When Donald Trump’s second attempt at introducing a controversial Muslim travel ban comes overnight on Wednesday, few will be hoping for its success as anxiously as his senior adviser Stephen Miller.
Miller was the policy’s 31-year-old architect and was at the center of the troubled first attempt to introduce a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries in late January.
Hardly a household name, Miller hit the airwaves at the time to explain the rationale for what many dubbed as a scaled-back version of the Muslim ban upon which Trump campaigned – his TV appearances juxtaposed with chaos at airports across America.
It was not the first brush with the spotlight for the Capitol Hill staffer turned speechwriter to an unlikely president. Miller, a former aide to then senator Jeff Sessions, often warmed up the raucous crowds who flocked to Trump rallies during the presidential campaign.
But in batting down the charges against one of the administration’s earliest and most prominent controversies, the young adviser cemented himself as the public face of a new worldview taking hold in the highest office of the US government.
Miller’s own imprint on the travel ban was replaced in its second iteration with a more a concerted effort by officials at the agencies tasked with implementing the order to avoid the same legal challenges that mired the initial policy in a federal appeals court ruling last month.
But an interview Miller gave to Fox News late in January is already being cited by legal opponents to prove that the underpinnings are one and the same.
“Fundamentally, you’re still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country, but you’re going to be responsive to a lot of very technical issues that were brought up by the court, and those will be addressed,” Miller said.
“But, in terms of protecting the country, those basic policies are still going to be in effect.”
Ideological warfare is nothing new to Miller, who as a native of Santa Monica, California, quickly grew accustomed to defending his isolationist and hard-right inclinations against the multiculturalism that has come to define America for decades.
Although he was born to a liberal-leaning family, Miller turned to conservatism upon reading Guns, Crime, and Freedom, the 1994 book penned by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre.
He went on to write dozens of columns for his college newspaper, The Chronicle, while attending Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, a decade ago. Majoring in political science, Miller focused in his writings on culture wars and downplayed systematic racism in America. He also tellingly referred to multiculturalism as “segregation”, providing an early glimpse of the hardline approach to immigration that would later occupy much of his tenure as the communications director for Sessions, the first sitting senator to endorse Trump in the Republican primary.
It was no surprise that Miller assumed the role of chief antagonist to a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013 while working for Sessions, co-authored by a group of senators that became known as the “Gang of Eight.” The legislation provided a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US after a strenuous process that began with border security.
As aides to proponents of the bill presented it to their colleagues, Miller took the unusual step of delivering a rebuttal. His argument, much like the rhetoric that later dominated Trump’s campaign, cast immigration as bad for America, with a target placed not simply against those who entered illegally but even those employing the legal channels to gain permits.
At the time, Republican leaders were emphasizing the need to address immigration reform in the wake of Mitt Romney’s crushing loss in the 2012 election, prompted in part by a record low performance among Hispanic voters. Miller’s musings, which he further detailed in hundreds of emails to staffers, reporters and other stakeholders near daily attacking the 2013 immigration bill, were then outside his own party’s mainstream.
“Stephen is very passionate about what he believes in. He’s fearless about advocating for his positions even when they’re unpopular,” said Alex Conant, who served at the time as a spokesman for senator Marco Rubio, one of the co-authors of the so-called Gang of Eight compromise.
The legislation ultimately passed the Senate in a rare and overwhelming bipartisan vote, only to die in the Republican-led House of Representatives amid stiff opposition from conservatives.
In retrospect, the battle was prescient of the competing factions among Republicans when the party set its sights on retaking the White House just four years later – and of the ongoing power struggle within the new administration, as those with Trump’s ear mull whether to make good on his anti-immigration promises.
“Donald Trump and Stephen Miller have a different view on immigration that is very different from Republicans have traditionally believed,” Conant said.
“The last several Republican presidents have tried to improve our legal immigration system to better meet our economic needs … Donald Trump has turned that on its head.”
The extent to which Miller will prove influential remains unclear. Although he and Bannon are credited with shepherding nationalism into the White House, more traditional Washington figures such as chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer have sought to maintain at least some dominance of the Republican establishment.