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