The adviser who scripts Trump’s immigration policy
With unswerving loyalty, Stephen Miller has singular control of an issue central to the presidency
At President Trump’s speeches and rallies, Stephen Miller often can be found backstage, watching the teleprompter operator. As other White House staffers chat or look at their phones, Miller’s attention remains glued to the controls.
The energy and crowd-thrilling parts of Trump’s speeches usually happen during his impromptu diversions from the planned address. When Trump veers, colleagues say, Miller sometimes directs the operator to scroll higher or lower through the speech, so when the president is ready to pick it up again, he will hit those passages and make those points.
Miller knows where he wants the president to go.
At defining moments in his career, Trump has benefited from clever writers and brand-makers who helped craft his public image. A co-author made him a best-selling business guru with “The Art of the Deal.” The producers of “The Apprentice” cast him as a reality television star.
Now it is Miller, Trump’s 33-year-old senior adviser, who is writing the central plot of his presidency.
Two and a half years into Trump’s term, Miller’s power in the White House is at its peak, according to top administration officials. As one of Trump’s longest-tenured and most trusted aides, his influence in the West Wing is rivaled only by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, they say.
Miller, a former press aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), was among the first staffers on Trump’s presidential campaign. He has since provided Trump with unswerving loyalty and fierce devotion, translating the president’s frustrations and grievances into exalted language and policy prescriptions.
In Trump, Miller has found a champion for his ideological goals. He is the singular force behind the Trump administration’s immigration agenda — making him a crucial White House figure on an issue central to the president’s reelection campaign.
In an interview Friday with The Washington Post, Miller aggressively minimized his role in the administration and would accept no credit for its direction. He said he sees himself as a conservative populist, someone who pushed his liberal high school in California to have the Pledge of Allegiance recited on a daily basis, who says he sees U.S. citizenship “as something sacred” and who regards immigration as a defining element of the nation’s future.
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Effusive in praising his boss, Miller said he experienced a “jolt of electricity to my soul” when he saw Trump announce his presidential run, “as though everything that I felt at the deepest levels of my heart were for now being expressed by a candidate for our nation’s highest office before a watching world.”
With sections of the West Wing under summer renovation, Miller has been working out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door, setting up in the Secretary of War suite, a spacious, elegant command post appointed with oil paintings, fine leather furniture and a small forest’s worth of hardwood.
Barely a decade removed from college, Miller is at the seat of power. His authority has grown in recent months as he engineered a leadership purge at the Department of Homeland Security, removing or reassigning the head of every immigration-related agency in a span of just seven weeks.
And his long-sought policy goals are reaching fruition. On Monday, Miller secured tighter immigration rules that can disqualify green-card applicants if they are poor or deemed likely to use public assistance, cutting off a pathway to U.S. citizenship for those immigrants who could become a burden on taxpayers, or “public charges.”
Miller’s horizon extends beyond one or even two presidential terms. He views the public charge rule as vital to his goal of reducing immigration, and he has told colleagues it will have “socially transformative effects” on American society.
“Immigration is an issue that affects all others,” Miller said, speaking in structured paragraphs. “Immigration affects our health-care system. Immigration affects our education system. Immigration affects our public safety, it affects our national security, it affects our economy and our financial system. It touches upon everything, but the goal is to create an immigration system that enhances the vibrancy, the unity, the togetherness and the strength of our society.”
This account of Miller’s role in the White House and his relationship to Trump is based on interviews with Miller and 22 current and former administration officials, nearly all of whom have worked directly with him. His colleagues speak of him with a mix of admiration, fear and derision, impressed by his single-minded determination and loyalty to the president, despite an awkward and sometimes off-putting style. Some of the same co-workers who deplore his political machinations say he can be charming and likable when he’s not angling toward an outcome.
Miller often launches into pedantic arguments with others in the White House, citing lengthy, arcane statistics that he mentally stores like munitions. He reads “every economic analysis, every think tank paper, every Wall Street Journal editorial on immigration,” said another colleague.
Obsessed with terminology, Miller tells others in the West Wing that how issues are talked about — and what terms the media and legislators use — is often as important or more important than anything else.
He is dismissive of Kushner’s more moderate immigration views and efforts to forge compromise, other senior officials say, and Miller has questioned how much the president’s son-in-law knows about the topic.
After the publication of this article online, Miller called those claims “utterly malicious fabrications.”
“Jared and I are close friends, with deep mutual trust, and we work hand-in-hand together to support the president’s agenda, including on immigration,” he said.
Several of the officials who shared their candid views were unusually concerned with how they would be quoted, worried that specific words or phrases could be traced back to them. They said Miller would read quotes about himself with forensic interest to identify his critics, and to retaliate.
Some officials have developed nicknames for Miller to avoid being overheard saying his name aloud. Staffers at one DHS agency call him “our little friend,” or simply “SM.”
While Miller’s ardent views on immigration are well known, the nature of his relationship to the president is less fully understood. Miller has survived longer in the White House than nearly every other senior administration figure who is not a member of Trump’s family.
Although he frequently spoke at rallies during Trump’s presidential campaign to warm up crowds, and later made numerous television appearances to defend administration policies, Miller has largely receded from public view in recent months. He has grown more influential even as his visibility fades.
Miller’s restrictionist immigration agenda has lent a degree of intellectual and ideological coherence to the gut-level animus that fuels Trump, furnishing a policy framework for the president’s “Make America Great Again” message.
The public charge rule is a case in point. “Does the president believe that poor immigrants who can’t support themselves should live off the public dole? No,” one senior official said. “Did he have any idea what the public charge rule was before Miller? No.”
“You can’t overstate how excited Stephen was for the public charge rule to be out there,” said a senior administration official who, like some others who agreed to talk about Miller, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear angering him.
Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said it was a “perfect example” of Miller’s role in the administration.
“He’s burrowed down into the apparatus to make fundamental change,” Bannon said in an interview. “People don’t even see a lot of the stuff he’s working on.”
As an argumentative young congressional staffer, and before that as a conservative student columnist at Duke University, Miller developed a reputation for showmanship and superciliousness, viewed by peers as a hunger for recognition. In the West Wing, he has learned to sublimate those impulses to advance his broader goals and make sure the credit goes to his boss.
Colleagues describe him as a unique influence over the president, but some caution that his powerful reputation is overstated because Trump typically seeks input from multiple advisers. Miller does not have anything like a hold on the president, they say, but he works relentlessly to outmaneuver and wear down rivals to steer Trump where he wants to go.
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, disputed this characterization. “Stephen works tirelessly on behalf of this country and the president, not to outmaneuver or wear down anyone,” Grisham said in an interview.
Miller and the president have a relationship of “mutual trust,” she said, calling Miller “very intellectual.”
Miller rarely, if ever, disagrees with the president in meetings, and instead seeks to convince him behind-the-scenes, with afternoon meetings or visits to the residence or Oval Office.
Miller’s allies in the immigration restrictionist movement — those who are seeking to curb the number of foreigners coming to the United States — say he has done more than anyone to advance their cause.
“I think he’s changed the terms of the debate,” said Steven Camarota, senior policy adviser at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that Miller aligned with as a congressional aide. “He’s played a huge role in making the immigration debate less about the plight of illegal immigrants and more about what’s in the best interests of the United States.”
“He is intensely loyal and a good foot soldier,” Camarota added. “And if you’re president, you value that incredibly.”
Miller said he took an interest in immigration in high school because it was a simmering topic in Southern California at the time. He was a contrarian in a family of Democrats.
“All of my immediate, near immediate and distant relatives were all liberal Democrats,” he said. “I don’t think I ever met a conservative to whom I was related.”
Miller said he challenged the teachers and administrators at his Santa Monica high school because he believed the history and government courses discouraged patriotism and failed to promote a shared American identity — the values he credits for successfully assimilating previous waves of immigrants, including his own family.
“I had the sense that the education system focused more on emphasizing the things that distinguish us rather than the things that unite us,” Miller said. “For immigration to function there has to be an emphasis on e pluribus unum, and creating a national cohesion.”
Right-wing populism armed him to wage a culture war against what he viewed as an empty multiculturalism. The career he has built since then is one, long, breathless polemic.
Others who have left the administration say Miller should be judged as a failure even by the standards of his own immigration goals, noting that illegal border crossings have soared, many of Trump’s initiatives have been blocked in court and the routine functions of the agencies responsible for U.S. immigration enforcement — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol — have become politicized.
Among Miller’s co-workers are a few who believe he harbors racist views. “I don’t know what other principle could animate such a laserlike focus,” said one former career official at DHS.
Miller bristled at the claim, calling anyone who labels him a racist “an ignorant fool, a liar and a reprobate who has no place in civilized society.”
“It is a scurrilous and scandalous lie born of a complete and total lack of understanding of the harms done by uncontrolled migration to people of all backgrounds, and born of a contempt for this nation, for our law enforcement officers and for the citizens who live here — and oftentimes, I might add, born of a personal grudge against this administration,” Miller said, without pause.
“It is a scurrilous and scandalous lie born of a complete and total lack of understanding of the harms done by uncontrolled migration to people of all backgrounds, and born of a contempt for this nation, for our law enforcement officers and for the citizens who live here — and oftentimes, I might add, born of a personal grudge against this administration.”
Listen to Miller respond to claims he has racist views
Those close to Miller say he views his work as “saving American society,” that more “immigration control” can change the volume and profile of those coming to the United States.
Short of a legislative path to achieve that goal, he views changes to the public charge rule as the next-best option, with the potential to weed out hundreds of thousands of applicants per year.
The Republican Party, and especially its pro-business elements, have conventionally supported robust levels of legal immigration. Miller has been at the forefront of efforts to shred that consensus, which he views as “a broken establishment” and a “decayed system.”
While many of Trump’s advisers favored the president’s rhetoric on the threat of illegal immigrants, they urged him to retain a more welcoming message for those seeking to come to the United States legally. But Miller insisted that slashing those visas should be central to the president’s agenda, because it is central to the electoral map that runs through the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest.
Miller spoke of recently visiting Johnstown, Pa., for his grandfather’s funeral, describing it as a once-vibrant community that collapsed after local steel mills shuttered. Miller slammed “globalism” and “the owners of capital” for moving jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor.
“When you see the idled steel mills and you think about and you look at the empty town squares and you think about how much was lost along with the steel mill in the sense that it’s a whole community and a community memory that’s gone,” Miller said.
Miller drafts most of the president’s public remarks, sometimes chatting with him beforehand to hear his thoughts and then crafting them into a speech. Trump often does not look at a speech until the plane ride before he gives it, current and former aides said, making Miller’s tone more influential.
“The thing about Stephen is he can bully anybody he wants because he and the president share similar views, and he is channeling the president’s beliefs,” said a senior official.
Because Trump has strong feelings about immigration but just superficial knowledge of how the immigration system works, the president relies heavily on Miller to explain and interpret it for him, the official said.
“Miller speaks with 100 percent confidence in whatever he does, and with a tone of absolute authority,” another former official said.
Several senior figures said Miller has been determined to ensure he remains the dominant voice in the West Wing on immigration matters. In the presence of alpha male figures including former Chief of Staff and DHS Secretary John F. Kelly, or current acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Miller tends to be more deferential, longtime observers say.
Miller was determined to pass the hard-line Raise Act in 2017 — which sought to slash legal immigration levels in half — even though it was met with widespread opposition and skepticism in the West Wing, according to former senior administration officials. “He just methodically pounded away, got senators to say they’d support it and then found his way in front of the president,” one former senior administration official said.
There was soon a public messaging push for the legislation that others opposed. Miller decided to go to the podium in the West Wing and defend it himself because efforts to convince and explain the policy to others on the White House communications staff did not go well.
Last summer, when Republicans still controlled Congress, Miller soured the president on the slightly more moderate immigration bill known as “Goodlatte II” that some administration officials regarded as the best shot at hammering out a deal with Democrats. Miller urged the president to demand more, including an end to the U.S. family-based immigration model, which the White House calls “chain migration.” The efforts have failed so far.
“All of that stuff bogged down the effort and turned it into something no Democrat would ever vote for,” another former official said. The administration has turned instead to executive actions. “Ever since then it’s been a nonstop push to ‘put points on the board’ to show the president is fulfilling his immigration promises.”
A senior Capitol Hill official who regularly interacted with the White House said most policy discussions were with Miller’s policy office or Kushner, in an effort to gauge what moderate Republicans would support, what Democrats might accept and whether a compromise was possible.
During those meetings, Miller did not regularly push his colleagues on the Hill as he does DHS or other officials. “But the lingering question was always, ‘Where is Stephen on this?’ ”
Most interactions, this person said, were Miller trying to scuttle a deal he did not like or interjecting himself at the last minute. Most everyone in immigration policy circles knew he had the most sway with Trump.
The legislative official said Miller was far less interested in cutting deals and more interested in brimstone rhetoric and keeping immigration as a fiery hot issue.
“He is not looking to get something done in a bipartisan way,” the person said. A number of GOP senators and aides — including Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — have criticized Miller to Trump and have argued against Miller’s effectiveness.
Miller has pushed the president to embrace wedge issues, such as late-term abortion, a transgender military ban and immigration, seeing them as cultural wars the president can win.
One of his favorite tactics is to call “deep in the building” at DHS and other agencies, giving orders to employees several layers beneath the Cabinet secretaries. As DHS secretary, Kelly told Miller to stop doing that and instructed his own employees to alert him when Miller did.
But Miller continued under DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and began convening meetings on Fridays of lower-level employees, where he would alternately scream, demand and encourage, according to attendees. Cabinet heads would sometimes see their own staff leaving the West Wing and ask why they had been there. Nielsen would often find that her subordinates had talked to Miller about a policy without her being involved, current and former officials said.
She and her staff instructed subordinates to alert the front office if Miller called them out of the blue to request statistics or discuss a policy proposal, insisting that the secretary’s office would handle the response. They saw Miller attempting to marshal statistics to win arguments by blindsiding his rivals with their own agencies’ data, making them look uninformed and incompetent when they appeared unfamiliar with the numbers he already had.
Last spring, with border crossings rising, Miller helped devise the “zero tolerance” prosecution effort with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions adviser Gene Hamilton. Homeland Security officials and Health and Human Services scrambled to come up with a plan to implement the crackdown. During a span of six weeks, border agents took children away from migrant parents and sent the adults to court for prosecution. At least 2,600 families were separated until public outrage forced the president to back down.
Miller defended the separations and had encouraged the president to enact them — telling others in the West Wing they would prove to be a migration deterrent. Trump soon realized it was a “PR nightmare,” in the words of one senior administration official, and blamed Miller. The president also grew frustrated with Miller over the botched implementation of the travel ban in the first weeks of the administration.
Miller is among the few administration officials who continue to defend zero-tolerance separations today, insisting the approach would have worked if the policy had continued.
Miller is obsessed, current and former administration officials said, with boosting deportations. Early in the tenure, he tried to persuade Kelly, as DHS chief, to deport anyone here illegally. Kelly wanted to focus on criminal felons, frustrating Miller, people familiar with the disagreement said.
“He is singularly focused on how to get people out of the country,” a former senior administration official said.
At times when others have hesitated to implement Miller’s directives, he has questioned their loyalty and encouraged the president to cut them loose. In April, when Ronald Vitiello was close to Senate confirmation as ICE director, the White House abruptly pulled his nomination, ending his 30-year career in federal law enforcement.
Vitiello, along with Nielsen, had challenged plans to launch a “family operation” targeting thousands of migrant parents and children in long-planned raids — a move that was likely to inflame Democrats ahead of the confirmation vote. Asked why Vitiello was ousted, Trump told reporters he wanted to go in “a tougher direction.”
While some in the administration fret over images of squalid and inhumane detention conditions at the border, Miller has argued that they, too, are a deterrent — and that publicizing them is not a bad strategy.
One longtime Trump adviser said Miller is frequently focused on how many people are coming over the border. “He would say, look at these statistics, you’re going to have a new city the size of Brooklyn or the Bronx every year? How long can the country sustain that?”
Senior officials at DHS say they sometimes feel torn between two bosses: the one who is close to the president and the other who actually runs their agency.
Miller has installed handpicked political appointees across DHS, including several who were staffers at restrictionist groups such as the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR). He will surprise lower-level staffers with phone calls urging them to implement his ideas, telling them “this is the most important thing you will do at your agency.”
Miller rarely puts anything in writing, eschewing email in favor of phone calls. Written communications sent by others who closely ally with him are often viewed as the expression of Miller’s wishes.
“He’s always micromanaging everything we do, or trying to, without really knowing or appreciating the operational challenges,” said a DHS official who has been on the receiving end of Miller’s ire.
Miller was so eager for the administration to finalize the public charge rule this spring that he accused former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director L. Francis Cissna of moving too slowly, firing him in May and installing former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II in his place. Miller has told others he prefers political appointees who are not career agency officials, because he thinks the latter lack urgency and are too accustomed to what he calls “bureaucratic inertia.”
One senior official who works with Miller said he’s rightly skeptical of the traditional policymaking process, because he expects every administration initiative on immigration to be blocked in federal court.
“Stephen’s argument, in a nutshell, is that you can go through the whole process, dot every i, cross every t, get thousands of comments, come up with the regulation — and we’ll still get sued and an activist judge will enjoin it,” a senior official said.
“His argument is that judges are not making decisions based on facts, so there’s no point to trying to win a political fight with a legal fight,” the official said. “Just do the reg and try to get to the Supreme Court as fast as possible.”
Some grass-roots activists whom Miller cultivated during Trump’s campaign also have soured on him, including Sara Blackwell, the founder of a group called Protect American Workers.
Blackwell, a Florida attorney, represented Disney employees in a lawsuit against the company; they sued claiming they were directed to train foreign workers hired to replace them. Seeing ideological kinship with her on the same economic arguments against outsourcing and guest worker programs, Miller invited Blackwell to campaign rallies in 2015, and she said she spoke at several events.
“Stephen Miller taught me a lot,” she said. “I thought he was brilliant. He blew my mind with how much he knew.”
After Trump’s victory, Miller invited Blackwell to visit the White House, a visit she believed was meant to help convey the message that the president would deliver on his pledges to “protect American workers.” Blackwell published an op-ed on the Breitbart news site after her White House visit saying as much.
An aide to Miller called Blackwell soon after, chastising her for writing about the meeting without Miller’s permission.
“He hasn’t spoken to me since then,” Blackwell said in an interview. She said she and others feel discarded by Miller and Trump.
“Every day of my life I thank God for having the privilege to come and work here for this president and this mission. And you cannot understand me, you cannot understand anything that I say, do or think if you do not understand that my sole motivation is to serve this president and this country, and there is no other.”
Listen to Miller talk about working for Trump
Miller, who turns 34 in the coming week, said he has no plans beyond his current job and no personal ambitions. There is only Trump.
“Every day of my life I thank God for having the privilege to come and work here for this president and this mission,” he said. “And you cannot understand me, you cannot understand anything that I say, do or think if you do not understand that my sole motivation is to serve this president and this country, and there is no other.”
Miller finished speaking and ended the interview, apologizing. He was late for a meeting elsewhere in the building. He rushed out of his office and started down the hallway. He was running.
Emily Davies contributed to this report.
Design and development by Joe Moore and Courtney Kan. Illustration by Mitch Gee.