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'New Yorker' Writer On Stephen Miller And White House Immigration Policy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Immigration has been the bedrock of President Trump's campaign and presidency since he began seeking office. But in an administration where policy goals can shift regularly, there's never been any doubt that President Trump wants to build a wall on the southern border and limit immigration to the U.S. A new story in The New Yorker argues that President Trump's immigration policy is less the work of Trump himself and more of the work of his longest-serving aide, 34-year-old Stephen Miller. Writer Jonathan Blitzer joins us now.

Welcome.

JONATHAN BLITZER: Thank you.

CHANG: So the headline for the online version of this story is "How Stephen Miller Manipulates Donald Trump To Further His Immigration Obsession." You just come right out of the gate and say that. How would you describe the relationship between Miller and Trump?

BLITZER: You know, Miller is, as you mentioned, the longest-serving senior aide to the president, was with the president back when he was campaigning in 2016 and so has a very strong personal relationship with Trump and is seen by the president and by other people around the president as being incredibly loyal to him. But that is not to say that Miller doesn't have a pretty vast and detailed agenda of his own. And so part of the game that he's played over the last few years is to continue to serve the president in all of the obvious and important ways as the president's senior aide but also to simultaneously advance this agenda and, in some ways, use the president to further advance that agenda.

CHANG: Right. I mean, you argue that Stephen Miller is the person in this administration who is the most singularly focused on immigration. What do you get the sense that he is most worried about when it comes to immigrants?

BLITZER: I think the view that he has of immigration generally is one of paranoia, frankly, about white America being displaced by immigrants from all over the world. And so if you look at the proposals that Stephen Miller has marshaled over the last few years, they not only focus on ending asylum at the border, increasing enforcement of illegal immigration in the interior of the U.S. They also are aimed at remaking what is, in effect, the legal immigration system so that the profile of people who come to the U.S. to live as legal immigrants starts to change and reflect increasingly the view that Miller has of who should be coming to the U.S.

CHANG: I mean, you argue it's less an economic concern. It's more a concern about sort of a dilution of white culture.

BLITZER: That's right. I think that's fair to say. I mean, you know, Miller, if you speak to him and if you listen to him, will really stress the idea that a big part of his agenda is about the, you know, American workers, the need to keep American citizens employed. So in that sense, he does espouse the classic populist rhetoric associated with immigration restriction. But simultaneously, he is increasingly focused, too, on making this broader cultural argument.

CHANG: It was fascinating to read how you say that Stephen Miller is hyperconcerned (ph) with consequences and making sure that there are consequences for illegal immigration. You describe him as the architect of the family separation policy, for example and, at first, that the White House thought such a policy was cruel. How did Miller persuade the administration to go along with it?

BLITZER: I don't know that Miller operates by persuasion per se. What he does as he applies pressure. And so at the upper levels of DHS, you had a lot of reluctance of top personnel there to actually implement some of these policies because there was such concern about the humanitarian costs. And what Miller managed to do was gin up the president to pressure them into finally agreeing to move forward with this. And the result, as we all saw, was the fact that the Department of Homeland Security began separating families before there was actually a plan in place for them to eventually reunite those families.

CHANG: And that said, when the Trump administration got some serious blowback for family separation, Miller did not personally suffer much of his own consequences. I mean, how did he avoid taking the fall for that policy, you think?

BLITZER: Basically, what he does is he makes sure to have a scapegoat kind of on the ready. And so just when something explodes, there is someone else who he has managed to get the president to blame instead. So in the case of family separation, that kind of main scapegoat ended up becoming the then-secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. He manages to pull all the levers, push all of the policies but has scrupulously avoided ever being seen as the person implementing those policies, which means that when any of those policies go askew or explode or become intensely unpopular - as family separation did - he's nowhere near the scene of the crime.

CHANG: Now, Miller would not speak to you for this story on the record. He did talk to you off the record. I'm curious. Was it hard to get others in the White House, in the Department of Homeland Security to talk to you about him? Or did you get the sense that people were cautious or fearful of him in some way?

BLITZER: People were cautious in the extreme about speaking to me about Miller. And it was striking because a lot of the people - he's, obviously, made no shortage of enemies. I mean, there are a number of people who are now no longer part of this administration - or, for that matter, the government - who, basically, were outed because of Miller. But I think it reflects the power that Miller still has inside the White House that even people who've left government are scared to be seen as participating even on background or off the record with any sort of profile about how Miller exercises his power.

CHANG: Looking back on President Trump's first term in office, how effective would you say that Stephen Miller has been in reducing immigration to the U.S.?

BLITZER: You know, Donald Trump was the first president to ever fully campaign on immigration as an issue. I don't just mean have a position on certain immigration issues but to actually build his campaign around the issue of immigration. And by extension, he's the only president to have ever really delivered on his promise - his campaign promise to restrict immigration to the U.S., to increase penalties for those who are here illegally. The last 3 1/2 years have been - I hate to say it - a huge success for Donald Trump and for Stephen Miller. They have managed to upend, basically, decades' worth of policies, of policy consensus, of laws, of jurisprudence. All of these things reflect the influence of Miller and the commitment of the Trump administration to prosecute this agenda.

CHANG: Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker, thank you very much for joining us today.

BLITZER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.