The Political Price of Cruelty

Stephen Miller thought separating migrant families would provoke Democrats and bolster Trump. The backlash will be painful for his boss and his party.

Stephen Miller, White House senior adviser, waits outside the Oval Office for President Donald Trump to depart the White House on May 23.
Stephen Miller, White House senior adviser, waits outside the Oval Office for President Donald Trump to depart the White House on May 23. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen Miller has always liked to provoke. Before he was a White House adviser, Miller was a teenage provocateur devoting his time and talents to “trolling” his ideological foes. He brought that same ethos to the Trump administration, delighting in the outrage accompanying his travel ban and his push against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, indifferent to the human cost of his favored policies.

The trouble for Miller—and the White House—is that amoral trolling is not good politics. The outrage to Miller’s policies does not dissipate like the anger around his college newspaper columns; it becomes critical fuel for action and opposition. The response to the travel ban—mass protests and organized legal action—helped crystallize early opposition to the administration, dealing it a major political blow and ending whatever “honeymoon” it enjoyed with the public. The DACA crisis spawned by Miller has split conservatives in Congress and could cost some moderate Republicans their seats come November. Trump’s new “zero tolerance” approach to border crossings—in which immigration agents separate parents from their children and treat asylum-seekers as criminals— may win Miller some plaudits from conservative pundits, but it too is a fundamentally rotten policy that is likely to backfire on the administration.

The “zero-tolerance” policy, crafted by Miller, is meant to provoke; to send the administration’s opponents into a spiral of anger and outrage. By that measure, it has been a success. The policy has sparked protests across the country and vocal condemnation from a variety of civil groups and religious figures, including Franklin Graham, a prominent Trump supporter. “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit,” he said.

Images from the border—of young children in pens, of panicked parents desperate to see their sons and daughters—have only heightened that opposition. One former shelter worker recounted “prison-like” conditions as well as “children running away, screaming, throwing furniture and attempting suicide,” while the Associated Press reported on an “old warehouse” where hundreds of children wait in “cages.” These stories underscore the incredible cruelty of this project, driven less by the demands of the law—the decision to charge all border-crossers with “illegal entry” and subject them to a criminal process is discretionary—and more by President Trump’s stated aim of reducing immigration to the United States from “shithole countries.”

Democrats have gone on the attack, blasting the administration and highlighting the conditions of migrant children at detention centers across the country. “What the administration is doing is, they’re using the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build their wall,” said Rep. Adam Schiff on NBC’s Meet the Press. “It’s an effort to extort a bill to their liking in the Congress.” At a Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro—who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama—joined protesters in condemning family separation. “It amounts essentially to state-sponsored child abuse that is traumatizing young children by taking them away from their parents, not letting them know when they’re going to see their parents again, keeping them in conditions that we wouldn’t want any of our children in,” he said.

Early polling shows the public does not support the administration’s draconian policy. According to a recent poll by Ipsos and the Daily Beast, just 27 percent of Americans agreed—and 56 percent disagreed—that it is “appropriate to separate undocumented immigrant parents from their children when they cross the border in order to discourage others from crossing the border illegally.” Likewise, in a new poll from Quinnipiac University, just 27 percent of Americans approve of the policy, while 67 percent disapprove. And while roughly half of Republicans approve—46 percent and 55 percent in the respective surveys—those are low numbers for a policy backed by the Republican president. And those numbers may get worse as coverage and criticism intensifies.

This dramatic and unprecedented unpopularity may explain why the administration has struggled to craft a coherent line on whether it is responsible for the policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Miller defend it outright. “Illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Sessions, bolstering his case with Scripture and echoing antebellum slaveholders in the process. “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” Miller said to the New York Times. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period.” By contrast, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced there was no policy “of separating families at the border” over the weekend, before switching gears and defending the policy outright. “We will not apologize … for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” she said on Monday. “Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards.”

Trump simply blames Democrats, attributing family separation to pre-existing laws that don’t actually exist. “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder Security and Crime,” the president said Monday on Twitter. “Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!”

The common thread among each administration official is that they have grossly mischaracterized the situation at the border, hoping to justify their actions by portraying asylum-seekers as vectors of criminality, when they have a legal right to seek asylum, and when their offenses are only misdemeanors. They’ve gotten scant support from fellow Republicans, who seem to see political danger, if not the moral challenge at hand. “The President should immediately end this family separation policy,” said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska in a Facebook post, calling the policy “wicked” and correctly framing it as “a new, discretionary choice.” Many Republicans rightfully fear a backlash at the polls, should the policy continue.

Stephen Miller may have successfully trolled his opposition, but like the attempted “Muslim ban,” his weapon of choice is a moral travesty and a political disaster in the making. Instead of bolstering his boss, it may weigh him down with another crisis, jeopardizing his party’s hold on Congress and the administration’s ability to operate with impunity.