At the End of the Immigration Battle in Congress Stands Stephen Miller With a Veto Pen

Havoc Brothers: National security adviser John Bolton (at left) and senior adviser to the president Stephen Miller walk across the South Lawn upon return to the White House on May 25, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

At the moment there is quite the buzz over the fate of long-stalled immigration legislation in Congress. In the House, an all-conference GOP confab on June 7 could well determine whether a variation on the hard-line Goodlatte legislation, a Democratic bill backed by a handful of Republican “moderates,” or some yet-to-be-identified compromise bill that virtually all Republicans can support — or some combo platter of alternatives — will make it to the floor. That’s pretty remarkable given the lower chamber’s record as a graveyard for immigration legislation in this century.

Meanwhile the Senate, where four separate immigration bills went down to defeat in February, is informally talking about the subject, if only because the House might toss a bill in their direction — or the federal courts might reach some action-forcing resolution of the legal challenges surrounding the president’s revocation of the DACA program protecting Dreamers last fall. But it’s quite the heavy lift, as Politico reports:

In recent weeks, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has been taking the lead on talking to [Sen. James] Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), two more junior GOP senators who are widely viewed as bellwethers of Republican support for immigration reform. While senators say that the staples of any immigration deal are protections for Dreamers and money for border security, negotiations have broadened to include the expiring protected status for hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants.

In the past a narrower DACA-for-border-security deal was considered most likely to get something done on immigration policy. Now new issues — and new complications — have been introduced. That is probably not a good thing. And meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has cut to the chase:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will not commit another week of the Senate’s time to immigration after the February exercise, but he added the Senate might take legislation if the president is supportive and it can pass the House.

McConnell might as well have said “If I had some ham, I’d make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread.”

The problems the House is having on this subject are well known. So too is the likelihood that Trump will use a veto threat to head off any legislation that isn’t quite similar to his own proposal. Just last week he made it clear that he wouldn’t sign the kind of Democratic-backed bill that would likely come out of the House if the discharge petition House GOP moderates are threatening to consummate triggers a series of immigration votes:

President Donald Trump said Wednesday he will veto any immigration legislation that emerges from Congress that does not include funding for a border wall and improved border security measures, a warning shot at moderate House Republicans pushing GOP leadership for a vote on immigration proposals.


“Unless it includes a wall, and I mean a wall, a real wall, and unless it includes very strong border security, there’ll be no approvals from me. Because I have to either approve it or not,” the president said in a Fox News interview that was taped Wednesday and aired Thursday morning. “There are bills going through. I’m watching one or two of them. We’ll see what happens, but I can tell you there is a mood right now for border security.”

This was a pointed reminder that at the end of the long, twisting road which in theory leads to an immigration deal in Congress, Trump will be there with his chief immigration adviser Stephen Miller handing him a veto pen.

And that could sap the already limited interest in Congress in cutting an almost impossible deal.

The two most-likely scenarios in the House are passage of a Democratic bill with the support of the GOP “moderates” who want relief for Dreamers, or passage of some modified version of the Goodlatte bill with tweaks to attract some more votes. It is extremely unlikely either of those approaches would survive a Senate filibuster.

The Trump factor makes it all immensely more difficult. His own position has hardened during the course of his presidency, with his increasingly adamant demands for what he is calling a “real wall” at the border and his more recent but equally strident support for legal immigration restrictions — both reportedly at the behest of Miller. What makes the administration’s position especially problematic is that all these quasi-nativist provisions are combined with what many actual nativists despise as “amnesty” — a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

It’s no real surprise that Trump’s proposal, offered by Chuck Grassley, got only 39 of the required 60 votes. And it may have been designed that way.

In a fascinating new profile of Stephen Miller, McKay Coppins suggests that at the heart of Trump’s approach to the immigration issue is Miller’s lack of interest in actually accomplishing anything as opposed to outraging liberals and firing up Trump’s base:

When Miller found out one afternoon in January that Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were coming to the White House to pitch Trump on a bipartisan bill, he reportedly moved to stack the Oval Office with hawkish conservatives in hopes of swaying the president. By the time Graham and Durbin arrived, Trump was in an uncompromising mood: angry, dug in, and ranting about immigrants from “shithole countries.” As Trump uttered those soon-to-leak words, which would poison the talks on Capitol Hill, Miller stood on the periphery. “He doesn’t have to command rooms to be effective,” one senior Democratic Senate aide said, “because he does his thing behind the scenes.”

This was the same dynamic, says Coppins, that led to Trump’s unnecessarily provocative travel ban, in which Miller played an equally prominent role:

One of his 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.

So don’t bet the farm on the success of any immigration legislation this year. To Team Trump, failure and the anger it generates may also be greeted as a political win.

If Congress Passes an Immigration Bill, Look for a Veto