As President Donald Trump continues his mad purge of the Department of Homeland Security, a sinister figure is emerging as the driving force behind all the chaos: Stephen Miller, the president’s top immigration adviser.
A fierce restrictionist, Miller seems to have rarely met an immigrant he didn’t want to deport. He is among the hardest of hard-liners, known for spurring his boss to pursue ever more draconian measures.
Not that Trump needs much encouragement. He did, after all, ascend to the White House on an immigrant-bashing, ethnonationalist platform as dishonest as it was divisive. Many of the administration’s uglier policy ideas have been a result of Trump’s failure to deliver on his signature campaign promise of a “big, beautiful” border wall. Small wonder Miller has emerged as his favorite consigliere on such matters.
Miller’s preferred approach to immigration and border security is straight out of Ann Coulter’s fever dreams. He was a chief architect of the travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries. He favors the building of tent cities at the border for warehousing asylum-seekers. He’s agitating to end the 20-day limit on detaining migrant children. And he wants to reinstate the practice of snatching migrant children from their families — though this time he’d like to give parents a “binary choice” of having their kids taken from them or held with them in detention indefinitely.
Miller is being credited with the bloodbath at the Department of Homeland Security. Since Friday, a handful of top leaders have been, or are soon to be, shown the door, including the head of the Secret Service, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was never quite ruthless enough for the president’s or Miller’s taste. More firings are expected as Miller moves to remake the department in his image.
Bottom line, Stephen Miller is a man whose anti-immigration zeal remains unfettered by concern for the law, international norms or basic humanity.
And yet. The portrait of the 33-year-old policy adviser as a figure of singular evil is both overly simplistic and counterproductive. Sure, the guy is a force for darkness, easing the president ever further into nativism. But no matter how much of the administration’s immigration agenda Miller has been responsible for, it has taken a village to make that vision a reality. Giving too much credit to any one person builds up Miller, undeservedly, as a Machiavellian genius and lets many other folks off the hook.
A society does not fall because of a small coterie of bad actors. Widespread rot requires legions of enablers, many of whom are driven by varying blends of personal ambition, ideological expedience and the self-aggrandizing delusion that, through their invaluable counsel, they can save the state from total destruction.
Expect increasingly to hear this last rationalization from former administration officials starting redemption tours as they resume life outside the Trump bubble.
Advisers like Kellyanne Conway, lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, party apparatchiks like Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel and a whole host of Trump-friendly media personalities may not personally share the president’s views or policy aims. But their willingness to swallow some of the administration’s cruelest acts renders them complicit. Neither their reputations nor their consciences should be wiped clean.
Take Nielsen. Since her departure was announced, she has enjoyed some sympathy for having behaved less viciously than some in the White House desired. Throughout her tenure, stories bubbled up about how she incurred Trump’s wrath by dragging her feet on policies that would have run afoul of the law or thrown the nation into chaos. But she still carried out and aggressively enforced her share of atrocities.
Now, defenders are portraying the woman who was in charge of caging migrant children as a hapless victim of the administration’s more unhinged forces.
“The so-called immigration hard-liners have flailed about since the beginning of the administration, giving bad advice to the president and misdirecting resources toward the wrong solutions to the wrong problems,” Thad Bingel, a homeland security official under President George W. Bush and former aide to Nielsen, told The New York Times. “They apparently don’t want anyone like a Secretary Nielsen or Secretary Kelly, who deals in reality, to tell them or the president any of this.”
No doubt, Nielsen had a difficult, perhaps impossible, job. But it was no profile in courage for her to cling to her morally untenable position until Trump gave her a shove.
It’s tempting to see Stephen Miller as the arch-villain of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. But there is much guilt to go around, and even reluctant collaborators cannot be allowed to absolve themselves of responsibility for the administration’s continuing outrages.