller forcefully defended family separation, telling the Times that voters would support the White House “90-10.”
In fact, the public was outraged, especially after a recording of small children crying for their parents at a Texas detention center was leaked to ProPublica.
A Border Patrol agent could be heard saying derisively, “Here we have an orchestra.”
The policy dominated television news, and Ivanka and Melania Trump lobbied the President to end it.
Some inside the Administration thought that the policy was justified, but that its execution had been poor.
Several officials blamed Miller.
“How many things have fallen because of bad messaging?” a D.H.S. agency head said to me.
“Isn’t Miller supposed to be the master of messaging?”
On June 18th, officials at the White House decided to explain the Administration’s position to the public in a press conference.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s chief spokesperson, pressured Nielsen to deliver the briefing, as a means of shielding the White House from blame.
Nielsen’s advisers were uniformly opposed.
“She would become the face of the policy,” one of them told me.
But, according to an official who was present for the conversation, Sanders told Nielsen,
“The President is getting killed on this, and it’s your department.
How are you not going to go out there?”
At the press conference, Nielsen alternated between denying that the government had created a policy to separate children from their parents
and defending zero tolerance as a necessary measure for enforcing immigration laws.
Forty-eight hours later, Trump ended the separation policy, blaming Nielsen for his political defeat.
“I have no idea how Miller managed to escape this one,” the official told me.
“He knows just how and when to disappear.”
As Trump has consolidated his control over the Republican Party, it is easy to see Miller as an embodiment of the rightward turn of conservative politics.
But, in the past year, he has made enemies among people at D.H.S. who shared his goals of tightening enforcement and revamping the legal-immigration system
yet were alarmed by his contempt for policy channels and his disregard for the law.
As one of them told me, Miller was conducting “a kind of permanent political campaign.”
Miller tried to enlist officials to bolster the President’s claims about immigrant crime.
David Lapan, a retired colonel who worked for John Kelly at D.H.S., told me,
“He’d say, ‘You need to work harder to show how bad immigrants are.
Highlight stories on criminal immigrants getting charged after being released.’ ”
On Fridays, Miller convened a meeting at the Eisenhower Office Building, next to the White House, to discuss the ways in which federal bureaucrats were falling short
of implementing Trump’s agenda.
Eventually, career officials stopped attending, and Miller’s audience became the political appointees who were already aligned with him.
He harangued them, too.
At one meeting, displeased with an ICE official who had once worked at the Center for Immigration Studies, he told him,
“I’ll send you right back to writing blog posts for C.I.S.”
After Trump ended the family-separation policy, he was forced to make another concession.
More families were fleeing Central America and travelling to the U.S., owing in part to the cycle of restrictive measures being adopted,
then refashioned and sometimes abandoned after court challenges and political setbacks.
When border policy changes in frequent and conspicuous ways, news tends to spread through Central America.
“Trump made for the perfect sales pitch for smugglers:
Come now, before it’s too late!” James Nealon, a former senior D.H.S. official, told me.
The department ran out of detention space, and had to resume the catch-and-release policy.
According to a D.H.S. official who worked closely with Miller, as “the problems got more complex, and as the frustrations mounted,” his behavior became erratic.
At meetings, he would ask for data that were irrelevant to the discussion, then launch into a monologue.
Another D.H.S. official said, “You didn’t know which Stephen you were going to get.
He could be very articulate, then he’d be quoting Breitbart in a diatribe.
It was all over the place.”
His policy ideas were often impracticable or unrelated to the issue under discussion.
He wanted the department to house all migrants at Guantánamo Bay, and the F.B.I. to conduct immigration arrests.
One official told me, “It got tedious.
None of it would solve the problem we had.
And, at the end of the operations he was pushing, the question would just be: Are you going to have something meaningful and sustainable that isn’t just a sharp elbow?”
Department officials felt that they knew how to manage the border crisis.
They needed more resources, to house families and children, and other agencies needed to absorb the overflow.
But, the official said, Miller “had unreasonable expectations about how fast the bureaucracy could write rules to fix the biggest problems we had.
His default position was that there was a bunch of bureaucrats in the bowels of ICE or Citizenship and Immigration Services who didn’t want this to happen.”
Because Miller had inserted himself into D.H.S.’s policymaking process, officials felt obliged to shield their work from him.
At one point, to keep Miller from discovering the details of a policy discussion, the head of D.H.S. held meetings in a classified security bunker, known as a SCIF,
where cell phones are prohibited and strict rules of confidentiality are in effect.
Convinced that a cabal of deep-state actors was trying to thwart Trump’s agenda, Miller had effectively forced officials to go underground in their own agencies.
Steve Bannon told me, “Stephen’s experience has deepened his belief in the deep state, that they’re all going to leak in an attempt to stop his policy efforts.”
Increasingly, Miller lashed out at high-level D.H.S. officials, even those who favored many of the same policies.
A frequent target was Francis Cissna, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services since 2017, who had worked to reshape the immigration system in ways
that were often too technical to capture mainstream attention.
Cissna had been an immigration lawyer in the government for more than a decade; when he got married, his wedding cake was decorated with an edible version of the
Immigration and Naturalization Act.
“He’s an immigration nerd,” Barbara Strack, a former colleague, told me.
Cissna was a hero to members of the restrictionist movement: deeply knowledgeable, he framed his actions as a commitment to the rule of law.
For months, Cissna had been working on the Administration’s most significant attempt to overhaul the legal-immigration system: the “public-charge rule,”
which would allow the government to block millions of people
—disproportionately, immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia
—from getting green cards based on their income.
It typically takes two years to fully implement a rule, but Miller wanted it done more quickly.
He already resented Cissna for what he called the “asylum fraud crisis” at the border, since Cissna’s agency was in charge of handling asylum applications.
After he hectored Cissna on one interagency phone call, with dozens of officials listening in, Cissna told him to stand down.
“I won’t stand down,” Miller shouted. “I won’t stand down. I won’t stand down.”
On another occasion, during a meeting in the White House Situation Room, Miller lambasted Ronald Vitiello, the head of ICE, who had worked in immigration enforcement for
more than three decades, for not single-handedly rewriting federal rules on the detention of children.
“You ought to be working on this regulation all day, every day,” Miller told him.
“It should be the first thought you have when you wake up.
And it should be the last thought you have before you go to bed.”
Cissna, Vitiello, and others were exasperated by Miller’s lack of interest in setting sound policies.
“We’d say, ‘Well, the law says this and that, you’d need to make changes,’ ” an official told me.
“Then we’d get the phone call again, and the proposal would be slightly different.
We’d say, ‘You still can’t do that.’
They’d come back to us again.
Finally, sure, it was lawful, but it was also stupid.”
Officials came to think that Miller was territorial; he wanted to be the only immigration expert in the room at all times, and he was willing to undermine like-minded people
who might impede his access to the President.
One of them told me, “He’s not a true believer.
If he were, he’d want to get the agenda done right.”
In April, Miller initiated a purge of D.H.S.
It began with the firing of Nielsen, then continued with the ouster of Vitiello, Cissna, the head of Customs and Border Protection, and the department’s top lawyer.
Restrictionist groups like the Center for Immigration Studies protested Cissna’s departure.
Chuck Grassley, who had worked with Cissna on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the President was “pulling the rug out from the very people
that are trying to help him accomplish his goal.”
But with Nielsen and the other officials gone, Miller was able to move loyalists into the top positions.
One of them was Matthew Albence, the new head of ICE, who, in congressional testimony from 2018, compared family-detention facilities to “summer camp.”
A senior D.H.S. official said, “Now there are no breaks in the chain of command.”
Disgruntled department veterans saw many of Miller’s actions as policy miscues and legal errors, but they were more likely signs of Miller’s success.
So was the political deadlock on immigration, which the White House was deliberately exacerbating.
Michael Chertoff, who led D.H.S. under George W. Bush, told me, “The only two arguments you hear now are ‘Don’t enforce the law at all,’ or ‘Be draconian.’ ”
Miller has exploited calls by left-wing Democrats to abolish ICE and to decriminalize border crossings.
On the whole, public outrage has dissipated, and the federal courts, which are increasingly populated by Trump appointees,
are starting to uphold the Administration’s policies.
The U.S. is resettling the fewest number of refugees in its history; there are more than fifty-five thousand asylum seekers stuck in Mexico under a policy
called the Migrant Protection Protocols; and the Central American asylum deals
—known as safe third-country agreements
A former senior official told me, “Without Miller, Nielsen would still be secretary.
There would be no safe third-country agreements, no M.P.P.
He pushed and pushed.
He simply works harder than everyone else.”
Last October, the President’s fourth head of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, who filled the position left by Nielsen, announced his resignation,
six months into the job.
“What I don’t have control over is the tone, the message, the public face and approach of the department in an increasingly polarized time,” he told the Washington Post.
White House officials initially distrusted McAleenan, who was a career official and had served during the Obama Administration.
Yet the President soon came to depend on McAleenan’s experience: after he took charge of the department, the number of immigrants apprehended at the southern border
dropped by close to sixty per cent.
He was also the lead negotiator of the Central American asylum deals.
When McAleenan tendered his resignation, Miller initially refused to accept it.
In late fall, as Trump’s impeachment hearings began, Miller tried to limit his own public exposure.
“He was getting a little too much steady attention, so he knew he had to hang back,” a top Administration official told me.
Miller has survived the upheavals in Trump’s inner circle by representing himself as a member of the supporting cast.
This strategy was reinforced by the demise of Steve Bannon, who, a few months before being fired, in August, 2017, appeared on the cover of Time, next to the headline
Sessions was forced out in November, 2018, after having recused himself from the Russia probe.
Trump continued to mock him, often in front of Miller.
According to someone who witnessed the exchanges, Miller never spoke up to defend his mentor.
He was “part of the family now,” a White House official told me.
By the end of November, Miller was back in the news, though not by choice.
The Southern Poverty Law Center acquired and published hundreds of e-mails that Miller had exchanged, between 2015 and 2016, with editors at Breitbart.
They included links to articles on the white-supremacist Web site VDare, as well as an enthusiastic reference to “The Camp of Saints,” a racist French novel about the
ravages of immigration.
In one e-mail, Miller approvingly forwarded an article arguing that the U.S. should deport immigrants on trains “to scare out the people who want to undo our country.”
In Congress, there were calls for his resignation, but only from Democrats.
The e-mail scandal barely registered at the White House, where Miller faced a greater challenge.
At Trump’s behest, Jared Kushner
—who was already responsible for negotiating peace in the Middle East, overhauling international trade agreements, and leading the President’s reëlection campaign
—has added immigration to his portfolio.
“Stephen understands that Kushner is the real power,” a former White House official said.
“He would never cross Kushner.”
“When Kushner came in to work on this, he told people that they were too close to the issue, that he had the distance from it that was needed,”
a senior Republican aide told me.
A number of people Kushner consulted on the Hill recommended that he start by trying smaller deals, such as one on DACA.
“I’m doing this big or I’m not doing it at all,” he responded.
In May, from a dais in the White House Rose Garden, Trump announced the broad contours of Kushner’s “merit-based” immigration plan,
in which applicants would be evaluated based not on family ties, as in the current system, but on a combination of factors, including language skills, education,
and employment prospects.
(Sitting in the front row was Lindsey Graham, who was now one of Trump’s strongest allies.)
In 2013, when Miller was first engaged in immigration policy, he and Sessions talked about moving to a merit-based system, and “it was laughed about,”
one of the former Republican aides told me.
It wasn’t just a fringe position.
It was a politically impossible position.”
Now the proposal represents the White House’s “moderate” pitch, though it is still unlikely to get through Congress.
A six-hundred-page bill that details Kushner’s plan has been circulating in Washington.
It would not directly lower the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country each year, but, so far, Miller has coöperated with Kushner,
writing the parts of it that address asylum and family detention.
“Jared is the most powerful White House adviser, but he’s very busy,” a person who has worked closely with both Miller and Kushner told me.
“Miller is focussed on one thing.
He and Kushner make situational alliances.
They both think the President needs the other, and they each believe in the other’s absolute loyalty to Trump.
In all my time around them, I have never heard either one of them say a negative word about the other, and that’s not true of anyone else.”
Recently, the number of migrants intercepted at the border has dropped significantly
—from a hundred and forty-four thousand, in May, 2019, to thirty-six thousand, last month.
Asylum seekers stuck in Mexico have given up on reaching the U.S. America’s legal and moral standing may not survive the Administration’s immigration policies,
but Trump has succeeded in realizing one of his most infamous tweets:
“Our country is full.”
With the border virtually sealed, Miller is turning his attention inward. D.H.S. has begun sending armed agents from Border Patrol SWAT teams to New York, Chicago,
and other so-called sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement has limited its coöperation with ICE.
“There’s no one left at D.H.S. to say ‘No’ to Miller anymore,” a senior department official told me.
Another official was present at a meeting in which Miller advocated allowing ICE officers to pull children out of school.
This summer, months before the election, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the Administration can cancel DACA.
“Everything—everything!—hinges on that decision,” a former senior D.H.S. official told me.
If the Supreme Court ends DACA, then “Miller will be in ecstasy.
He’ll finally have the leverage over the Democratic Congress that he’s been dying to have this entire time.
He’ll say, ‘Well, you’re all worried we’re going to deport them.
What will you agree to?’ ”
The official continued, “It’ll be the summer of a huge campaign, and Miller will be in his glory.”