Miller forcefully defended family separation, telling the Times that voters would support the White House “90-10.” In fact, the public was outraged, especially after a recording of small children crying for their parents at a Texas detention center was leaked to ProPublica. A Border Patrol agent could be heard saying derisively, “Here we have an orchestra.” The policy dominated television news, and Ivanka and Melania Trump lobbied the President to end it. Some inside the Administration thought that the policy was justified, but that its execution had been poor. Several officials blamed Miller. “How many things have fallen because of bad messaging?” a D.H.S. agency head said to me. “Isn’t Miller supposed to be the master of messaging?” On June 18th, officials at the White House decided to explain the Administration’s position to the public in a press conference. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s chief spokesperson, pressured Nielsen to deliver the briefing, as a means of shielding the White House from blame. Nielsen’s advisers were uniformly opposed. “She would become the face of the policy,” one of them told me. But, according to an official who was present for the conversation, Sanders told Nielsen, “The President is getting killed on this, and it’s your department. How are you not going to go out there?”
At the press conference, Nielsen alternated between denying that the government had created a policy to separate children from their parents and defending zero tolerance as a necessary measure for enforcing immigration laws. Forty-eight hours later, Trump ended the separation policy, blaming Nielsen for his political defeat. “I have no idea how Miller managed to escape this one,” the official told me. “He knows just how and when to disappear.”
As Trump has consolidated his control over the Republican Party, it is easy to see Miller as an embodiment of the rightward turn of conservative politics. But, in the past year, he has made enemies among people at D.H.S. who shared his goals of tightening enforcement and revamping the legal-immigration system yet were alarmed by his contempt for policy channels and his disregard for the law. As one of them told me, Miller was conducting “a kind of permanent political campaign.” Miller tried to enlist officials to bolster the President’s claims about immigrant crime. David Lapan, a retired colonel who worked for John Kelly at D.H.S., told me, “He’d say, ‘You need to work harder to show how bad immigrants are. Highlight stories on criminal immigrants getting charged after being released.’ ”
On Fridays, Miller convened a meeting at the Eisenhower Office Building, next to the White House, to discuss the ways in which federal bureaucrats were falling short of implementing Trump’s agenda. Eventually, career officials stopped attending, and Miller’s audience became the political appointees who were already aligned with him. He harangued them, too. At one meeting, displeased with an ICE official who had once worked at the Center for Immigration Studies, he told him, “I’ll send you right back to writing blog posts for C.I.S.”
After Trump ended the family-separation policy, he was forced to make another concession. More families were fleeing Central America and travelling to the U.S., owing in part to the cycle of restrictive measures being adopted, then refashioned and sometimes abandoned after court challenges and political setbacks. When border policy changes in frequent and conspicuous ways, news tends to spread through Central America. “Trump made for the perfect sales pitch for smugglers: Come now, before it’s too late!” James Nealon, a former senior D.H.S. official, told me. The department ran out of detention space, and had to resume the catch-and-release policy.
According to a D.H.S. official who worked closely with Miller, as “the problems got more complex, and as the frustrations mounted,” his behavior became erratic. At meetings, he would ask for data that were irrelevant to the discussion, then launch into a monologue. Another D.H.S. official said, “You didn’t know which Stephen you were going to get. He could be very articulate, then he’d be quoting Breitbart in a diatribe. It was all over the place.” His policy ideas were often impracticable or unrelated to the issue under discussion. He wanted the department to house all migrants at Guantánamo Bay, and the F.B.I. to conduct immigration arrests. One official told me, “It got tedious. None of it would solve the problem we had. And, at the end of the operations he was pushing, the question would just be: Are you going to have something meaningful and sustainable that isn’t just a sharp elbow?”
Department officials felt that they knew how to manage the border crisis. They needed more resources, to house families and children, and other agencies needed to absorb the overflow. But, the official said, Miller “had unreasonable expectations about how fast the bureaucracy could write rules to fix the biggest problems we had. His default position was that there was a bunch of bureaucrats in the bowels of ICE or Citizenship and Immigration Services who didn’t want this to happen.”
Because Miller had inserted himself into D.H.S.’s policymaking process, officials felt obliged to shield their work from him. At one point, to keep Miller from discovering the details of a policy discussion, the head of D.H.S. held meetings in a classified security bunker, known as a SCIF, where cell phones are prohibited and strict rules of confidentiality are in effect. Convinced that a cabal of deep-state actors was trying to thwart Trump’s agenda, Miller had effectively forced officials to go underground in their own agencies. Steve Bannon told me, “Stephen’s experience has deepened his belief in the deep state, that they’re all going to leak in an attempt to stop his policy efforts.”
Increasingly, Miller lashed out at high-level D.H.S. officials, even those who favored many of the same policies. A frequent target was Francis Cissna, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services since 2017, who had worked to reshape the immigration system in ways that were often too technical to capture mainstream attention. Cissna had been an immigration lawyer in the government for more than a decade; when he got married, his wedding cake was decorated with an edible version of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. “He’s an immigration nerd,” Barbara Strack, a former colleague, told me. Cissna was a hero to members of the restrictionist movement: deeply knowledgeable, he framed his actions as a commitment to the rule of law.
For months, Cissna had been working on the Administration’s most significant attempt to overhaul the legal-immigration system: the “public-charge rule,” which would allow the government to block millions of people—disproportionately, immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—from getting green cards based on their income. It typically takes two years to fully implement a rule, but Miller wanted it done more quickly. He already resented Cissna for what he called the “asylum fraud crisis” at the border, since Cissna’s agency was in charge of handling asylum applications. After he hectored Cissna on one interagency phone call, with dozens of officials listening in, Cissna told him to stand down.
“I won’t stand down,” Miller shouted. “I won’t stand down. I won’t stand down.”
On another occasion, during a meeting in the White House Situation Room, Miller lambasted Ronald Vitiello, the head of ICE, who had worked in immigration enforcement for more than three decades, for not single-handedly rewriting federal rules on the detention of children. “You ought to be working on this regulation all day, every day,” Miller told him. “It should be the first thought you have when you wake up. And it should be the last thought you have before you go to bed.”
Cissna, Vitiello, and others were exasperated by Miller’s lack of interest in setting sound policies. “We’d say, ‘Well, the law says this and that, you’d need to make changes,’ ” an official told me. “Then we’d get the phone call again, and the proposal would be slightly different. We’d say, ‘You still can’t do that.’ They’d come back to us again. Finally, sure, it was lawful, but it was also stupid.” Officials came to think that Miller was territorial; he wanted to be the only immigration expert in the room at all times, and he was willing to undermine like-minded people who might impede his access to the President. One of them told me, “He’s not a true believer. If he were, he’d want to get the agenda done right.”
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