Is Stephen Miller winning the battle over US immigration policy?

Why We Wrote This

The Trump aide is often portrayed as a puppet master pulling strings. That’s an exaggeration, but his convictions run deep, going back to his time as a conservative outlier at liberal Santa Monica High.

Evan Vucci/AP
White House senior adviser Stephen Miller listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Washington.

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At California’s liberal Santa Monica High, Stephen Miller was known for his outspoken conservative views. He went around saying “everyone and their parents should speak English – or get out of the country,” says Kesha Ram, who has known Mr. Miller, a top adviser to President Donald Trump, since middle school.

Today, Mr. Miller’s far-right views lie at the center of controversy amid a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and upheaval at the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Miller has been portrayed as the one controlling White House immigration policy from behind the scenes.

But the story is more complex. Jared Kushner, the president’s more moderate son-in-law, also has a piece of the portfolio, working on legislation that would boost legal immigration. Alongside Mr. Miller’s efforts, it looks like a “good cop, bad cop” routine. Ultimately, Mr. Trump is the boss.

While Mr. Miller’s deeply held vision on immigration doesn’t always carry the day, his proximity to Mr. Trump makes him extraordinarily influential. “He’s always said very publicly, and to people’s faces, how he felt about things,” says Ms. Ram. “And that makes him powerful in his conviction.”

Stephen Miller was a sophomore in high school, back in the early 2000s, when he began drawing attention for his outspoken conservative views. 

At California’s Santa Monica High, a big, diverse public school with many immigrants and children of immigrants, Mr. Miller went around campus saying “everyone and their parents should speak English – or get out of the country,” says Kesha Ram, a Santa Monica alum whose father immigrated from India.

“He’d walk up to you, and hit you with a barrage of dubious statements that would leave you breathless,” says Ms. Ram, a former Democratic state legislator in Vermont who has known Mr. Miller, a top adviser to President Donald Trump, since middle school. “Like, how much carbon dioxide volcanoes emit into the atmosphere, versus a car.”

Today, Mr. Miller’s style is no less provocative – and his far-right views lie at the center of controversy amid a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and upheaval at the Department of Homeland Security. With a singular, hawkish focus on immigration, Mr. Miller has been portrayed as the puppet master behind the scenes, pulling the strings on immigration and border policy.

His fingerprints are everywhere. As White House director of speech writing, he’s had a hand in shaping Mr. Trump’s most memorable public addresses – from the Inauguration Day promise to end “American carnage” to the Oval Office speech in January that depicted violence by “illegal aliens” as “a crisis of the soul.”

Mr. Miller was reportedly behind the abrupt withdrawal last week of Ron Vitiello as Mr. Trump’s nominee to become director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement after Mr. Miller told the president that Mr. Vitiello did not support the idea of closing the Southern border, as Mr. Trump has threatened to do. And according to The Washington Post, Mr. Miller was involved in a White House proposal to move detained immigrants to sanctuary cities as a form of political retribution against Democrats. Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday that the White House was considering the idea.

Mr. Miller’s few public appearances as a White House official have been fiery. Early in Mr. Trump’s tenure, soon after the announcement of the so-called travel ban that Mr. Miller helped craft, he asserted on TV that the president’s national security decisions “will not be questioned.” In August 2017, Mr. Miller appeared in the White House briefing room to discuss his plan to cut legal immigration in half, and got into a smackdown with CNN’s Jim Acosta over the meaning of the Statue of Liberty.

Yet as one of Mr. Trump’s longest-lasting aides, he has generally kept a low profile, seeming to understand that in Mr. Trump’s orbit, it’s never good to eclipse the president.

Indeed, when Mr. Trump was asked by a reporter this week if he might put Mr. Miller in charge of the Department of Homeland Security – since, the reporter said, he’s basically already running it – the president replied: “Stephen is an excellent guy,” but “there’s only one person that’s running it. … It’s me.”

This assertion points to a core truth of this presidency: On the issues Mr. Trump cares deeply about, such as immigration, he’s really the boss. Mr. Trump’s dire talk of Mexican drug dealers and rapists on day one of his 2016 campaign was all him.

But the young, ambitious Mr. Miller has the president’s ear, and knows how to play to his worldview. He also knows how to work the bureaucracy. Mr. Miller’s deeply held vision on immigration doesn’t always carry the day, but his proximity to Mr. Trump makes him extraordinarily powerful all the same.

Good cop, bad cop

While Mr. Miller may appear ascendant these days, he is not the sole power center in the White House on immigration policy.  

Jared Kushner, another top Trump aide and the president’s son-in-law, is also deeply involved in immigration, working for months on a separate, legislative track on Capitol Hill, centered on legal immigration and border security. Like Mr. Miller, the more genteel Mr. Kushner also tends to operate behind the scenes, and of late has been working with Vice President Mike Pence on an immigration reform package in Congress – including an increase in some legal forms of immigration. Mr. Miller’s modus operandi, by contrast, is unilateral presidential action over the painstaking work of legislating.  

This apparent “good-cop, bad-cop” routine is classic Trump management style. The president has long been known to enjoy watching aides duke it out over policy. And the January arrival of budget chief Mick Mulvaney as acting chief of staff – whose more open approach to Oval Office access contrasts sharply with that of Gen. John Kelly, his predecessor – has only added to the freewheeling atmosphere at the White House.

Yet the apparently disparate approaches on immigration aren’t as contradictory as they may seem, says Dan Stein, president of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), who attends White House meetings on immigration. Mr. Kushner is working the legislative track, while Mr. Miller is working on execution of current policies, he says.

Mr. Trump asked Mr. Kushner to work on immigration legislation following the son-in-law’s success on criminal justice reform. White House officials portray a good working relationship between Mr. Miller and Mr. Kushner, who are both Jewish and in their 30s. Last weekend, after the two traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border with the president, Mr. Miller attended a dinner at the home of Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, an official said.

In fact, getting along with Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump is essential for job security in this White House. “That’s the deal, you just can’t have them mad at you,” says a source connected to the Trump White House.

Mr. Miller has also had to learn that the boss can be rhetorically unpredictable. In the State of the Union address in February, Mr. Trump spoke of how immigration enriches the country, then said, “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” The phrase “in the largest numbers ever” was ad-libbed, the president confirmed the next day.

Yet this week, Mr. Trump’s message to migrants arriving on the border was blunt: “Our country is full.” He made the comment both to border patrol agents, and then in remarks in Las Vegas to the Republican Jewish Coalition. To some Jewish observers, the timing of Mr. Trump’s comment could not go unremarked. Next month is the 80th anniversary of the voyage of the St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany who were denied entry to the U.S.

Mr. Trump’s own good-cop, bad-cop routine also appears intentional.

“His statement in the State of the Union was an aspiration, a sweetener to bring Democrats to the table and rebut the idea that he’s motivated by an anti-immigration animus per se,” says Mr. Stein of FAIR. “But what he’s ultimately saying is, he’s a reasonable guy, as long as the immigration flow responds to the consent of the governed.” 

That’s a key message to Mr. Trump’s political base as the 2020 campaign ramps up: The president who ran on immigration as a marquee issue doesn’t want to run for reelection with people streaming across the border.

‘Cerebral’ and data driven

Among Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mr. Miller has his fans.

“He’s very thoughtful; he’s data driven,” says Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who just reintroduced a bill that would reduce legal immigration by switching to a skills-based point system.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who like Mr. Miller has faced accusations of racism and worse, praises the Trump aide as “cerebral.”

“He’s intellectually competitive, and I think that’s something that the president respects,” says Mr. King.

There’s no doubt Mr. Miller has brain power. He went to Duke University, where, as in high school, he carved out a strongly conservative profile. After college, he went to Capitol Hill, winding up as communications director for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump for president, and the eventual attorney general.

More important, though, was the ideology – a “movement for nation-state populism” – that Mr. Miller developed during his time with Mr. Sessions. Soon, the barely 30-year-old Mr. Miller had joined the Trump campaign as a senior policy adviser and a regular warm-up act at Trump rallies.

But outside the embrace of Mr. Trump’s world, some people who have known Mr. Miller far longer are dismayed. In a piece last year in Politico magazine, Mr. Miller’s uncle called him an “immigration hypocrite” – reviewing their own family history, and the chain migration out of what is now Belarus that saved Mr. Miller’s Jewish forebears from pogroms.

Ms. Ram, the progressive Democrat who knew Mr. Miller in high school, can only marvel at where he has landed – although it was clear early on he was working toward a highly ambitious end.

“When he was starting a white male alliance on campus, he was trying to change the political conversation in the country,” Ms. Ram says. “He wasn’t just trying to get girls to notice him.”

She remembers his campaign speech for student government, in which he told his fellow students not to bother picking up their trash, because janitors are “paid to do it for us.”

Mr. Miller soon found a platform wider than the school, appearing on conservative talk radio.

Ms. Ram also calls him “an early pioneer” in the politics of conservative victimization by the left. If he got made fun of in the April Fool’s issue of the school paper, or he didn’t think a teacher was giving him enough of a platform to share his views, he would assert that the overwhelmingly liberal school was trying to silence him, she says.

If there’s one positive thing Ms. Ram can say about Mr. Miller, it’s this: He owns his views. He’s not hiding behind a computer screen.

“He’s always said very publicly, and to people’s faces, how he felt about things,” she says. “And that makes him powerful in his conviction.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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