How Stephen Miller manipulates Donald Trump to further his immigration obsession

Donald Trump’s senior adviser has been the true driving force behind this Administration’s racist agenda. 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.

“He really embodies the soul of mid-level management blues.”

Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

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.

In the spring of 2013, a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight—which included the Republicans Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham—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, called “Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority.” 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. Those with reservations—like Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, and H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser—had other responsibilities. 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.”)

“You might have time left for one more book, but only if it doesn’t require a lot of research.”
Cartoon by Frank Cotham

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.

By Jonathan Blitzer

Brexit's Passport to Nowhere

My British passport, which was issued in 2011, has on its burgundy cover an image of the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, incorporating a lion and a unicorn, along with these words lettered in gold: “European Union/United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

” My son’s British passport, which was issued last September, is the same color and bears the same crest but has different lettering. On his, the words “European Union” have vanished, the severing of ties to Europe having begun even before the U.K. officially departed the E.U., as it did at 11 p.m. on Friday, January 31st. Last August, Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, tweeted an image of himself holding aloft his new, non-E.U.-marked passport, along with the triumphal words “We got our passports back!” By the time I apply for my passport to be renewed, next year, another design change will have been made. My new passport will be blue, as British passports were until 1988, when the burgundy cover was introduced to conform with those of almost every other member country of the E.U.

The reintroduction of the blue passport, which was announced in 2017 but has only recently come into effect, has been greeted by Brexiteers as a welcome restoration and a powerful symbol. The Sun newspaper, a right-wing tabloid, had joined with others to champion its return by campaigning outside Westminster with a blue passport the size of a billboard. Theresa May, then Prime Minister, tweeted that the “iconic” color would return, calling the U.K. passport “an expression of our independence and sovereignty—symbolizing our citizenship of a proud, great nation.” Never mind that the royal crest on the passport bears two French phrases—“honi soit qui mal y pense” (“shamed be he who thinks evil of it”) and “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”)—relics of a time when the King of England also laid claim to the French crown, and evidence of the mutable character of sovereignty. 

For those Britons who opposed the Brexit vote, the symbolism of the blue passport is somewhat different: it’s a stark reminder that they and their children have been deprived of European citizenship. Britons no longer have the right to live, work, and study in any of the countries of the European Union. Nor will Britain be so easily enriched by the many hopeful Europeans who made their homes in what they believed was a welcoming country.

On Friday evening, only a few hours before the 11 p.m. deadline, I used my passport to leave the U.K. as a citizen of the E.U. for the last time. Gatwick Airport, with its bustle and commerce, hardly offers the most elevated environment for what felt like such a momentous transition: with travellers navigating between newsagents and Pret-A-Manger outlets while scanning the departures board for gate information, the place has only slightly more glamour and resonance than the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Still, that’s its virtue: principally serving continental Europe, Gatwick is both an international airport and a regional one, filled with travellers who are accustomed—whether through work, education, or leisure pursuits—to regard not just their native country but all of Europe as their rightful home. Standing in line to hand my passport over to the flight attendant before boarding my flight, I noticed that most of my fellow-travellers held burgundy passports—though whether they were British, Spanish, French, or Dutch, I couldn’t have determined without snooping. 
For now, nothing much will change, practically speaking, for British passport holders coming in and out of the E.U.; until the end of an eleven-month transition period, holders of U.K. passports, burgundy or blue, will continue to join the E.U. line at passport control. Still, the change has happened, whether it’s palpable or not. On Friday night, for the last time, we were all just Europeans.

In the thousand three hundred and seventeen days that passed between the Brexit referendum and Friday the 31st of January, more than three hundred and fifty thousand Britons sought to confirm their identities as Europeans in the most practical way: by applying for citizenship in one of the twenty-seven countries that remain in the E.U., on grounds of either residency or descent. The number of Britons applying for an Irish passport for the first time ballooned from just over seven thousand in 2015, before the referendum, to almost fifty-five thousand in 2019. It’s sometimes argued that because Britain is an island nation, decisively separated from continental Europe by the English Channel, its attachment to the European project must always have been fatally compromised. 

This argument ignores the fact that Ireland manages to fully embrace its European identity despite being an island nation decisively separated from continental Europe by the Irish Sea, the landmass of Britain, and the English Channel. Brexit is Britain’s choice, but it was not necessarily Britain’s destiny.

With the withdrawal from the E.U. finally enacted, the many social and economic consequences of the Brexit vote will now begin to unfold as reality rather than promise or threat. One early casualty of the Brexit decision has been De La Rue, a specialist printing company established almost two hundred years ago. De La Rue—named for its founder, Thomas de la Rue, a printer originally from Guernsey, in the Channel Islands—has printed British passports for decades. In 2018, however, the company lost out on a contract to print the new blue passports, worth six hundred and thirty-six million dollars. Rather than being printed in Britain, the blue passports are being manufactured by Gemalto, a Franco-Dutch company. 

De La Rue’s profits have collapsed; its C.E.O. has resigned, and the company has warned that it may not survive. Our new blue passports, it turns out, are not quite symbols of British sovereignty or of Britain’s status as a proud, great nation. Rather, they are evidence of the pragmatic and sometimes harsh realities of conducting business in a global marketplace. They are also a reminder of the necessary humility with which Britain as a nation—no less than its citizens as individuals—must find a new, post-Brexit identity.

Rebecca Mead

New reports show that Trump's economic promises were empty

With the impeachment trial, the coronavirus, and the Iowa caucuses in the news, dry economic statistics aren’t getting much attention right now. But two new reports—the latest gross-domestic-product figures from the Commerce Department and a new set of budget projections from the Congressional Budget Office—shouldn’t be allowed to pass without comment. Indeed, the issues they raise should be central to the 2020 election.

The core of Donald Trump’s platform is that his policies have produced what he touts as “The Greatest Economy in American History!” The truth is very different. By enacting a huge tax cut, in late 2017, that was heavily slanted toward corporations and the rich, Trump and the Republicans gave the economy a temporary boost—in 2018, it grew at an annual rate of 2.9 per cent—that has now faded.

In the fourth quarter of last year, G.D.P.—the broadest measure of activity in the economy—expanded at an annual rate of 2.1 per cent, the new report from the Commerce Department showed. Taking 2019 as a whole, G.D.P. grew at 2.3 per cent. These growth rates are nowhere near the four-per-cent growth that Trump promised in 2016. Instead, they are in line with the average growth rate since 2000, which is 2.2 per cent. And this ho-hum outcome has only been achieved at a tremendous cost. The federal government is now running an enormous budget deficit and accumulating vast amounts of new debt, which will burden taxpayers for decades to come. After three years of Trump’s Presidency, in fact, the United States is starting to look like one of his highly indebted business ventures.

This year, the new report from the C.B.O. says, the deficit will be about a trillion dollars. Ten years from now, it will be roughly $1.3 trillion. Numbers like these are so big that they are hard to take in. The way economists make sense of them is by comparing the dollar amount to the level of G.D.P., much like a family might compare its mortgage to its income. If you do this, you can see just how out of whack with history the Trump Presidency really is.

According to the C.B.O.’s projections, the budget deficit will be 4.6 per cent of G.D.P. this year, and by 2030 it will have risen to 5.4 per cent of G.D.P. Before Trump took office, the United States had never run sustained deficits of this magnitude except during wars, when spending on armaments and other items increased sharply, or during economic slumps, when tax receipts plummeted. “Other than a six-year period during and immediately after World War II, the deficit over the past century has not exceeded 4.0 percent for more than five consecutive years,” the C.B.O. report notes. “And during the past 50 years, deficits have averaged 1.5 percent of GDP when the economy was relatively strong (as it is now).”

What about the level of government debt? “Because of the large deficits, federal debt held by the public is projected to grow, from 81 percent of GDP in 2020 to 98 percent in 2030 (its highest percentage since 1946),” the C.B.O. report says. “By 2050, debt would be 180 percent of GDP—far higher than it has ever been.”

It’s no secret what happened during the early nineteen-nineties to some of Trump’s business ventures, including the Taj Mahal casino, in Atlantic City, and the Plaza, on Central Park South: they went bankrupt under the weight of the debts he had piled on them. Is the same fate in store for the United States? Probably not, fortunately. With interest rates at near-record lows, servicing large debts is easier than it used to be. And, in any case, governments have financing options that are unavailable to private businesses, such as raising taxes or, in extremis, having the central bank issue money and purchase bonds.

Despite the rising indebtedness of the United States, most investors still regard Treasury bonds as a safe asset. But that doesn’t justify the profligacy of Trump and the Republicans in Congress. At some point, interest rates could rise, and investors could lose faith in the U.S. government. Even if that doesn’t happen, “we’re borrowing money for all the wrong things,” Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out.

Some of the debt that is being issued to pay for the tax cut could have been used to finance investments in infrastructure, renewable energy sources, universal day care, adult retraining, reducing the cost of higher education, or any other number of programs that yield long-term benefits to ordinary Americans. Instead, the biggest handouts went to corporations, who saw their tax rate reduced from thirty-five per cent to twenty-one per cent.

At the time, the White House argued that this would encourage multinational businesses to repatriate countless billions of dollars in profits they had stashed overseas. Kevin Hassett, who was then the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, claimed that once the tax bill was passed, grateful businesses would invest heavily in new factories, offices, equipment, and software—a process economists refer to as “capital deepening”—which, in turn, would raise the productivity and wages of their workers. “Put simply,” Hassett wrote, “capital deepening, which brings additional returns to the owners of capital, brings substantial returns to workers as well.”

The new G.D.P. report shows what actually happened. Business investment did pick up a bit, in anticipation of the tax bill and immediately after it was passed. Since then, though, it has slipped back. For the past three quarters, the broad category of capital spending that the Commerce Department refers to as non-residential fixed investment has actually fallen, with the biggest drop coming in “structures”—a category that includes factories, office buildings, and things like drilling platforms. In the most recent quarter, spending on structures dropped ten per cent. Some of this fall was probably attributable to a drop in the price of oil, but the energy sector wasn’t the only sector to exhibit weakness. Others, such as manufacturing, did, too, Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, pointed out to me.

So, what happened to the Trump tax cut? “Business saved some of the tax cut, but most of it seems to have gone on stock buybacks and dividends,” Shepherdson said. “There is zero evidence of any positive impact on capital expenditure.”

Just last week, I pointed out that the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, will need to debunk Trump’s claims about the economy. These latest economic reports provide plenty of material to work with.

John Cassidy

Montreux Jazz Festival 2020 - Brittany Howard and Black Pumas join Lionel Richie and Lenny Kravitz

Two concerts will complete the evenings of 8 and 13 July at Auditorium Stravinski: the prodigious Brittany Howard will open for Lionel Richie, and new soul sensation Black Pumas will introduce Lenny Kravitz at the 54th edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Brittany Howard - Auditorium Stravinski Wed. 8 July, 2020
Brittany Howard came to Montreux twice with her group, one of the most emblematic of recent years: Alabama Shakes (winners of four Grammy Awards) tore through the Stravinski like a tornado for concerts in 2012 and 2015. 

She is equally at ease with gospel, blues, and rock and roll, but she went far beyond on her first solo album, which came out last autumn to unanimous acclaim. A collection of intense, luminous songs with flawless melodies and arrangements.

Black Pumas - Auditorium Stravinski Wed. 13 July, 2020
Out of Austin, Texas, Black Pumas infuse their music with the sensuality of soul, vintage arrangements, and the edge of feverish blues rock. Born in 2017 of the meeting between singer-guitarist Eric Burton and guitarist-producer Adrian Quesada – who worked with Prince – Black Pumas exploded onto the scene with the release of their self-titled debut album. 

Very quickly, they earned plaudits from international critics for their audacious blend, in which the instantly enchanting voice of Burton is paired with Quesada’s guitar riffs, piercing brasses, and Latin stylings.

Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain and Glory’ Sweeps Spanish Academy Goya Awards

Antonio Banderas, award for best leading actor in the Goya2020 / Frank Ramos - United Photo Press
Málaga — Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” took home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Antonio Banderas) and Best Original Screenplay at the 34th Spanish Academy Goya Awards, as well as Best Editing, Original Music and Supporting Actress (Julieta Serrano).

Almodóvar’s night did have one blemish, however. On the red carpet ahead of the ceremony he accidentally let slip that actress Penelope Cruz will be handing out this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, as she and Banderas did last time Almodóvar won, with 2000’s “All About my Mother.”

Saturday night’s ceremony ran like a marathon, with Almodóvar and Alejandro Amenábar’s “While at War” exchanging the lead back and forth over the 3.5 hour ceremony before “Pain and Glory” took the ceremony’s final three prizes, ending with seven awards while Amenábar’s Spanish Civil War epic notched five.

In his first on-stage appearance of the night, Almodóvar addressed Spain’s newly elected president Pedro Sánchez, in the audience and a vocal proponent of the arts and culture, wishing him well over the next four years, noting that any success for Sánchez would be a success for the Spanish people.

When he returned later to accept his best director prize, his message was more specific. “Spanish cinema is in a good place, but it has many dark areas. I would like to tell the President that auteur cinema, independent, outside the margins of the platforms, is in serious danger of extinction,” he said.

Belén Cuesta took home best actress for her commanding performance in “The Endless Trench,” another Spanish Civil War film and San Sebastian’s biggest winner. Best known for her comedic work, critical praise now backed by awards mark Cuesta as a major dramatic talent in Spain.

A betters’ favorite heading into the night, Cannes best actor and Oscar-nominee Antonio Banderas took best actor for his performance in Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory.”

Without doubt the most emotional and grateful speech addressed to Almodóvar on the evening, Banderas’ acceptance thanked the director for his friendship and both his life and cinema lessons.

“In 40 years, I’ve never met an artist with the loyalty you have to your cinema,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from you, not only about the art world, but also about life. I had to meet you to get here. I have done my best work with you.”

“Today is three years since I had a heart attack. Not only am I alive, but I feel very alive,” he concluded.

Best animated feature went to “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” a resourceful chronicle of the shooting of “Land Without Bread,” directed by Spanish master Luis Buñuel in 1933 in Spain’s secluded highlands of Las Hurdes. Sold by Latido and produced by Sygnatia in co-production with The Glow Animation Studio and Dutch outfit Submarine, it’s proved an award magnet with kudos including the Jury Award at Annecy and a European Film Award.

Academy president Mariano Barroso gave his annual state of the union-style address, where he celebrated the state of Spanish cinema.

More than 105 million viewers saw films in the theater in Spain in 2019, 8% more than the previous year (97.8 million) and the highest number of the last decade, according to Comscore data. In total, the 2019 box office take ended at €624.1 million ($6.88 million), up 7% from 2018.

What Barroso did not mention however, is the screen share for Spanish films, 15.9 million viewers, fell to 15% of total box office, the worst figure in the last six years.

He also announced 2021 as the year of Berlanga, “To celebrate the birth of one of our founders. It will help us understand some things about our country and get to know each other a little better.”

Born in Valencia, Spain in 1921 Luis García-Berlanga is a key name in the history of Spanish cinema, not just due to masterpieces such as “Welcome Mr. Marshall!” (1953) “Placido” (1961) and “The Executioner” (1963) but also due to the deep impact he made by introducing Italian neorealism to the country and a creator of a very singular style in social comedy, along with his regular writer Rafael Azcona.

Other highlights included Best New Actress going to 84-year-old Benedicta Sánchez from “Fire Will Come,” Jamie Cullum’s moving performance during the “In Memoria” section, and Spanish singing contest-winner Amaia, who sang a tribute to honorary Goya winner Marisol.

2020 Goya Awards / Photography by Frank Ramos / United Photo Press
See the full photo vídeo album here

And the winners are:

“Pain and Glory” (Pedro Almodóvar)
Pedro Almodóvar
Belén Funes (“A Thief’s Daughter”)
Belén Cuesta (“The Endless Trench”)
Antonio Banderas (“Pain and Glory”)
Julieta Serrano (“Pain and Glory”)
Eduard Fernández (“While at War”)
Pedro Almodóvar
Benito Zambrano, Daniel Remón and Pablo Remón (“Out in the Open”)CINEMATOGRAPHY
Mauro Hercé (“Fire Will Come”)
Alberto Iglesias (“Pain and Glory”)
“Intemperie” by Javier Ruibal (“Out in the Open”)
Enric Auquer (“Eye for an Eye”)
Benedicta Sánchez (“Fire Will Come”)
“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” (Salvador Simó)
“Heroic Losers” (Sebastián Borensztein, Argentina)
“Les Misérables” (Ladj Ly, France)
“Ara Malikian: una vida entre las cuerdas” (Nata Moreno)
Pepa Flores (“Marisol”)
“Suc de Síndria” (Irene Moray)
“Madrid 2120” (José Luís Quirós, Paco Sáez)
“Our Life as Refugee Children in Europe” (Silvia Venegas)
Teresa Font (“Pain and Glory”)
Carla Pérez de Albéniz (“While at War”)
Sonia Grande (“While at War”)
Juan Pedro de Gaspar (“While at War”)
Iñaki Díez, Alazne Ameztoy, Xanti Salvador, Nacho Royo-Villanova (“The Endless Trench”)
Ana López-Puigcerver, Belén López-Puigcerver, Nacho Díaz (“While at War”)
Mario Campoy, Iñaki Madariaga (“The Platform”)

What will "BREXIT" Britain be like

At 11 p.m. on Friday, Britain will leave the European Union. Big Ben will not bong—it’s too expensive—but the United Kingdom will secede from its defining economic and political relationship of the past fifty years. In Parliament Square, under the silent clock, Nigel Farage, the country’s most influential populist politician since Oswald Mosley, will headline a Brexit celebration event. The invitation to the rally asks people to “come in good voice to sing some patriotic songs and bring along as many Union flags as they can, to wave in a patriotic display of pride.”

Since the referendum, in 2016, Brexiteers have sought to characterize leaving the E.U. as an emancipatory act—an independence day for a country that once ruled the largest empire in history. In March, 2019, when Brexit was first supposed to have taken place, Boris Johnson had resigned from the government. “It was meant to be the week when church bells were rung, coins struck, stamps issued and bonfires lit to send beacons of freedom from hilltop to hilltop,” he rued. Johnson summoned an image of faithful farm workers “weaving through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half blind with scrumpy, singing Brexit shanties at the tops of their voices and beating the hedgerows with staves.” Now that it has come to pass, Brexit Day will be muted by comparison. 

As Prime Minister, Johnson is expected to celebrate with a low-key party in Downing Street. Some Remainers have pledged not to handle a new fifty-pence coin commissioned by the government to mark the occasion. The whole thing feels fairly peevish—that is to say, properly British.

But what will Brexit Britain actually be like? At the moment it happens, Britons will cease to be citizens of the E.U. Until the end of 2020, however, the country is officially in “a transition period,” while it negotiates a future trading relationship with the bloc, so nothing will immediately change. On the surface, the second phase of the Brexit talks may well resemble the first: the E.U. will play hardball, led by its arch-rational lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, of France, and there will be periodic spasms in Westminster, as Johnson’s government figures out how to respond. But a larger, subtler process of divergence will have already begun. Brexit has always been fascinating to me because it contains a genuinely difficult question: Will a country like Britain be better off trying to navigate the challenges of the twenty-first century deeply embedded in an international bloc, or out on its own, with greater freedom to maneuver and, in theory, listen to its population?

In 2000, Dani Rodrik, an economics professor at Harvard, first described what he has since called his “impossibility theorem,” in which the nation-state, democracy, and global economic integration are mutually incompatible. “We can have at most two of these three things,” he wrote. Britain’s forty-seven-year membership of the E.U. turned out to be a case study in the impossible. In 2016, a narrow majority of voters chose what they perceived to be democracy and sovereignty over the economic logic of being part of a huge supranational market. Last October, at the Conservative Party conference, in Manchester, I listened to Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, the former Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, making the case that Brexiteers often like to make: that there is no reason why the U.K., with its economy, its history, its language, should not be able to flourish alone, like Japan or South Korea or New Zealand. Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave and now Johnson’s senior adviser, often quotes David Deutsch, the celebrated physicist, who sees the nation-state as better equipped to correct itself in a complicated world than a vast, slow-moving entity like the E.U. “Error correction is the basic issue,” Deutsch said. “And I can’t foresee the E.U improving much in this respect.”

But it is striking that these arguments are almost always made by those who wish to shrink the state or, in Cummings’s case, redesign it altogether. A long time ago, it was common for British politicians on the left, such as Jeremy Corbyn, to denounce European integration as a project that mostly benefitted the bloc’s richest countries and their largest corporations. But, in the twenty-first century, the E.U. has been a steady advocate for human rights, action on climate change, digital privacy, and the rules-based international order—even when that has proved awkward for its members. Last week, with an eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons and Brexit Day in sight, Johnson’s government removed an amendment to protect unaccompanied child refugees coming to the U.K. from the legislation that will finally set Britain free.

Margaret Thatcher was one of the architects of the E.U.’s single market. She positioned Britain as a free-trading entry point to the more regulated economies of mainland Europe. You don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to see that the obvious course for Brexit Britain is to try to become—in some form—an offshore competitor. Earlier this month, Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, who is a former derivatives trader for Deutsche Bank, told the Financial Times that “there will not be alignment” with many E.U. goods regulations in the future. Since the eighties, successive British governments have had a remarkably relaxed attitude to foreign companies playing vital roles in the economy, or owning critical pieces of infrastructure. The U.K.’s busiest airport, Heathrow, is owned by an international consortium led by a Spanish company and the Qatari government; its busiest port, Felixstowe, belongs to a Hong Kong investment firm. On January 28th, the government gave its approval for Huawei, the Chinese technology company, to help build Britain’s new 5G cell-phone network, over the objections of the U.S. government and other security partners. Brexit is often characterized as a populist rebellion against the forces of globalization, but the reality of life outside the E.U. means that they will probably only accelerate. Things that are distinctive, British, and publicly owned—like the BBC—will be vulnerable. This week, the national broadcaster, which is under threat from streaming services and ideological opponents in the Conservative Party, announced that it will cut four hundred and fifty jobs from its news division.

Brexit Britain won’t be unrecognizable. Since 2017, mainly under the influence of Michael Gove, Johnson’s wingman during the referendum, the country has committed itself to an ambitious environmental agenda. Last year, Britain passed legislation to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Like Theresa May before him, Johnson plans to inject billions of pounds into the National Health Service, the final great edifice of the British welfare state. Last December, the Conservatives won their decisive election victory with the help of constituencies in northern England, which have traditionally voted for Labour but which backed Brexit. Since then, Johnson’s government has promised to “level up” economic prosperity in the U.K. by signing off on ambitious infrastructure projects, such as HS2, a high-speed rail link that is forecast to cost more than a hundred billion pounds.

As far as I can see, the signs point to a kind of hybrid nation: more welcoming to foreign capital but more hostile to foreign people; greener but more conservative; freer on the world stage, but weaker. There will be shiny totems—a few new trains and hospitals—but the general safety net for most citizens, in terms of their rights and benefits, will be cut away. Brexit has always been a mythical endpoint, which means that governments will be able to justify a great variety of things in its name. It is the perfect project for Johnson, the most flexible of Prime Ministers. More than anything, the enterprise appears unstable. The most obvious tensions will be geographic. In December, the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted overwhelmingly for anti-Brexit parties. This month, the U.K.’s devolved assemblies in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh all rejected the government’s legislation to take Britain out of the E.U.—votes that were ignored in London, which is itself not a Brexit city. As the Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Guardian on Sunday, “While Johnson likes to talk of 31 January as ‘this pivotal moment in our national story,’ there is neither a settled nation nor a shared story.” Britain was a deeply divided country before 2016, and it led to Brexit. What will be the next rupture?

Sam Knight