What does Stephen Miller really want? His immigration obsession has shaped some of the Trump administration’s most aggressive policies, and he has clawed his way from speechwriter to senior policy adviser. But is his dream a restrictionist immigration agenda or, as sources close to the White House tell me, the pursuit of power, not policy? Is he taking Lady Macbeth’s advice and playing ‘the innocent flower’ to mask ‘the serpent under’t’?
Miller is a true believer in the Trump agenda: they say he even praises the President in private. That might explain his survival in an administration with a turnover rate higher than that of a cheap motel. Jean Guerrero, in Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, attributes Miller’s immigration position to racial tensions with his Mexican classmates while growing up in southern California. It’s easier to assume immigration hardliners are racist than to ask how unfettered immigration has boosted corporate interests at the expense of working- and middle-class Americans.
But if Miller’s goal was rapid progress on immigration reform, he’d ally with like-minded officials. Instead, according to a senior administration official and sources close to the White House, he has actively manipulated the staffing process to thwart potential threats to his authority. More shades of Macbeth: ‘I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’
Two individuals familiar with the matter confirmed rumors that last year, when Trump was looking for an ‘immigration czar’, Miller arranged leaks against Kris Kobach’s candidacy. The New York Times reported that Kobach sent the administration a list of demands if he were to take on the role, including 24/7 access to a private jet. The story made Kobach look like a prima donna. The reason Miller kneecapped him was that Kobach aspired to be ‘the face of Trump immigration policy — the principal spokesman on television and in the media’. ‘He doesn’t want to be around anyone that’s a threat,’ an individual close to the administration explained.
The same story played out last year when Miller supported Kevin McAleenan, a career immigration official rather than a conservative ideologue, for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. If Miller believed he would have more control with McAleenan in the post, he was wrong.
When Miller tried to install his own pick to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, McAleenan threatened to resign, then leaked Miller’s attempted power grab to the press and demanded more power over DHS. Thanks to Miller’s meddling, the Trump administration was stuck with another soft bureaucrat in the top immigration post. ‘Miller always thinks he is the smartest guy in the room. He is not as clever as he thinks he is,’ a senior administration official said. Miller’s betrayal of his former boss, Jeff Sessions, continued the trend. Sessions was an ally on immigration, but Miller stayed silent as Trump hammered Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe, and again in March this year when Trump endorsed Sessions’s opponent, Tommy Tuberville, in the Alabama Senate primary. A source who works closely with the White House on immigration said that Miller ‘fucked over’ Sessions. As Macbeth knew, loyalty comes second to ‘vaulting ambition’.
People who have worked with Miller on immigration describe a control freak unable to compromise. A source who attended a meeting on immigration policy in the early days of the administration describes how Miller rejected an idea to increase foreign worker visas in exchange for mandatory E-Verify, through which employers would confirm their foreign workers’ eligibility online. That would have been one of the few ways to secure the legislative support of moderate Republicans and Democrats, both of whom fear too much immigration restriction will harm business interests. Three years later, E-Verify is still optional. ‘He really only spent the meeting dialoguing with the anti-immigration groups,’ the source notes.
Perhaps the biggest thorn in Miller’s side is Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Although Kushner is politically liberal and rather inept at policy, he has somehow ended up responsible for much of the immigration agenda. Last year, he was tasked with crafting a major immigration reform bill with Miller. Sources who attended meetings report that their mutual contempt was obvious: ‘Eye rolls, impatiently waiting for the other to finish talking…it seemed like Kushner wished more than anything that Miller wasn’t there.’
GOP senators who attended a briefing on the bill said that Miller constantly interrupted Kushner, who didn’t even seem to know the details of the legislation he was hawking. Miller’s usual strategy, sabotaging individuals he finds disagreeable, obviously wouldn’t work on one of Trump’s family members. Instead he did his best to play nice and survive.
Meanwhile, Kushner was allegedly using Miller as a human shield against criticism that the White House didn’t have any real conservatives framing its immigration policy. Miller’s influence now, insiders say, is waning as officials recognize that his obsessive tendencies are no substitute for effectiveness.
‘He’s like Lady Macbeth,’ another source tells me. ‘It’s someone who is so ravenous to get what they want, and instead they become a victim of their own insanity.’
This article is in The Spectator’s September 2020 US edition.