Stephen Miller, when he was a senior adviser for policy in the Trump White House, had a problem. Whenever he would try to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, or separate migrant children from their parents, or halve the number of refugees admitted, or enact some other arbitrary cruelty, he had to worry that his efforts might get blocked or slowed down by a federal judge. “We wouldn’t get just one lawsuit in one court,” Miller told The Wall Street Journal last year. “We’d get six lawsuits in six courts.” The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump administration more than 400 times; current Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, when he was California’s attorney general, sued 110 times.
For a less fanatical person, such obstacles might prompt introspection. In Miller, they inspired a resolve to make President Joe Biden suffer as much as the ACLU, Becerra, and other public-interest law groups made Donald Trump (and Miller himself) suffer. So last year Miller joined forces with Gene Hamilton, a former official from Trump’s Homeland Security and Justice departments who oversaw the attempted phaseout of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, to create America First Legal (AFL). Miller is the group’s president.
Miller is not a lawyer, but then it isn’t obvious that AFL metric for success will be the number or magnitude of its legal victories. In the world of the hard right, “victory is not always measured in the outcome of a lawsuit,” explained Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter for the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked Miller for years. “It is also measured in the degree to which it unifies people around targets … within that murky blog-posting influencer world” where Trump supporters dwell.
In the White House, Miller emulated the Trictena atripalpis, an Australian ghost moth that can lay more than 29,000 eggs. He would push out as many outrageous anti-immigration policies as possible on the presumption that a sufficient number would hatch. Miller follows a similar strategy at AFL. “Let’s find the weakest points,” he told the Journal, “and legally attack them relentlessly and as often—and everywhere—that we possibly can.”
AFL aims to wage a wide-scale culture war against the left. The group has filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to document the extent to which Facebook and Twitter have consulted the Biden administration in weighing the accuracy of social media posts about Covid-19—a practice Miller calls “censorship.” It’s filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that corporate pledges by Lyft and Dick’s Sporting Goods to pay transportation costs for employees who travel out of state for abortions discriminate against pregnant women who carry their babies to term. It’s participated in a lawsuit against Loudoun County, Virginia, for imposing in public schools what AFL calls “a woke social, political, and psychological ideology and agenda” concerning gender and race. It’s filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit alleging that the very existence of a White House interagency working group on climate change somehow violates the Constitution.
And, of course, it’s shaken the tree on immigration. AFL has filed FOIA requests for documents concerning Biden’s policy of accelerating legal processing of immigration cases, which AFL characterizes as “amnesty.” It’s also asked for documents concerning alleged payments by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to nongovernmental organizations that “facilitate the distribution of smuggled and trafficked illegal aliens.” AFL has sued the Justice and Homeland Security departments over a regulation granting greater latitude to immigration officers, which AFL says would “result in the approval of countless meritless asylum claims.” And so on.
Even granting the judiciary’s steady march to the right—Trump installed 228 federal judges, or more than one-quarter of the total, and three Supreme Court justices—such hot-button legal maneuvers appear designed more to attract the attention of potential donors than to alter the course of U.S. jurisprudence. Last April, AFL issued a press release headlined “ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY: AFL REFLECTS ON FIRST YEAR ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” It didn’t specify a single one.
Actually, AFL has enjoyed a few victories. In May 2021, it secured an injunction on behalf of two restaurants that had been denied Covid relief grants from the Small Business Administration because preference was given to applicants on the basis of race and gender. One of the businesses, a Lost Cajun franchise restaurant in Keller, Texas, received $187,753 days later, but went out of business anyway.
AFL secured a similar injunction against minority preferences for debt forgiveness by the Agriculture Department. The plaintiff in that case was Sid Miller (no relation to Stephen), a white farmer who also happens to be Texas agriculture commissioner. (He had that job in 2015 when his Facebook page briefly shared an image of a mushroom cloud with the caption, “Japan has been at peace with the U.S. since August 9, 1945. It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world.”) Between 1995 and 2020, Sid Miller’s farm received about $176,000 in federal aid, according to a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group. As this story went to press, the case was still being litigated.
The 2021 year-end report of AFL’s parent organization, the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), cites a few additional victories, but these were mostly instances where AFL piggybacked on bigger legal players such as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton or the National Federation of Independent Business.
CPI is a conservative organization that hard-right former Senator Jim DeMint founded in 2017, two months after DeMint got bounced as Heritage Foundation president over what its board president called “significant and worsening management issues.” After the January 6 insurrection failed to prevent Biden from moving into the White House, CPI became a sort of Trump government-in-exile. Mark Meadows came onboard as “senior partner,” and within one year the group boosted its revenue from $7.3 million to $19.7 million. “They’re frauds,” an unnamed Republican strategist told Grid News in July. “They claim to be fiscal conservatives, but they’ve made a living off of generating conservative outrage in order to raise money for themselves.”
In addition to America First Legal, CPI last year spawned the Center for Renewing America, another culture-war group, headed by Russ Vought, former director of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, and the Election Integrity Network, chaired by Cleta Mitchell, who was on the famous phone call where Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to win the state. Jeff Clark, whom Trump briefly considered installing as attorney general because Clark believed the Chinese rigged the election through Nest thermostats, is a senior fellow at the Center for Renewing America.
Trumpworld is a secretive and mistrustful place, and within it, AFL is more secretive and mistrustful than most. Miller and Hamilton did not return my emails. Neither, after a polite initial reply (“what are you working on”), did Robert Donachie, AFL’s press contact. The address listed on the website is a UPS store; the apparent suite number, 231, is really a postbox number. The actual office is one block away. When I knocked on AFL’s office door late one Friday afternoon in August, nobody replied. To be fair, nobody might have replied at that hour at The New Republic’s office either, because Covid still had most staff working remotely. But I puzzled that habits were no different at an organization that so fiercely opposes Covid vaccine and mask mandates. (In May, AFL threatened to sue the Biden administration over its rejoining the World Health Organization, claiming it would “relinquish our sovereignty.”)
Even many people inside Trumpworld don’t know the first thing about America First Legal. Another MAGA group, America First Policy Institute, is better known because it hosted a Washington conference in July where Trump spoke. Former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro used the occasion to lambaste AFPI publicly as a nest of infidels. Reached by phone, Navarro assured me that AFPI is “a den of grifters and Never Trumpers that mean the boss harm.” But when I changed the subject to AFL, he said he knew nothing about it. Former Trump lawyers turned Never Trumpers Ty Cobb and Jerome Marcus told me the same.
AFL is required to file a Form 990 to the IRS that will provide some financial information, but the IRS is notoriously slow at making such forms available, and AFL’s isn’t public yet. The group’s application last year for nonprofit status said it was founded with a grant of $1.25 million, and suggested an additional $9 million in pledges for this year and next. But it didn’t say who supplied the initial funding (probably CPI) or where the additional money will come from.
Whether AFL will continue to exist the year after next is anybody’s guess. It may depend on whether Trump runs again for president. If he does, AFL and CPI could quickly empty out, confirming suspicions that they’ve been a holding pen all along for a MAGA reunion tour. Miller, who earlier this year was advising David McCormick in his bid to become Pennsylvania’s GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, reportedly turned on a dime in April when Trump endorsed the ultimate winner, Mehmet Oz. Miller immediately stopped working with McCormick’s campaign, according to The Daily Beast. He may change his plans in similarly abrupt fashion if Trump announces for president. Or, he might stay at AFL to rake in a larger paycheck and advise Trump from the sidelines.
Another Trump candidacy could render AFL obsolete. Another failed Trump candidacy could render it even more obsolete. Or perhaps not. Should the GOP remain committed to Trump policies and methods without Trump, the MAGA bomb-throwing that AFL is perfecting could remain useful. AFL and CPI could age and evolve into a new Washington conservative establishment if MAGA is here to stay—whether or not Trump himself remains electable after prosecutors and the January 6 select committee are done with him. I prefer not to think about that.