In his first month in the White House, Stephen Miller learned a valuable lesson from a mentor. As one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump had signed an executive order banning travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim countries, and mass protests were breaking out across the country. Law-enforcement officials, who had received little guidance on how to carry out the order, were flummoxed, and the administration was swiftly taken to court. Chief strategist Steve Bannon, who helped craft the order alongside Miller, was nevertheless delighted by the self-created maelstrom. When journalist Michael Wolff later asked Bannon why the ban had been implemented so recklessly, Bannon suggested the chaos was part of the fun. “So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot,” he replied.
Whereas Bannon made controversy his calling card, Miller has operated in a more shadowy—and effective—manner, gradually applying leverage and using shrewd personnel decisions to implement his draconian vision on immigration policy throughout the West Wing and government agencies. Some measures, like his role in the travel ban or the Trump administration’s callous family-separation policy, have been obvious. “It was really a shock to a bureau whose mission is to help refugees,” Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees and Migration, said of the travel ban. “I knew the Trump administration from the campaign was hostile to refugees. I did not anticipate that they would move so quickly, even before there was a Secretary of State.” As one senior Senate staffer explained, in the early months of the Trump administration “it was very dramatic and people knew what was happening and you could just see it visibly.”
Other maneuvers to restrict legal immigration have been slightly more subtle. Last September, Miller played a leading role in slashing the refugee admissions cap to 45,000—less than one-half the 110,000 ceiling set under President Barack Obama, and the lowest level since 1980. Now, he has reportedly revived his push for another cut, to a cap as low as 15,000 refugees. Earlier this week, the 32-year-old senior adviser was reported to be focused on an even more ambitious project: imposing strict limits on legal immigration, as well as on individuals seeking asylum from war, famine, and prosecution. “The administration seems to delight in picking on the most vulnerable people,” David Robinson, the former assistant secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the State Department, told me, enumerating the ways in which the resettlement process had been logjammed. “Pretty soon you are going to have a trickle and not a stream.” Currently, the U.S. is on pace to admit around 22,000 refugees this fiscal year. Defenders of the policies argue that the cuts offset a surge in asylum seekers, while critics dismiss the notion as a manufactured crisis. “By 2020, I would not be surprised if we just don’t have this program anymore,” said Jennifer Quigley, an advocacy strategist for refugee protection at Human Rights First. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 5,000 next year and then zero.” (When asked about the negotiations for next year’s refugee cap, an administration official said in a statement, “We are not going to get ahead of the president’s policy.”)
Nearly a dozen current and former administration officials I have spoken with in recent weeks describe the latest negotiations over the refugee-admissions cap as one of the more insidious examples of Miller’s efforts to curtail immigration to the United States. (Miller, a lifelong culture warrior, first made his name in conservative circles with an impassioned op-ed raging against the preponderance of Latino students who “lacked basic English skills” in his high school.) “It’s part of a very coherent, effective, and successful plan. It’s not easy to do hard things in our government,” a former official at the Department of Homeland Security explained. “Our government is huge . . . it’s kind of constructed to slow things down and to make sure that individuals don’t wield excessive power. It’s got lots and lots of checks and balances, so it’s really difficult to pull off something like what they’ve pulled off, and they’ve done it.” There are, after all, hundreds of career civil servants who have dedicated their lives to helping the estimated 69 million refugees in the world, only a minuscule portion of whom ever gain sanctuary in the United States. But Miller has found ways to hijack the machinery of the government to undermine these agencies’ core mission. “Now, it’s sort of like the termite approach, which is you place people inside and you have them basically eat away in a more quiet way, subtly inside,” the senior Senate staffer continued. “It’s not as transparent to the outside world, and they just sort of destroy programs they don’t care about.” (The White House declined multiple requests for comment.)
Miller, perhaps in the wake of Fire and Fury flameout, has also satisfied his boss’s distaste for negative headlines with the sort of apparatchik gamesmanship that Bannon never bothered playing. His critics describe his influence as being like Gríma—the fictional character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings, better known as Wormtongue—a silent power behind the throne. For instance, multiple sources described how Miller has worked to make the refugee cap irrelevant by bureaucratically kneecapping the refugee program—slowing down the interviews D.H.S. officials conduct with refugees overseas, undercutting the staffing at the agencies that handle resettlement in the United States, and complicating the vetting process. A current administration official told me that Miller is “having D.H.S. intentionally make sure that we don’t get anywhere close to the numbers that we agreed to.”
Miller has, at times, acted ruthlessly to cement his power and control the information flow to the president. According to two sources familiar with the situation, last month Miller helped orchestrate the ouster of Jennifer Arangio, a senior director in the National Security Council division that deals with international organizations, who Miller viewed as an opponent to his efforts to decimate the refugee program. Arangio, a Republican who had served Trump since the transition, fought to provide more accurate information to the president about the issue, the two sources said, eventually sealing her fate. “She is a real Trump loyalist, like through and through from the campaign days,” the current official told me. “For her to be pushed out by Stephen Miller is more of an accomplishment I guess for him than for some random career person to leave.” “He’s got the ear of the president, and I think that’s what it all comes down to,” the former D.H.S. official told me. (An administration official said they do not comment on personnel matters.)
Perhaps as significantly, sources say, Miller has been able to help frame the issue for Trump, both by communicating the administration’s policies to the media and by quietly suppressing information that doesn’t comport with his narrative. “He claims to be speaking for the president all while manipulating the information the president receives, so the president never hears alternative views or arguments—whether it is evangelical support for refugees or veterans’ strong commitment to providing protection to Iraqis that fought alongside them,” the former official who worked on refugee issues told me. When the Department of Health and Human Services completed a report that found refugees had boosted government revenues by $63 billion over the past decade, for instance, Miller reportedly had the study suppressed. “The president believes refugees cost more, and the results of this study shouldn’t embarrass the president,” he reportedly instructed officials at the agency. (At the time, White House spokesperson Raj Shah dismissed the report as a leak “delivered by someone with an ideological agenda” and insisted refugees are “not a net benefit to the U.S. economy.”)
As Miller has shored up his influence in the West Wing, he has simultaneously broadened his leverage as his ideological allies secure critical positions across the government. At first, sources say, Miller focused his efforts on installing immigration hardliners at the White House, D.H.S., and D.O.J. “[He would place] a political [appointee] that was high up enough that they would know everything but not high up enough that they would be in the public spotlight or needing Senate confirmation,” the current administration official told me.
Among Miller’s confederates is Gene Hamilton, who like Miller is a veteran of Jeff Sessions’s Senate office and was tapped early in the administration to serve in the somewhat nebulous role of counselor to John Kelly, then the Secretary of Homeland Security. (Hamilton took a role at D.O.J. after Kirstjen Nielsen was named as Kelly’s successor at D.H.S. ) During the refugee admissions debate last September, Hamilton was allied with Miller against then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Vice President Mike Pence, among others, including Elaine Duke, the No. 2 official at D.H.S. at the time. “Stephen and Hamilton and their compadres tried to drive that number way, way, way down,” the former D.H.S. official explained, recalling that Miller and Hamilton sought to set the cap well below 45,000 refugees, “But cooler heads prevailed.” Other Miller allies reportedly include John Walk, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office and the son-in-law of Sessions; L. Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at D.H.S.; Dimple Shah, the deputy general counsel at D.H.S.; Chad Mizelle, the counsel to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at Justice; and Thomas Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who retired earlier this year.
Miller has been particularly attentive to the refugee program at the State Department, which flows through the bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, cultivating attachés to assist his agenda. (Miller’s defenders say he is working to execute the president’s agenda, not his own.) “He is definitely in empire-building mode and succeeding at it,” a former administration official who worked on refugee policy told me. “He’s plugged every hole across the U.S. government and replaced every weak link with one of his staunch allies so that there is virtually no path forward for anyone who cares about refugee protection. You just run up against a wall at every path.”
Miller’s foothold in Foggy Bottom is buttressed by two veterans of his influential Domestic Policy Council who have recently taken posts at State. John Zadrozny is expected to oversee refugee policy, at least in part, in his role as a member of the Policy Planning Staff, an office that developed outsized influence under Secretary Tillerson. And Andrew Veprek was named as the deputy assistant secretary of State in the refugee office. Given his relatively low foreign-service officer rank, Veprek’s appointment to the high-ranking post drew criticism and confusion. (A State Department spokesperson disputed this characterization.) The former administration official who worked on refugee policy suggested the ascendance of both men had less to do with their résumés than their ideological alignment with Miller. “Their sole qualification is their willingness to do anything to please Miller as members of the Domestic Policy Council and their only major interest is their anti-immigration agenda,” this person told me.
Veprek, who joined the bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in March, has proved especially vexatious to the other civil servants who work there. Veprek is “a mini-Stephen Miller, except that he is not as socially awkward,” the former official who worked on refugee issues told me. “He knows how to say things the right way but when push comes to shove, he is willing to show his cards and there is no mistaking where his heart is.” Diplomats were provided a taste of this side of Veprek when he reportedly raised issues with standard-fare United Nations documents that condemned racism and posited that leaders have an obligation to denounce hate speech and incitement. “The drafters say ‘populism and nationalism’ as if these are dirty words,” Veprek wrote, according to documents obtained by CNN. “There are millions of Americans who likely would describe themselves as adhering to these concepts. (Maybe even the President.) So are we looking to here condemn our fellow-citizens, those who pay our salaries?”
Before Trump took office, the Population, Refugee, and Migration Bureau at the State Department enjoyed sustained bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. “This was a fine-tuned machine, it was people that had worked together for decades,” said Robinson, who also served as the deputy assistant secretary of state in the refugee bureau. “They are the experts on refugee issues—not just resettlement.” Under the current administration, however, refugee issues have become a lightning rod. Current and former officials described P.R.M. to me as a bureau under siege, with beleaguered staffers trying their best to stay professional and keep their heads down—not always with success. Since January 20, the majority of the bureau’s top talent has been ousted or left.
It remains an open question whether P.R.M. will survive at all, in its current form. According to current and former officials, Mark Green, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, is pushing to move overseas humanitarian-assistance programs out of Foggy Bottom—taking a hunk of the bureau’s roughly $3.4 billion budget with it. Advocates of the move argue that it would be more cost effective, while critics posit that it will further marginalize refugee issues and effectively kill the P.R.M. (The spokesperson for State said the department and USAID “are working together to develop a proposal to optimize U.S. diplomacy and assistance to displaced people around the world,” but no recommendations have been finalized.) “What principally concerns me is that we’ve gotten to the point where the U.S. government is so anti-refugee that even a bureau with the word ‘refugee’ in its name has to disappear?” Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International and former assistant secretary of state of the refugee bureau, told me. “What a sad commentary on where we are right now.”
Worse, from the perspective of Foggy Bottom, there are few senior Trump officials willing to defend the program. Secretary Mike Pompeo, unlike his predecessor, has not said much about P.R.M. “I do think that he is going to bat for the institution as a whole. But in terms of standing up to the White House on particular issues, on particular policy issues, I haven’t seen evidence of that so far,” one current State Department official told me. Nikki Haley, who was initially thought of as a potential torchbearer for refugee issues as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has drawn criticism from refugee advocates over her support of a measure to put a hold on U.N. Relief and Works Agency funding for Palestinian refugees. “Across the board with this administration there has been no profile in courage on refugee issues,” the former official who worked on refugee issues told me. “Why would anyone cross Miller?”
It is now Miller’s government, after all. The president and his senior adviser for policy are fully aligned in their vision of an America Dream in which immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are largely excluded. It is no surprise that the two men would seek to recalibrate the bureaucratic systems at their control to grind resettlements to a halt. Perhaps Miller’s greatest achievement, however, is how he has managed to project his influence largely from the shadows, deploying ideological apostles to do his dirty work. “He wants to be able to put it out there, speak for the president, not have his fingerprints on it, not risk his own political future, not get out ahead of the boss but be able to use his anonymity to put forward these extreme views and cast them as the president’s,” said the former official who worked on refugee affairs. “He has just been a master operator on that front. His name hasn’t been on anything. He is working behind the scenes, he has planted all of his people in all of these positions, he is on the phone with them all of the time, and he is creating a side operation that will circumvent the normal, transparent policy process.” Miller will succeed, the former official continued, “and there won’t really even be a paper trail.”