Jurisprudence

This Is Still Happening: Stephen Miller

A roundup of Trump administration malfeasance, Part 7.

Stephen Miller with text in the corner that says, "This Is Still Happening."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images.

This Is Still Happening is a feature in which Slate will attempt to offer an update on senior-level administration corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The seventh installment is about the racist troll who designs Donald Trump’s violent and (often) unlawful immigration policies, Stephen Miller.

The Official: Stephen Miller, senior advisor to the president

What Is Still Happening: On Monday, President Donald Trump announced plans to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to issue an executive order “to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States.” As the possible contours of the plan have begun to slowly trickle out, one thing about it is clear: It is the brainchild of Stephen Miller, the senior adviser to Trump who has crafted the president’s most extreme, brutal, and illegal immigration policies, from Trump’s notorious first Muslim ban to family separation. The New York Times initially reported that the plan “was being coordinated by Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s immigration agenda.”

It’s very hard to capture all of the damage Miller has done while serving at the White House in a single list, but here is an effort to summarize his work.

• As the New Yorker reported in February, in the days prior to Trump’s inauguration, Miller drafted what would become Trump’s Muslim ban executive order. The rollout of that plan was so chaotic and cruel—with untold visa holders stranded at airports and unable to return to the country where they live—that it was quickly thrown out by multiple courts, rescinded, and eventually replaced twice before the Supreme Court approved a third and final version in a 5–4 vote split along partisan lines.

That initial ban was indefensible—and likely would have been even for the conservative Roberts court. Miller, though, forcefully defended that first, unlawful ban. “There is no constitutional right for a citizen in a foreign country who has no status in America to demand entry into our country. Such a right cannot exist. Such a right will never exist,” Miller told ABC News of his plot to deny lawful visa holders reentry to the United States based on their religion. “This is an ideological disagreement between those who believe we should have borders and should have controls and those who believe there should be no borders and no controls.” His position on the travel ban encapsulated his immigration view as a whole: Any effort to restrict immigration—no matter how arbitrary, in contravention of due process, discriminatory, or violent—is a simple, just, and lawful bureaucratic prerogative of the executive branch.

• Miller, whose political charisma could be described as roughly similar to that of Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot, generally avoids the public spotlight. The rare occasions when he has done TV appearances have been so embarrassing as to explain why he doesn’t do more. In one CNN interview in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, Miller claimed that immigration leads to unchecked female genital mutilation. In a notorious White House press briefing, he tried to convince CNN’s Jim Acosta that the words “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the Statue of Liberty don’t actually belong there. “The poem that you’re referring to that was added later and is not part of the original Statue of Liberty,” Miller said, before going on a tirade against Acosta for questioning the wisdom of a proposal to limit access to this country to English speakers. In another TV interview with Face the Nation’s John Dickerson, Miller didn’t even bother to mask his authoritarianism in the name of immigration restriction, saying: “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Miller was so evasive and combative in one appearance with Jake Tapper that the CNN host saw no choice but to cut his mic.

• Miller’s voice is so toxic that the White House went so far as to demand that the New York Times’ The Daily podcast not air audio of an interview with Miller in which he defended the administration’s family separation policy. Indeed, Miller’s most vile accomplishment was to push Trump to enact family separation, the short-lived policy of separating parents and children at the U.S. border, with no plan to reunite them, as a means of deterring undocumented immigration. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law,” Miller told the New York Times in that interview. As the New Yorker reported on Miller’s view of the policy:

“He was obsessed with the idea of consequences,” a top D.H.S. official who worked with Miller at the time told [the New Yorker]. “He’d always say to us, ‘They are breaking the law, and the only way we’ll change that is if there’s a consequence.’ ” The consequences were specific. The official said, “Miller made clear to us that, if you start to treat children badly enough, you’ll be able to convince other parents to stop trying to come with theirs.”

A federal judge held that the policy was “brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency.” Even after that federal judge declared the policy unlawful and ordered the administration to halt the practice and reunite families, Miller has reportedly continued to defend family separation.

• Last week, it was reported that Miller was trying to renew his cartoonishly villainous policies of child traumatization. This time, Miller is pushing for prolonged detainments of unaccompanied immigrant children in Customs and Border Protection detention during the COVID-19 pandemic, essentially jailing them instead of transferring them to Office of Refugee Resettlement care facilities and eventually to family sponsors. Miller is also advocating that any such sponsors get fingerprinted, making them easier to identify and deport—and thus less likely to take custody of the children.

• Miller has been compulsive in pushing the United States to accept record-low numbers of refugees. In one recent internal conversation over capping asylum, the New Yorker reported that Miller told his White House colleagues: “I didn’t mean to come across as harsh. 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.” (Three months after this reported conversation, Miller got married.)

• Miller’s obsessiveness paid dividends last year when the administration enacted a devastating rule that would block applicants from receiving green cards or visas if it is determined that they were likely to use public assistance. “You can’t overstate how excited Stephen was for the public charge rule to be out there,” one senior administration official told the Washington Post. One former career official at DHS told the Post that racism was the only “principle [that] could animate such a laserlike focus,” to which Miller replied that anyone who called him a racist was “an ignorant fool, a liar and a reprobate who has no place in civilized society.” In January, the Supreme Court—again, along a 5–4 ideological split—allowed the Trump administration to go forward with the rule as it is litigated in lower courts. That rule is now set to devastate countless undocumented immigrant families in need of public and private assistance in the face of the pandemic-driven economic collapse and potentially to exacerbate the spread of the virus.

• Late last year and earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center published emails Miller had written during his time working as an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, in which he pressed writers at Breitbart News to focus on disparaging stories about immigrants. In those communications, he promoted the white nationalist websites VDARE and AmRen, the white nationalist book The Camp of Saints, and one article that argued that undocumented immigrants should be removed from the country on trains to “scare out the people who want to undo our country.”

How Long It Has Been Going On: Miller’s penchant for anti-immigrant hysteria and outright racism appears to go back to sometime between his bar mitzvah and high school. (Miller is Jewish on his mother’s side and has been all but disowned by his uncle, who views his nephew’s love of hurting immigrants as contrary to the values of their shared background). In seventh grade, Miller was introduced to conservatism via a subscription to Guns & Ammo. By the summer before his first year in high school, Miller’s views had progressed. That was when—according to his former friend Jason Islas, who had attended Miller’s bar mitzvah—Miller told him that they couldn’t be friends anymore, in part, “because of my Latino heritage.” Islas told the New York Times last year that he thinks Miller is a racist. Miller’s alleged refusal to be Islas’ friend because of his race would seem to bolster that case.

Somehow, Miller’s racism got worse after middle school. “He was a shameless racist,” one former high school classmate, Charles Gould, said. “In private conversations, he constantly made disparaging remarks about African-American, Latino and Asian students at our school.” According to Univision, another classmate, Moisés Castillo, remembered Miller telling members of a school group dedicated to promoting Mexican American identity: “This is the United States. Speak English.” Another former classmate, who didn’t want to be named by Univision, said Miller once told him to “go back to your country.”

Miller continued to develop his political identity in college. As members of the Duke Conservative Union, Richard Spencer—a future white nationalist leadersaid that Miller befriended him and that they bonded over their views on immigration policy. (Miller has denied that they were friends, even as he has acknowledged working with Spencer during their days together at the Duke Conservative Union.)

Miller took his college experience into the world of professional politics, first serving as an aide to Rep. Michele Bachmann and then to Sessions. The Washington Post has credited Miller with being “instrumental” in helping to kill the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 when he was an aide to Sessions.

It was a natural progression to Trump campaign speechwriter and hype man. The ideas of loathing and violence that obsessed Miller became the words uttered by the president, including in his “American Carnage” inaugural address.  From there, he settled into being the principal architect of the Trump administration’s horrific immigration policies.

What Would Normally Happen: It’s hard to say. The only other high-level Trump official with Miller’s number of connections to racist political movements was former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was eventually forced out of his position after Trump described torch-bearing white supremacist ralliers in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people.”

Unlike Bannon and other high-profile flameouts from the Trump administration, though, Miller does not seem tempted by his ego to compete with the president for attention. Nor does he display the sort of institutionalist scruples that led his old boss Sessions to infuriate Trump by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. When he said, “This is all I care about,” he meant this was all he cared about; he is in government for a purpose, and that purpose is to reverse more than 50 years of immigration and diversification of America, by making the country as hostile as possible to recent, nonwhite arrivals.

In the past, well-founded accusations of racism—and even far more spurious ones—have been enough to force public officials to resign. Shirley Sherrod was removed from a job in the Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration after Andrew Breitbart doctored footage to make it seem as though she had used her office to punish a white farmer because of his race when she hadn’t. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott resigned from Republican leadership in 2002 after praising the segregationist 1948 presidential campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond. With Donald Trump at the top, though, the sky appears to be the limit as far as executive branch racism goes.

What Democrats Have Done: In the past year, many, many Democrats have called on Miller to resign or be fired. That doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect.

What Is Likely to Be Done: Congressional Democrats could do other things, like make funding bills—or even funding of specific departments—conditional on Miller’s removal from government. Barring Miller being caught using racial slurs on video, that seems unlikely, though. Even then, Democrats might not act.

How Removable This Stuff Is: For what he did to enact family separation, which was essentially a government-sponsored kidnapping program, Miller deserves to be in prison. 10 out of 10.

For more on the latest news, listen to Wednesday’s episode of What Next.