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Stephen Miller steps into spotlight amid chaos in 'zombie' White House press shop

Yahoo! News logo Yahoo! News 12/30/2018 Hunter Walker
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a door: Trump adviser Stephen Miller. (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters) © Provided by Oath Inc. Trump adviser Stephen Miller. (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, the White House has been shaken by an ongoing government shutdown, tumbling markets and the abrupt departure of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. With few allies left in the White House and a press office in disarray, President Trump has increasingly turned to Stephen Miller, one of the key architects of his hard-line immigration policies, to be the public face of his administration.

Miller had remained behind the scenes much of the last year, but earlier this month he stepped into the spotlight for a rare pair of television appearances that has left Trump allies with concerns about the state of the White House communications operation. Three of them shared their perspectives with Yahoo News.

On Dec. 16,  Miller went on CBS’ “Face The Nation” to declare that Trump was “absolutely” willing to shut down the government if his demand for $5 billion to fund a border wall was not met. Four days later, Miller got into a shouting match with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as he argued for the wall. These appearances drew shocked reactions due to Miller’s high volume, extreme positions and combative tone.

The controversy could have been predicted. Miller similarly raised eyebrows the last time he blazed across the media landscape in 2017, and was rarely seen in the public eye afterwards.

Trump’s reliance on Miller comes as the White House press operation has been rocked by reports of impending high-profile departures. These rumors have come as the president’s spokespeople have retreated from view as weeks have gone without on-the-record briefings. Since Dec. 19, Trump’s communications team hasn’t even accomplished its most basic task: distributing guidance detailing the president’s public schedule.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News about the lack of briefings, guidance and Miller’s growing public profile. Former members of the Trump administration were far more forthcoming, though they requested anonymity in order to frankly detail their concerns.

Several former officials who spoke to Yahoo News said Miller’s reemergence as a public face of the White House was a public relations catastrophe.

“If you’re a comms person, you don’t want to have him out there because every time he goes out, it’s an absolute disaster,” one former West Wing staffer told Yahoo News.

Another former White House official echoed that sentiment.

“Miller is so awful on TV, it’s counterproductive to put him on,” the ex-official said.

A former member of Trump’s transition team told Yahoo News they believed Miller came to the fore because other officials are unenthusiastic about the hard-line immigration policies Miller pushed the president to adopt.

While Trump launched his presidential campaign with blistering attacks on illegal immigration, Miller has been the mastermind who designed policies to target migrants. He was a major force pushing for Trump’s travel ban aimed at Muslim countries and the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border.

“Nobody wants to defend Stephen’s positions, so they stick his ass out there,” the ex-transition team member said. “Stephen’s in the background telling everyone, ‘Max pressure, max pressure,’ and saying those things are feasible. Everyone who’s actually worked in policy is like, That can’t work, go defend it yourself.”

Miller did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News about concerns surrounding his public appearances.

Even before Miller took the lead in urging the shutdown over border wall funding, many of the policies most closely associated with him have been lightning rods. The so-called Muslim travel ban and the child separation policy both sparked widespread protests and legal challenges.

The former member of Trump’s transition team said Miller managed to survive in spite of these “strategic mistakes” because his ideas appeal to the president.

“The boss likes him,” the former transition member said of Miller. “He’s certainly not judged on his policy successes;  all he has is failures. … He shows deference and he makes these outrageous policy suggestions.”

Watching Miller represent the Trump administration during an especially tense stretch this past month left some Trump allies convinced the White House messaging operation has gone haywire. These concerns have been fueled by dramatic staff turnover and continuing rumors of more imminent departures from the White House press office.

Indeed, just as Miller has stepped into the spotlight, some of the regular White House spokespeople have disappeared from view. Press secretary Sarah Sanders and Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah have both seen their public roles diminish since June when reports first emerged they were planning to depart the West Wing.

a group of people standing next to a man wearing a suit and tie: White Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah is questioned by members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP) © Provided by Oath Inc. White Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah is questioned by members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Sanders, one of the most visible White House faces, is now conducting briefings about once a month rather than a few times a week as was customary in previous administrations and earlier in Trump’s tenure. Her retreat from the briefing room has coincided with a growing chorus of reports saying she is plotting an exit.

Yahoo News reached out to Sanders to ask about the criticism of the White House press operation and rumors of her impending exit. She answered with an email saying she’s “traveling” and asked for specific questions and details about this story. Sanders did not respond after receiving a list of queries.

Shah, one of the only other spokespeople who has led multiple briefings, is also missing in action. In July, Shah was tapped to work on communications for the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh. By September, Yahoo News reported Shah had told multiple associates he planned to leave his post after Kavanaugh was seated. One of the sources familiar with Shah’s plans said his “calculus” included the assumption Sanders also planned to leave the White House.

Shah did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News. While Shah has stayed mum about his situation, he has removed his “principal deputy press secretary” title from his bio on Twitter.

According to the former member of the transition team, Shah is “still on payroll” at the White House, “but he doesn’t have an office, he doesn’t have a phone.” The source said Sanders and Shah are both actively trying to leave the White House and have struggled to find new jobs.

Sanders interviewed with various companies and “everybody’s told her no. Sarah can’t find work. … Raj can’t find work either,” said the former transition team member.

The former White House official also said Sanders and Shah have had issues finding new positions. According to the ex-official, the reputation the pair have earned as “serial liars” hurt their prospects for private sector work.

“What company would want to hire them?” the former official asked.

Both the ex-official and the second former White House staffer said they heard Shah would be off the White House payroll after the year ends. While the staffer said Shah was pursuing a job on Trump’s campaign, the other former official predicted Shah would not be offered a position there.

Trump has already had five different communications directors. The former White House staffer also pointed to some lower profile departures and said they had a clear impact. The Trump administration has shed at least four assistant press secretaries resulting in vacancies and hasty promotions in a position the ex-staffer described as vital for “playing triage.”

You have a situation where stories that could have been small are now blowing up and just causing huge crises and controversies,” the former staffer said.

Bill Shine, who became Trump’s fifth communications director in July, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

The ex-staffer also suggested the White House had devoted insufficient resources to developing a team to publicly advocate for the administration and building relationships with television networks. They attributed some of the reluctance to engage with media to fear that followed a crackdown on leaks that occurred after a spate of negative stories earlier in the Trump administration.

This concern about unauthorized press engagement resulted in a situation where people were only communicating with reporters anonymously — and critically.

“There’s this fear factor with this whole leaking thing,” the ex-staffer said. “Now, no one talks to the press except to leak.”

The other former official agreed that the White House communications operation was understaffed, and suggested it would have a hard time finding new talent.

“No professional in good standing will even interview for a job.” The former White House official said, adding, “It’s a zombie comms shop. Night of the living dead.”

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