Trump’s Immigration Chaos: Incompetence or Deliberate Trolling?

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Is Stephen Miller too young, paranoid, and inexperienced to get immigration policy right, or does he glory in chaos? Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

We now have two credible theories regarding the chaos that has characterized the Trump administration’s handling of immigration issues, from the travel ban to the family-separation crisis to the chronic mixed signals it sends to Congress. Both theories depend on efforts to figure out the M.O. of the principal architect of Trump’s policies in this area, precocious presidential adviser Stephen Miller.

A fascinating profile of Miller published last month by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins suggests that the messy nature of Miller/Trump policy-making on immigration is more or less deliberate, and reflects Miller’s addiction to trolling liberals that he started exhibiting at Santa Monica High School — a tendency strongly shared by Steve Bannon, one of his mentors and the co-author of the travel ban:

One of [Miller’s] first acts on the job was to work with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon in crafting an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” They counted the anger on display as a political win.

But now comes another acute observer of the Trump circle, Eliana Johnson, with a take on Miller and immigration policy for Politico that suggests the young adviser’s inexperience, secretive nature, and paranoia about being undercut within the administration has produced the chaos:

For the past two months, a handful of immigration hawks from across the government have assembled in Stephen Miller’s West Wing office on a weekly basis to chart the course of the Trump administration’s immigration policy.


Led by Miller, President Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser and the architect of his hard-line approach to immigration, the meetings have replaced the usual interagency process involving key agency officials and remained largely out of view to the rest of the administration.

This unorthodox approach was entirely deliberate:

The secretive nature of the effort was born of Miller’s assumption that hostile bureaucrats would try to undermine the administration’s aggressive policies before they got off the ground, by leaking to the news media or pushing alternative proposals to senior officials.

But smoothly implementing big policy changes you have no way of anticipating, much less coordinating actions across agency lines, is hard to do when you are kept in the dark. Thus the chaos, the ever-changing and contradictory explanations, and in the case of the travel ban, legal peril that took months to resolve.

The immigration-policy apparatus Miller has created isn’t just small and secretive, Johnson reports; it’s also inbred, made up of fellow enthusiasts for hard-core nativist policies.

The back-channel immigration meetings include several alumni from the office of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who was for years the leading immigration hawk on Capitol Hill before becoming attorney general. Miller is the most prominent, but others include Gene Hamilton, now a senior adviser to Sessions at the Department of Justice, and John Walk, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office and Sessions’ son-in-law. Julia Hahn, a junior White House communications aide who previously worked for Bannon at Breitbart, also attends.

Aficionados of extremist journalism will recognize the name of Hahn, whose wild and incredibly lengthy tirades on immigration issues at Breitbart made her an enfant terrible nearly as prominent as Miller himself.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter whether Miller cherishes chaos as a sort of nihilistic perk of power or has simply invited it by his insular approach to policy-making. But Johnson reports that after the family-separation fiasco, it’s gotten him into hot water with the Boss:

The resulting uproar and the ultimate retreat via executive order left Trump angry at Miller, whom the president felt had pushed an unpopular policy on him and then made him look weak, according to two Republicans close to the White House.

You’d have to guess Miller will survive any Trumpian annoyance, given his close relationship with POTUS during the 2016 campaign. And if he’s still around, his imprint will remain on immigration policy. Another tidbit in Johnson’s account is that Miller has relinquished his theoretical power over other domestic policy matters in exchange for a firm grip on immigration. That’s bad news for anyone horrified by border walls, deportations, cuts in legal immigration, or kids in cages.

Trump’s Immigration Chaos: Incompetence or Willful Trolling?