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Miller and Kushner on a potential collision course in Trump’s border crisis

From left, senior adviser Jared Kushner, Oval Office Operations Director Jordan Karem and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller follow President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 26. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In President Trump’s latest blowup over immigration, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller hovered omnipresent in the background — goading him in his threats to close the border, warning him of the dangers of looking weak and encouraging the president’s sudden purge of his homeland security team.

Another top adviser who has Trump’s ear on immigration, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, maintained a lower profile during the uproar. Shortly before joining Trump on a trip to the southern border — where the president said that the “country is full” — Kushner met privately with the Mexican ambassador to discuss a more collaborative approach.

The contrast highlights the good cop-bad cop roles on immigration that Kushner, 38, and Miller, 33, now inhabit in Trump’s West Wing, with the latter ascendant as he pushes a frustrated president to champion draconian border policies and rhetoric.

The two political survivors from Trump’s 2016 campaign have emerged as all but untouchable because of their close relationships — and, in Kushner’s case, familial ties — with the president. But if Miller represents Trump’s id — reaffirming his hard-line immigration impulses — Kushner attempts to channel the president’s desire to be seen as a consummate dealmaker.

President Trump has threatened to close the southern border unless Mexico stops migrants from coming into the U.S. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post, Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post)

The differences put the two advisers on a potential collision course — adding to the swirl of confusion over how Trump intends to cope with a surge of migrants at the border, according to interviews with 21 White House aides, administration officials, lawmakers, Republican operatives and Trump confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

So far, though, White House officials say the two have maintained a friendly working relationship, focused on divergent but complementary imperatives.

Following Trump’s border trip, for example, both flew back to Washington on Air Force One, landing Saturday shortly after 8 p.m. About an hour later, they were together again at the Kalorama home of Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, for a private dinner with a handful of other West Wing aides and their partners — a previously planned gathering that one White House official described as illustrating the rapport between the two men.

“Any suggestion that Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller have anything but a cordial and professional relationship would be misplaced,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a strong ally of President Trump. “Over and over, I’ve seen them work together on policy issues and deep deliberations that have the potential for being contentious, but there is mutual respect.”

Yet the emerging fault lines between the two are evident as cracks have widened under Trump’s border policies. 

Kushner — a self-styled pragmatist — has pushed for a broader immigration deal, viewing Congress and a bipartisan agreement as necessary to finding a solution amid divided government. Miller — a fiery ideologue — has repeatedly advocated cutting legal immigration, rethinking the country’s asylum policies and implementing harsh measures to secure the southern border. He views executive power and assertiveness as Trump’s best tools, including the moves in recent days to oust Kirstjen Nielsen, head of the Department of Homeland Security, and other top DHS officials.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was a loyal soldier for President Trump and often repeated his falsehoods, but it wasn’t enough to save her job. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

During this year’s government shutdown, Trump specifically asked Kushner to take on a portion of the administration’s immigration portfolio, in part because of relationships he developed with Mexican leaders during NAFTA renegotiation talks.

More recently, Trump told Miller during an Oval Office meeting that he was in charge of overseeing immigration and border issues, according to officials familiar with the meeting.

It remains unclear whose immigration philosophy will ultimately be embraced by Trump, who faces a looming reelection bid and complaints from his political base and conservative media personalities that his administration is not doing enough to solve the central dilemma of his presidency.

Trump said in answer to a reporter’s question on Wednesday that Miller is a “brilliant man” but that on immigration policy, “there’s only one person running it. You know who that is?” Then he pointed to himself.

One White House official said Kushner understands more than Miller the sort of deal that could pass muster with Congress and public opinion. But, this person added, Kushner may not find much enthusiasm for such a plan from Trump or Miller.

Some critics of the administration’s immigration policies fault both of the advisers, painting a portrait of a villain (Miller) and a naif (Kushner). 

“If the White House were a Star Wars set, Miller would play the role of Darth Vader,” said Kevin Appleby, a longtime immigrant advocate. “His main goal is to keep Trump on the immigration dark side.”

But, Appleby added, “for Kushner to think he can come in and negotiate an immigration deal — which Congress has failed to do for 20 years — without Miller’s support is politically naive, at best. He would not get out of the starting gate.” 

Miller has told White House aides that many in the government are opposed to Trump’s immigration agenda, that few can be trusted and that DHS needed major changes at the top, officials said. He also has begun assessing officials at specific agencies to decide whether he thinks they are loyal to the president, these officials added.

On a policy level, Miller is pushing for new asylum rules that would give fewer people the chance to come into the country by citing “credible fear”; seeking to cut down the number of countries from which migrants can seek asylum; and pressing for ways to speed up deportations.

While Miller’s broad purview is as a speechwriter and senior adviser, aides say he focuses almost exclusively on immigration. 

Miller’s relationship with Kushner improved after the departure in 2017 of Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Officials said Miller made clear to Kushner that — unlike Bannon — he was not interested in trying to undermine the president’s son-in-law, who is firmly entrenched in the White House.

Kushner, for his part, has defended Miller in private conversations, saying he may have strong ideas but is “misunderstood” and unfairly caricatured, several people familiar with Kushner’s comments said. 

Kushner is aiming for a broader immigration deal and is focused on border security and a merit-based legal immigration system, one White House official said. Many who refuse to work with Miller — Mexican officials and congressional Democrats, for instance — view Kushner as a more reasonable conduit to the administration. 

In recent months, Kushner has been meeting with senators to pitch a possible plan on legal immigration, border security and interior enforcement, two White House officials said. Since the shutdown, Kushner has also held roughly 50 listening sessions, largely with conservative groups, to better understand what sort of immigration deal they could support, one of the officials said.

But Miller has at times been an impediment to Kushner’s ambitions. While Kushner has encouraged the president to make bigger deals with Democrats, Miller has worked with conservative House Freedom Caucus members to scuttle such compromises, in part by working around legislative affairs staffers, White House and legislative aides said.

Former and current senior Republican aides who have interacted with Miller said he would often contradict what they had heard from DHS officials, particularly on visas and asylum rules. The aides said they never hear from Miller on any issue other than immigration, while Kushner has met with them about trade, criminal justice and health care.

 Kushner, who worked with Democrats such as Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on bipartisan criminal justice legislation, believes he can do the same on immigration. Miller, by contrast, has frustrated Democrats with his abrasive positions and rhetoric.

Last year, for instance, Miller began chatting with Democratic Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) in the West Wing lobby and told the centrists that if they worked to limit immigrants, the black unemployment rate would go down in Alabama, according to one person familiar with his comments. Both senators found the comments jarring and off-putting, this person said. 

During the 35-day government shutdown, Kushner worked to strike a compromise to reopen the government, at one point floating an option that would have included permanent protection for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children — colloquially known as dreamers — in exchange for $25 billion in border funding. Domingo Garcia, the president of LULAC, a Latino advocacy organization, met with Kushner at the time and said he seemed “sincere.”

But Kushner’s attempts to negotiate an end to the shutdown ended in failure, and some Trump aides said he tends to ignore that experience and talk only about his success on the criminal justice law. 

Mark Krikorian, an immigration restrictionist and executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Kushner “felt he was able to pull off prison reform by bringing left and right together. He hoped he could replicate that.”

For now, Trump has sided firmly with Miller — focused on pursing what he views as a tough immigration approach that will both solve the border crisis and excite the core supporters he needs to carry him to victory in 2020.

Trump allies, however, say they think Kushner believes he has the ability to persuade the president to give real consideration to a bipartisan immigration deal if one emerges, rather than be outmaneuvered by Miller and other hard-liners. 

“Look, Kushner is the son-in-law,” Krikorian said. “If push comes to shove, I’d bet on Jared. But it may never get to that.”

Nick Miroff contributed to this report.