Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser in the Trump White House, is quoted prominently in a recent New York Times story. “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” Miller said in a story bylined by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear. “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.”
That zero-tolerance policy has resulted in an outrage filling newspapers and cable-news panels. As they arrive at the southern border, children are being separated from their parents in great numbers — nearly 2,000 between April 19 and May 31.
The interview with Miller is quite a get, considering that he has been pushing hard-line policies on immigration for years and remains in place at the White House amid steady personnel turnover. A promo line from “The Daily,” the Times’s outstanding podcast hosted by Michael Barbaro, nails the centrality of his role in tearing families apart: “President Trump has blamed Democrats for his administration’s practice of taking children from their parents at the border. Why is one of his top aides, Stephen Miller, claiming credit?”
The quite logical shtick of “The Daily” is to cherry-pick the best stories that have been published in the New York Times and convert them into compelling audio productions. Given the country’s obsession of late with family separations, its Tuesday recording plundered the Davis-Shear collaboration tracking the Trump administration’s embrace of this policy. “How Trump Came to Enforce a Practice of Separating Migrant Families,” reads the headline.
To buttress the show, the Times had its on-the-record session with Miller. What better voice to knit into the podcast? This, after all, is the same fellow who, in February 2017, turned in a baffling performance in a marathon interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, complete with declarations of massive executive privilege and a staunch defense of the president’s travel ban. Speaking about tough immigration enforcement, Miller told Stephanopolous: “Somewhere across this country today, there is some young child facing some unknown danger and that danger will be eliminated because of some enforcement action that we are going to take in the coming days. And that’s something we should celebrate, not criticize.”
Miller’s voice, however, wasn’t heard on “The Daily,” thanks to a spat between the newspaper and the White House. As Davis explained to Barbaro, the White House was okay with printed quotes but not spoken quotes. “They were not at all comfortable with us using that audio because when I went in to the West Wing to interview Stephen Miller with Michael Shear, my colleague here at the Times, the purpose was, we were doing a big, deep-dive story on this family separation practice that’s broken out all over the country, and we didn’t talk about any sort of alternative uses for the interview and when they found out that his voice was actually going to be on a podcast discussing it, they asked us not to use it.”
And so the Times didn’t use it. However, the podcast did use material extracted from the interview with Miller. Paraphrasing the White House aide, Davis said, “At one point in our interview, he said, imagine, in the context of domestic law, if you said that the speed limit doesn’t apply to you if you had a child in the back seat. Can you imagine what the consequences of that would be? And one of the things he says is a lot more child endangerment. And that is, in fact, his argument that you’re putting children in danger because you’re essentially encouraging people to use them as a means to get across the border, which is a very dangerous trip.”
Of course, the Erik Wemple Blog would love to hear Miller making this absurd parallel between the speed limit and immigration law. And so, apparently, would various Twitter users who’ve ripped the New York Times:
The New York Times has just released a statement on the matter:
We conducted an extended White House interview with Stephen Miller for a weekend story about the Trump administration’s border policy. Miller was quoted, on the record, in that story.
After the original story was published, producers of The Daily planned to talk with the reporter and use audio excerpts from the Miller interview. White House officials objected, saying that they had not agreed to a podcast interview. While Miller’s comments were on the record, we realized that the ground rules for the original interview were not clear, and so we made a decision not to run the audio.
But to reiterate: The Times made extensive use of the Miller interview in both the original weekend story and The Daily.
Sounds about right: When reporters approach the White House for an interview, the unspoken understanding is that any on-the-record comments will be used for a print article, and that’s the end of it. Here, the newspaper had other ambitions for the interview — ambitions that it would have been wise to pass along to the interviewee.(UPDATE: New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller says that the idea of using the audiotape didn’t emerge until after the interview.) Granting some deference to a White House headed by a serial liar doesn’t feel, or look, too good. But it embodies a level of caution appropriate for a news organization such as the Times.
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked the White House for a comment on why it freaked out over the audiotape and is awaiting a response.