One of the greatest challenges of the Trump era is summoning the strength to find and then express moral outrage at the things that no longer shock and surprise us. Maybe that explains why this week’s release of the emails that President Trump’s top aide on immigration, Stephen Miller, sent to right-wing journalists during Trump’s 2015-16 campaign, which boosted the racist views of fellow white nationalists, isn’t causing much of a splash.
The 900 emails that Miller — who at the time was a top aide to then-Alabama senator and future attorney general Jeff Sessions — sent to journalists at Breitbart News, later leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center — are a treasure trove of extremist conspiracy tripe and white nationalist hate. The future Team Trump higher-up links to extremist anti-immigrant websites, tries to gin up outrage that Amazon was no longer selling Confederate flags, and (successfully) urges coverage of a 1970s French novel that describes Western civilization collapsing at the hands of immigrants. (The Breitbart writer who reviewed that book was later hired by the Trump White House.)
The email leak was a reminder that were there really a kinder, gentler America, someone with Miller’s warped resume would probably get placed on a Secret Service watch list and not given an all-access pass to the West Wing. But the real reason that the Miller story — ignored though it largely was — is so damn important is that for that last 34 months we’ve seen these xenophobic fever dreams of a 34-year-old unqualified extremist become the official policies of the United States, with horrifying, heartbreaking effects on shattered families.
The human toll of what one could call Stephen Millerism — but should more accurately be labeled as old-fashioned white supremacy — was chronicled this week in a stunning new report from the Associated Press and the PBS show Frontline which found that 69,550 migrant children were held in U.S. government custody over the past year. That’s enough to fill every seat in the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, with some standing room. It’s also a) more than any other year in American history b) more than any other nation on the planet.
The big number — driven by Trump and Miller’s policy directives and their rotating cast of acting flunkies at Homeland Security — shows how Team Trump turned the electrons of online hatred into the neurons of actual suffering for human children. And it’s hardly an isolated statistic. The SPLC leaks show how Miller’s email complaints that Cat 5 hurricane in 2015 might allow Mexicans to seek U.S. refuge with temporary protected status, or TPS, would become actual policy in 2019 when the Trump administration denied TPS to Bahamian survivors of Hurricane Dorian.
Also this week, Trump administration lawyers went before the Supreme Court in the hope that an increasingly conservative High Court with two Trump appointees will ratify its poorly explained, Miller-and-Sessions-driven attempt to shut down DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That would suddenly expose 700,000 young so-called Dreamers — brought here as children without documents, living exemplary lives on U.S. soil — to possible sudden deportation to countries most don’t even know. Like the thousands of migrant kids behind bars, the cruelty is the point in a world that a monster like Stephen Miller has been given power to shape.
“I think about this trauma staying with her too, because the trauma has remained with me and still hasn’t faded,” a Honduran father who’d tried unsuccessfully to enter the United States told the AP about his 3-year-old daughter, who was forcibly separated from him at the border, sexually abused in American foster care, and then deported in an anxious and agitated state.
Except maybe for a couple minutes on the DACA case, you’ve probably seen nothing about these stories on your TV set. On a certain level, that’s understandable. The beginning of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and the growing mountain of evidence that critical, Congress-approved security aid was blocked in a quest for 2020 campaign dirt on a rival, is Washington’s highest stakes drama in a generation. It’s a story that cable news would like to cover for 65 minutes every hour.
Like any licensed lifelong political junkie, I spent most of Wednesday riveted by Day One of the House’s public hearings. I was struck by the gravity of the two diplomats who testified — symbolized by George Kent’s power bow tie and the stentorian voice of ambassador William Taylor, which my colleague Jonathan Tamari nailed as able to “narrate pickup-truck commercials” — but even more so by the narrative they wove. In their opening statements and through several hours of grilling, Kent and Taylor took what might have been a convoluted diplomatic affair, in a nation too many Americans can’t find on a map, and re-cast it as a saga of a U.S. ally struggling to fight off Russian aggression, betrayed by a president’s political gamesmanship.
On one hand, the Ukrainian affair seems an open-and-shut case with increasingly irrefutable evidence of bribery — the exact reason the Founders placed the democracy-escape-hatch of impeachment in the Constitution back in 1787. And it epitomizes the very worst of the Trump presidency, a willingness to abuse the awesome power of his office and the trillion-dollar government as his disposal to pursue his own greedy and egomaniacal agenda.
On the other hand, impeaching Trump over one very wrong, not-in-any-sense-of-the-word-"perfect" phone call with the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelinsky seems to summon a drunken chorus of Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” From that day Trump descended from the clouds of Trump Tower to torment America with this branding exercise gone horribly awry, Americans have been bombarded non-stop with both high crimes and misdemeanors.
Some of them — making an illegal hush-money payment to his porn-star mistress, pocketing millions in both foreign and domestic emoluments at the hotels he won’t divest, firing an FBI chief to obstruct the Russian meddling probe — are articles of impeachment that practically write themselves. The rest of it — the more than two dozen women accusing Trump of sexual misconduct, including assault, the routine embrace of dictators like Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the plan to shoot migrants in the legs — were well beyond anything that Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton could have conceived of in their horse-and-buggy world.
I’ve been...lucky, is that the word?...to live long enough to watch three of the four impeachment inquiries in American history. What I’ve come to learn is that while they can impeach you for erasing the cold ink in a legal code somewhere, it’s a lot easier to get away with warm-blooded crimes against humanity. Unless you honestly believe that lying about consensual oral sex in a civil lawsuit is a worse offense than building a case for a war on a bed of lies and watching thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans die as a result.
The evidence is piling up that Trump’s political extortion ploy on Ukraine was bribery, an extreme abuse of power, and a violation of his sacred oath to protect the best interests of the United States. That alone merits his impeachment (which will happen), his removal (which probably won’t) and a harsh judgment from 2020 voters (when it doesn’t). But given the sweep of this president’s assault on both the Constitution and on human decency, it almost feels — and I’m hardly the first to write this — like busting the murderous Al Capone for income tax evasion.
Capone wasn’t charged with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Trump won’t be impeached for ripping toddlers away from their refugee mothers and fathers, or for locking tens of thousands of kids at the border in cages or squalid detention centers. Even worse, confirmation of something awful yet long suspected — that the man shaping U.S. immigration policy is a fairly unabashed white supremacist — barely caused a ripple.