White House senior adviser Stephen Miller smiled as he volunteered to “take one actual last question” at Wednesday’s press briefing, before press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders returned to the podium. He probably wishes he’d gone ahead and ceded the floor.
Seven minutes later, Miller found himself apologizing to CNN’s Jim Acosta over the fiery, bizarre, combative and confusing exchange that had just ended. The dialogue culminated in the senior White House aide lobbing insults at a member of the White House press corps, prompting Acosta to note that he’d just been called "ignorant" on television.
The explosive episode occurred as Miller took questions from reporters on a bill endorsed Wednesday by President Donald Trump that seeks to cut legal immigration to the United States in half. The policy would favor would-be immigrants with advanced skills, education and mastery of English.
Miller dismissed questions about the Trump Organization’s hiring of foreign workers and sparred with a reporter who asked what research backed up the policy proposal. But it was Acosta, who’d had testy exchanges with other White House officials at the same podium, whose questions raised the tension in the room.
Acosta, the last reporter called on, recited a portion of “The New Colossus,” a poem that was engraved onto the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet “doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer,” Acosta said. “Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you’re telling them you have to speak English? Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?”
Miller replied that speaking English is part of the U.S. naturalization process, and he said the poem Acosta referenced is “not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty” but was added later.
Miller’s defense, Acosta said, “sounds like some National Park revisionism."
"The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country, and they’re not always going to speak English, Stephen," said Acosta, who said his own father immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1962. "They’re not always going to be highly skilled.”
“Jim, I appreciate your speech,” Miller shot back. “Tell me what years meet Jim Acosta’s definition of the Statue of Liberty poem law of the land?” Miller demanded, his voice rising.
It wasn’t immediately clear what the “Statue of Liberty poem law of the land” was, but the jab-trading continued. Acosta said Miller’s comments seemed to diverge from "what the United States has been about," and Miller said the CNN reporter’s ideas were "shockingly a-historical." When Acosta mentioned Trump’s proposed wall at the Mexican border, Miller took umbrage.
“Surely, Jim, you don’t actually think that a wall affects green card policy? You couldn’t possibly believe that, do you?” Miller asked. “I want to be serious, Jim. Do you really at CNN not know the difference between green card policy and illegal immigration? You really don’t know that?”
Acosta returned to the policy’s preference for English speakers, saying many immigrants learn the language later in life. "Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?” he asked.
“Jim, I can honestly say I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English,” Miller responded. "Actually, it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree."
But he took the strongest offense when Acosta said the proposed policy appeared to be an effort to "engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country.”
“Jim, that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you’ve ever said…the notion that you think that this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting,” Miller said. (Acosta contended that he never said the legislation was racist.)
“Insinuations like Jim made, trying to ascribe nefarious motives to a compassionate immigration measure designed to help newcomers and current arrivals alike, is wrong,” Miller said.
Finally, things began to wrap up, but the reckoning continued.
“You called me ignorant on national television,” Acosta recalled.
“I apologize, Jim, if things got heated, but you did make some pretty rough insinuations,” Miller said.
He stepped aside for Sanders to take questions on other topics, but he got in one last remark to the assembled reporters: “I think that went exactly as planned.”
“Thank you,” Sanders said when she regained command of the podium. “That was exciting.”