Here’s one thing even Republicans negotiating an immigration deal agree on: Trump aide Stephen Miller is hurting their chances of getting anything done.
They blame him for insisting the administration gets approval for an unrealistic number of immigration policies in exchange for protections for young people brought into the country illegally as children. They loathe his intensity when delivering his hardline views. And they accuse him of coordinating with outside advocacy groups that oppose their efforts.
“It's no secret that he’s an obstacle to getting anything done on immigration,” said a Republican House member involved in the immigration talks.
Many people involved in the immigration debate — Republicans and Democrats, Capitol Hill staffers and activists — complain that Miller is making already tough negotiations more difficult, according to 14 people familiar with the situation, half involved in negotiations. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s aide.
The House Republican lawmaker said it’s widely viewed that “to move past the speed bumps, there’s no option but to kind of get him out of the way.”
Yet Miller’s close relationship to the president, which spans the campaign and transition, means they are unlikely to do or say anything to get him out of the negotiations.
Major differences remain on immigration even after Trump and his top aides, including Miller, met with about two dozen members of Congress of both parties at the White House on Tuesday.
Some Republicans say Miller has tried to poison the deal with policies he knows will never survive a vote in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority and are constantly searching for Democratic votes. “He’s trying to craft a deal he knows is not viable because he doesn’t want a deal,” said a Republican strategist who has long sought an immigration overhaul.
Miller declined to be interviewed for this story. Two senior White House officials described Miller as a policy expert Trump values who has a wealth of knowledge and expertise on immigration. “He is trying to make a deal,” one official said. “He doesn’t want to sabotage a deal.”
The White House said that Miller has great relationships with lawmakers and provided McClatchy with a list of four House Republican leaders’ offices to speak to about him. A spokesperson for one of them, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, referred calls to the House Committee on Homeland Security, which he chairs. But the office was not aware of the White House’s request that the chairman vouch support for Miller.
A second, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was not available to talk.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, issued a statement: “Stephen is an incredibly bright mind on immigration policy and reflects the administration’s focus in fixing our broken immigration system. He has been of tremendous value for members on the hill and for the administration during this debate.”
And in the fourth office, an aide to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said Miller has been up front about what the White House position is and that his interactions with the office had been “constructive recently.” A longtime Ryan staffer who works on immigration issues speaks to Miller regularly, sometimes even daily, the aide said.
But a senior GOP aide who had opposed Miller on immigration praised Miller. “Honestly knowing his background I thought he wouldn’t want a solution, but after dealing with him for several months I found his insights to be constructive and I truly believe he wants a deal,” the aide said. “He isn’t the problem, others are.”
Miller is Trump’s senior adviser for policy responsible for some of his most contentious policies, and he has been outspoken on immigration since he was in high school. He’s often called on to explain the administration’s overall view on the issue. “That’s his No. 1 concern,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which shares many of his views.
In December, the White House invited Republican lawmakers from both chambers to a series of meetings to talk about a possible deal on Dreamers and border security. Miller was there, though many lawmakers didn’t want him to be. Chief of Staff John Kelly and Marc Short, director of legislative affairs, also attended meetings.
But when Miller spoke, he was met with silence with no one knowing just what to say, according to three familiar with the meetings.
“There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Stephen,” said a former Trump adviser, who worked with Miller and is in close contact with the White House.
On Sunday, Miller got into an argument with CNN’s Jake Tapper on live television while he was defending Trump and criticizing the media. Tapper cut the interview short. CNN says Miller was escorted from the building, but the White House disagrees with that characterization.
“His demeanor is off putting,” acknowledged a lobbyist who shares some of Miller’s positions on immigration and is involved with the negotiations. “It’s more of an issue of the messenger than the message.”
There's a limit to how many people any country can bring in. And we as a country have a right to say we want to bring people based on their ability to contribute to our economy, to be safe, productive citizens, and to uplift the nation as a whole
Trump aide Stephen Miller
In the fall, Miller helped draft a wish list of immigration policies that the administration had to have in exchange for Dreamer protections, including eliminating protections for unaccompanied children who are in the country illegally; restricting eligibility for asylum, humanitarian parole and abused or abandoned foreign children and hiring thousands more immigration officers, prosecutors and judges. Miller had a hand in writing the list but the Department of Homeland Security actually derived the list of priorities based on their needs, according to the White House.
“Stephen is unfairly trying to sabotage this,” said a former DHS official for President George W. Bush who is in contact with Republican staffers in the Senate.
Many on Capitol Hill remember how Miller, then an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who led the opposition to the deal, worked in 2013 to kill a bipartisan immigration deal in the Senate that would have allowed immigrants in the country illegally to gain legal status and eventually citizenship.
“Look what happened last time,” said a second former Trump adviser, who worked with Miller and is in close contact with the White House. “He almost single handily blew (the bill) up. They are having flashbacks.”
The Senate passed the bill brokered by the so-called Gang of Eight, but it was never considered in the House.
Miller sent out hundreds of emails attacking the bill as he went through the text line by line, according to a former Republican aide involved in the 2013 debate. He was accused of working with groups that want to curb immigration in the United States and the far-right news site Breitbart to boost opposition to the bill.
“His immigration viewpoints are extreme,” the former Republican aide said. “Most Republicans are very uncomfortable with that.”
The White House says Miller regularly talks to outside groups opposed to the current deal, not to coordinate with them, but to try to get them on board. He met with some of them Nov. 2 at the White House, according to one participant.
Trump struck a tentative agreement last year with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to protect Dreamers in exchange for increased security at the border, but not necessarily a wall. Trump immediately backed out, insisting on a larger immigration package.
Since then, the president has spoken about ending chain migration that allows immigrants to help get other immigrants into the United States, curbing the diversity visa lottery program that lets immigrants be awarded green cards and building a wall on the southern border. He is expected to visit the border at the end of the month.
“These are measures that will make our community safer and more prosperous,” Trump said at his meeting with lawmakers Tuesday. “These reforms are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. They're from every standpoint, from every poll, and they're being requested by law enforcement officers.”
Lawmakers have asked repeatedly for administration officials to provide them with a shorter, more specific list of priorities. Miller was irked that Kelly said he would agree to provide such a list at a Dec. 19 meeting with a dozen senators, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
Miller has remained adamant that the administration wants everything on its laundry list in exchange for Dreamer protections.
“We need them all because the reality is that anything you do on DACA is going to have some predictable consequences, right?" Miller told FOX News Channel’s Tucker Carlson on Monday night. “You’re going to have an increase in new illegal immigration, so you need to have a wall. You need to close the enforcement loopholes.”
On Friday, the administration gave negotiators the same long list as news broke that the White House is requesting $18 billion over the next decade for the first phase of a border wall. “It’s outrageous that the White House would undercut months of bipartisan efforts by again trying to put its entire wish-list of hardline anti-immigrant bills —plus an additional $18 billion in wall funding — on the backs of these young people,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
This week the administration provided lawmakers with a DHS document with more information about each of their priorities.
A political operative who works closely with congressional Republicans said Trump can either listen to Miller or he can decide he wants to work with both parties on a deal that will protect Dreamers and increase security, satisfying most Americans. “The president could have had a deal months ago,” the operative said. “He’s actively undermining the president.”
Miller and Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general, along with ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon, pushed Trump to end the five-year-old program launched by the Obama administration that protects young people brought into the country illegally as children by their undocumented parents from deportation and allows them to attain work permits.
Trump was conflicted, keeping the program alive for months and pledging to treat Dreamers with “great heart.” Still, his administration announced in September it will shut down the program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA — March 5, giving Congress time to pass a legislative fix.
A bipartisan group of senators, who have met dozens of times over the last two months, including this week, are widely expected to craft the immigration compromise that will protect Dreamers while increasing border security.
Some lawmakers of both parties are pushing for a legislative fix to be part of the deal for Democratic support of a spending package that must be passed by Jan. 19 to keep most of the government operating.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to add a quote from a GOP aide in support of Miller.
Lesley Clark and Emma Dumain contributed.