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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: How Stephen Miller Has Survived the Trump White House Purge

Miller fronts Trump’s single most divisive priority—immigration—a policy concern that divides even Republicans. And yet, he is one of the president’s longest-serving advisers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Stephen Miller has survived a presidential administration that has otherwise humiliated its earliest loyalists, its chief political architect, its own Cabinet secretaries, and a retired Marine general. But Miller endures, his agenda intact, his hairline admittedly worse for wear.

Currently, the senior White House adviser is leading Donald Trump’s negotiations for $5 billion in federal spending to build a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The negotiations are going poorly for everyone involved: Congressional Republicans don’t have enough votes to fund the wall, and congressional Democrats don’t have enough votes to neutralize Trump’s threats to shut down the government. Miller sits at the heart of this impasse. Reportedly, he has stoked Trump’s holiday brinkmanship about the border wall funding. Earlier this year, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham described Miller as “an outlier” in the negotiations to fund Trump’s border security priorities and, thus, avoid a government shutdown. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration,” Graham told CNN, “we’re going nowhere.”

Unfortunately for Graham and the rest of Congress, Miller’s only policy mandate is immigration. For two years, Trump and Miller have led the national immigration debate. Miller is a relatively low-profile figure among Trump’s senior advisers; and yet, he’s the supposedly fearsome and enigmatic subject of so much anxious political profiling. The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Politico have all identified Miller as the mastermind who devises Trump’s most notorious, reactionary immigration measures. Miller authored the 2017 travel ban, and he engineered the family separation policy at the southern border. Occasionally, Miller touts these policies in the press, and so he’s become the bureaucratic avatar for serialized humanitarian crises at the U.S.-Mexico border. On December 8, a 7-year-old girl, Jackeline Caal, died in U.S. Border Patrol custody. She succumbed to sepsis and dehydration two days after patrol agents detained her and 162 other immigrants traveling through a New Mexico desert. The Department of Homeland Security seized Caal’s death as an opportunity to lecture its critics and any would-be immigrants about the perils of illegal border crossings. DHS issued the statement, but Trump and Miller authored its cruelty.

Miller is Trump’s most lockstep confidant in public policy. He’s a 33-year-old flack who worked for Jeff Sessions in the Senate before joining Trump’s presidential campaign a week before the Iowa caucuses. In the Senate, Sessions led the anti-immigration GOP faction that scuttled a bipartisan immigration reform proposal during Barack Obama’s final years in office. In Miller, Trump synthesizes traditional movement conservatism and Trumpism, two factions that political observers often characterize as fundamentally at odds. Trump’s immigration agenda may be whimsical — defined, as it is, by dreams of a massive, mythical wall — but Miller has given Trump’s xenophobia a loyal, conventional voice.

Accordingly, Miller has survived a White House notorious for its in-fighting, betrayals, and attrition. Miller has outlived his former boss, Sessions — the first major Republican legislator to endorse Trump’s presidential bid — whom Trump humiliated for nearly two years before finally firing last month. Miller has outlasted Steve Bannon, the right-wing strategist who demands the most credit for Trump’s overall success. He’s even outlasted Trump’s closest adviser, Hope Hicks, who recently departed the White House to lead corporate communications for Fox.

Miller is one of very few Trumpland celebrities — including Hicks, senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, departing U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and former White House policy adviser Sebastian Gorka — who have held Trump’s favor on a peaceful, consistent basis. And yet, Miller fronts Trump’s single most divisive priority — a policy concern that divides even Republicans. For two years, immigration has been Trump’s most reliably disastrous and counterproductive policy concern. It’s also the policy concern that has proved to animate Trump’s conservative base most reliably, regardless of the many judicial setbacks, congressional stalemates, and moments of popular backlash that have stunted Trump’s immigration agenda since the president’s first week in office.

But for Trump, it’s hard to blame Miller, specifically. If Trump really means to pass hardcore immigration restrictions through Congress, then Miller has failed the president at several turns for two years now. But if the president mostly just means to keep the arguments roiling from one contentious election to the next, well, then Miller might indeed be the president’s most reliable adviser since the disgraced, disgruntled Bannon. And there’s no reason to believe he plans on anything less.