The Stephen Miller Shutdown

It is inevitable. In every government shutdown, each party tries to pin the blame for failing to keep the government open on the other. This time around, Democrats called it the President Trump shutdown, Republicans the Schumer shutdown, after Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

White House aide Stephen Miller

Neither was accurate. Rather, it was the Stephen Miller shutdown. Who is Stephen Miller that he wields such influence? Miller is a 32-year-old extremist on the White House staff who serves as the ideological architect of the Trump immigration agenda, constantly pulling the president away from making a deal and pushing him toward hardline positions on immigration, which was central to the just-ended government shutdown. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Republican in efforts to forge a compromise on immigration that would satisfy Democratic demands for protecting Dreamers — immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children — while giving Republicans more funding for border security, perhaps including building additional stretches of a wall on the Mexican border, a key Trump campaign promise.

Miller may be young to exercise so much power, but he has a rather long history as a purveyor of extreme positions on immigration, beginning as a combative conservative activist at Duke University. As an aide to then-Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, Miller was influential in beating back a 2013 bipartisan immigration deal. Along with his boss, Sessions, Miller organized House conservatives to block a bill passed by the Senate, distributing a handbook of talking points to undermine the compromise measure. Now, in the White House, Miller has told colleagues, according to a senior White House official, his goal “is to make what I know the president wants in an immigration deal a legislative reality.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer both are flummoxed by President Trump’s shifting positions on immigration.

Miller may know what the president wants on immigration, but few others are as sure. Schumer said working with Trump is “like negotiating with Jell-0.” Schumer’s counterpart across the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is equally frustrated. “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports,” the Kentucky Republican said.

A case in point: Two weeks ago, the president held a remarkable 55-minute televised meeting in which he twice told Democratic and Republican lawmakers that he wanted an immigration deal that would be “a bill of love” in taking care the Dreamers, whom he once called “these incredible kids.” When Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California asked Trump if he would accept a “clean” bill addressing only the plight of the Dreamers, the president said, “Yeah, I would like to do that. I think a lot of people would like to see that.” The problem? Trump either had abandoned his signature issue of the wall or he simply did not know what a “clean” bill entails. A clean bill, by definition, has only one component. It was left to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, to yank the president back on message by saying that a Trumpian “clean” bill would include border security.

President Trump speaking at the bipartisan meeting on immigration in early January.

Matters deteriorated further after the president ordered cameras out of the Cabinet Room. Aides distributed a four-page document on the administration’s “must haves” for any immigration bill — including $18 billion for the border wall and an end to “extended family chain migration,” a conservative pejorative phrase describing a program whereby relatives of American citizens can immigrate legally. The only problem: The president demurred, saying the document did not represent his positions and told the members of Congress to disregard it.“The president looked at it and said: ‘Who did this? This is way too much. I didn’t approve this,’” Graham later said. Another lawmaker said, “It’s like the wedding where someone actually stands up and objects to the wedding.”

Something similar happened two days later in the infamous meeting in which the president referred to “shithole countries.” Earlier in the day, Trump appeared eager to reach a deal on immigration when Graham and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic number two in the Senate, hurried to the White House, only to find Republican hardliners, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Georgia Senator David Perdue already seated. Their presence was arranged by Miller who feared his boss might agree to a liberal deal.

Miller with the president

Miller always appears poised to pull Trump to the right on immigration. Miller is not alone among White House advisers. Chief of Staff John Kelly repeatedly has told members of Congress that no deal is possible, despite whatever the president may say, unless the legislators agree to stiffer immigration restrictions. Trump’s staff is not shy about stepping into the void created by a president who either is unwilling or unable to articulate a clear immigration policy — or, perhaps, fails to understand the nuances involved. “There’s a real sense that there’s a disconnect between the president and his staff on immigration issues, and people on all sides are seeking to exploit that disconnect,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.

White House officials say Miller chats frequently with the president about immigration. “Stephen Miller is an impassioned advocate for President Trump and his agenda,” said White House communications director Hope Hicks. The youthful adviser reportedly has close ties to Kelly, who has told others he trusts Miller to handle immigration. More importantly, the president appreciates Miller’s combative style, perhaps seeing a bit of himself in Miller. Trump has praised Miller for standing his ground in intra-mural contests within the White House, and the president tweeted a commendation after Miller got into a heated debate with CNN’s Jake Tapper over Michael Wolff’s controversial book, Fire and Fury. According to the president, “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller.”

As long as the president trusts Miller and other hardliners on immigration — while at the same time demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the issue’s many facets — an agreement on Dreamers may prove elusive, despite a promise by Senate Republicans to hold a vote on resolving the status of the Dreamers, a key concession to Democrats to reopen the government.

Posted January 23, 2018

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