The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s reign of fear may soon get a whole lot worse. Here’s what to look for.

President Trump (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)


Top Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who is widely described as a chief engineer of Trump’s “America first” agenda, made the rounds on the Sunday shows, where he talked about the future of two crucial pillars in that agenda: The “Muslim ban,” and the reports of stepped-up deportation raids that have been circulating. He vowed that the White House would soon offer a new version of the ban, and defended the deportation raids as necessary to “saving many American lives.”

Both have been met with extreme blowback, and the White House has retreated (a bit) on both. But this is just the beginning. Here’s what may be really going on: These policies may merely be designed to lay the groundwork for something much more ambitious to come — it’s plausible that they may constitute a test run, an initial effort to gauge just how far the administration can go in limiting legal immigration and in expelling undocumented immigrants with longtime ties to U.S. communities.

In Stephen Miller’s world, reality is beside the point

Miller’s comments on the Sunday shows about what is coming make this perfectly clear. Let’s take each topic in turn.

Trump adviser Stephen Miller says the President 'will not be questioned' (Video: Reuters)

The immigration ban. Miller repeatedly said that the White House may soon offer a new version of the immigration ban that is rewritten to get around the court’s objections. Miller also lambasted the court for limiting the president’s “powers to protect our country” and predicted that it would soon become apparent that those powers “will not be questioned.”

Miller also continued to insist that the ban is necessary on national security grounds, repeatedly saying that dozens of people from the seven Muslim-majority countries had been implicated in “terroristic activity.” This is an absurd exaggeration, as Michelle Ye Hee Lee’s detailed look at the claim demonstrates. Terrorism experts say that no one in the United States has been killed in a terrorist attack carried out since 9/11 by people from those countries.

But regardless of the facts, the White House will continue to push for the ban on the grounds that migrants from that region constitute a major threat that Americans should fear. Taken together, Miller’s comments signal that, if the White House does manage to get a version of the ban past legal hurdles, it will have demonstrated that Trump’s powers “will not be questioned,” meaning that the judiciary will not stand in his way. There is simply no reason to assume in advance that this will end here. Trump himself campaigned on a vow to ban Muslims, and multiple top Trump advisers believe we are locked in an apocalyptic global showdown with radical Islam. So the possibility cannot be ruled out that Trump could seek to extend the ban and expand it, in effect trying to simulate an indefinite ban on legal immigration from many Muslim-majority nations — particularly if there is a major terrorist attack.

Imagining a successful Trump presidency

The stepped-up deportation raids. The latest reports indicate that as many as 600 people have been swept up in new deportation raids across at least 11 states, and immigration advocates say that the raids are targeting low-level offenders, and not just the people convicted of crimes that had previously been the priority. As the New York Times notes, it remains unclear whether this is merely stepped-up enforcement-as-usual or whether it reflects a deliberate expansion in the direction of the mass deportations that Trump promised.

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller defends President Trump’s travel ban while Democratic senators continue to oppose it. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

What’s important to understand here, though, is that Trump and the White House are keeping the answer to that question ambiguous. While some officials have claimed this is routine enforcement directed at criminals, Trump himself suggested that the latest raids may amount to more than this.

Now note how Miller handled this issue. First Miller asserted that the raids were targeting criminals. But then, when CBS’s John Dickerson flatly asked Miller whether those who have not committed any crime other than being here illegally should feel worried, Miller answered: “Look, it’s not for me to tell people how to feel or not to feel.”

In other words, maybe, just maybe, we are, or will be, targeting non-criminals, too. This is the most sensible reading of the Trump administration’s intentions, particularly in light of the other recent Trump executive order on immigration, which does away with former president Barack Obama’s old enforcement priorities (de-prioritizing the removal of low-level offenders) and vastly expands the pool of undocumented immigrants who are now targets for deportation.

In 2017, The Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman looked at the influence that Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior policy adviser, held inside the White House. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“Their public statements leave it ambiguous as to whether they will go after non-criminals, in hopes of scaring undocumented immigrants into self deporting,” Frank Sharry of America’s Voice tells me. “Meanwhile, given how broadly the executive order has been drawn, it may be a blueprint for a full-blown mass deportation strategy later.”

The common thread here is fear. Americans should fear migrants from the countries Trump has decided to ban immigration from, a group that very well may be expanded later. And undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed other crimes should fear that, yes, they may indeed be targets of deportation soon enough. These policies may well be initial test runs designed to see how far the White House can get, thus laying the groundwork for a much broader push later, which is hardly an outlandish possibility, since, after all, Trump actually did campaign on banning Muslims and on carrying out mass deportations.

All of this is to say that the goal of liberals and Democrats isn’t merely stopping the immigration ban and the escalation of deportations right now. It’s also to prevent those policies from expanding into something much worse later — which forceful resistance now may succeed in doing.


* GOP’S STRUGGLES WITH REPEAL CONTINUE: The Associated Press reports that Republicans are divided over whether to repeal the tax hikes that pay for the Affordable Care Act, because they’ll need that money for their replacement:”

Voiding those levies erases a mammoth war chest Republicans would love to have — and may well need — as they try replacing Obama’s law. It’s a major rift GOP leaders face as they try crafting a health care package that can pass Congress. “These are sources of revenue you just can’t discount,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., a member of the Tuesday Group of GOP pragmatists. He said the money could help “create a soft landing and coverage for those who currently rely on Obamacare.”

Yes, it turns out that covering people costs money and can’t simply be done by chanting the phrase “we’ll replace Obamacare with marked-based solutions.”

* NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISERS MAKE POLICY TO FIT TRUMP TWEETS: The New York Times reports that things are a real mess at the National Security Council:

Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.

Intriguingly, the Times reports, some NSC staffers have discussed feeding Trump pre-written suggested tweets, in order to have more control over their contents.

* WARREN TURNS UP HEAT ON TRUMP LABOR PICK: Today Elizabeth Warren will send a letter to Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick for labor secretary, that slams his tenure as fast food CEO and asks 83 questions as to how he’d treat workers. The gist:

My staff’s review of your 16-year tenure as CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., reveals that you’ve made your fortune by squeezing the very workers you’d be charged with protecting as Labor Secretary out of wages and benefits…In addition…your long record of public comments reveals a sneering contempt for the workers in your stores, and a vehement opposition to the laws you will be charged with enforcing.

Puzder may or may not answer, but this is the sort of thing Democrats have to do in order to at least try to influence the political debate while shut out of power.

* TRUMP LEARNS THAT BEING PRESIDENT ISN’T EASY: Trump vowed he would bulldoze our political institutions through sheer force of will. CNN has a good piece detailing that this is turning out to be a lot harder than expected:

Three weeks into his presidency, he has been repeatedly disarmed and frustrated by partisan opponents and the machinery of a government designed to check his power….reporters have been flooded with accounts of a frenetic and angry president, who bounces from political frustration to personal grudge…the blustering outsider who chalked up his predecessors’ failures to their lack of will or guile, is seeing his own challenged daily.


* THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE DISDAINS COMPETENCE: Paul Krugman argues that the Trump White House is already beset with “raw ignorance on every front,” but that this incompetence is a prerequisite to its policy preferences:

Competent lawyers might tell you that your Muslim ban is unconstitutional; competent scientists that climate change is real; competent economists that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves; competent voting experts that there weren’t millions of illegal ballots; competent diplomats that…Putin is not your friend. So competence must be excluded….But meanwhile, who’s in charge? Crises happen, and we have an intellectual vacuum at the top. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But Stephen Bannon is a very deep and serious thinker about history, or so we’re told.

* KEEP AN EYE ON JEFF SESSIONS AND VOTING RIGHTS: E.J. Dionne reminds us why we need to stay on high alert as Jeff Sessions takes over as attorney general:

During the Obama years, the Justice Department tried to block state laws plainly aimed at suppressing turnout among minority groups. Now, voting rights advocates will no longer have the attorney general as their ally…holding him accountable for how he vindicates or undermines civil rights and voting rights is a central task. So is rallying against all efforts in Republican-controlled states to pass new laws restricting the franchise, as many of them already have. The Department of Justice can’t be counted on to stop them.

Yes. The battle to hold Sessions accountable, on a range of fronts, starts right now.

* QUOTE OF THE DAY, THE-COURTS-WILL-NOT-STOP-TRUMP EDITION: Top Trump adviser Stephen Miller had this to say on CBS’ “Face the Nation” about the judiciary’s hold on his travel ban:

“It’s been an important reminder to all Americans that we have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become in many case a supreme branch of government….The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

We’ll see about that, Stevie. The irony here is that this kind of talk may actually render judges more reluctant to grant deference to Trump’s national security powers.