But today, the landmark deal on behalf of historically disadvantaged farmers is dead — successfully challenged in court by a fledgling conservative organization that argued the program racially discriminated against White farmers.
America First Legal is headed by Stephen Miller, the architect of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. While AFL lacks the name recognition and financial heft of many conservative counterparts, it has racked up notable court victories over the Biden administration. Casting itself as “the long-awaited answer to the ACLU,” AFL has weaponized the grievance politics embodied by Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement through dozens of federal lawsuits, challenging efforts to remedy racial disparities, support LGBTQ students and expand the pool of early voters.
AFL-backed suits helped doom a $29 billion program that prioritized struggling female and minority-owned restaurants last year, and last week, a council created by the Department of Education that conservative parents groups viewed as partisan. AFL has won in part by consistently filing lawsuits in a conservative-friendly judicial district in Texas and taking advantage of a larger federal court system revamped by Trump’s predominantly conservative nominees.
The group’s success is alarming civil rights advocates, who fear Miller has figured out how to harness the courts to protect America’s declining White majority and unravel government policies intended to right historical wrongs against marginalized communities.
“Many of these lawsuits are centered on making sure that White people remain in control and continue to benefit from unearned privileges, and on maintaining the systemic discriminatory policies that have harmed Black people and other people of color for generations,” said David Hinojosa, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “To argue that White men are being pushed to the back of the line is unfounded and ridiculous. What they’re being asked to do is share a place in line with other people who do not look like them.”
In an interview, Miller said AFL is filling a void in the conservative legal movement by challenging what he termed “a hyperracialization of American political and corporate life.” Programs seeking to remedy past injustices and boost historically disadvantaged groups are punishing people based on their skin color, he said.
“I believe that the equity agenda represents one of the single greatest threats to the survival of our constitutional system,” he said.
The group’s mission was fueled by more than $6.3 million in donations last year, recent tax filings show, including about $1.3 million from the Conservative Partnership Institute, whose leadership includes key figures in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. Steve Wynn, the casino magnate who resigned as finance chair of the Republican National Committee in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, is an AFL donor, according to two people familiar with the group’s work who were not authorized to speak publicly about its fundraising. Wynn, who has denied the allegations, declined to comment.
AFL is part of a constellation of groups led by Trump allies that represent an administration-in-waiting upon his potential return to the White House. AFL’s all-White, all-male board includes loyalists who recently trekked to Mar-a-Lago for Trump’s 2024 campaign announcement, including Miller, who helped write the speech, former Office of Management and Budget head Russell Vought and former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker. Miller, who is expected to work for the 2024 campaign, received $110,762 from AFL last year, about $134,000 from his Save America political committee since Trump left office, and is slated to be paid about $80,000 by the General Services Administration as part of Trump’s post-presidency funds, government documents show.
In the lead-up to the midterm election, AFL also bankrolled a multimillion dollar ad campaign that included inflammatory radio and TV spots demanding an end to “anti-white bigotry” and accusing the White House, businesses and universities of discriminating against White people.
Trump critics see AFL as the extension of a White House that frequently stoked racial division and a former president who last month dined at his Florida home with two well-known antisemites.
“The Trump administration didn’t care about people like me, it was for White men, and that’s what this group represents and is fighting for,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, which intervened in the AFL-backed lawsuit challenging the aid to minority farmers. “It’s continuing the legacy of divisiveness.”
Miller, though, argues that AFL is fighting against “bigotry and insanity.”
“I think that it is inescapably true that there is insidious and explicit discrimination against White Americans, Asian Americans, Indian Americans and Jewish Americans based on their skin color and their ancestry,” he said.
According to Trump advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, Miller stays in close touch with Trump, contributes to his speeches and gave significant input on his endorsements in the midterm election, where many Trump-backed candidates who rejected Biden’s 2020 victory and took other far-right positions were defeated. Miller repeatedly complained during the campaign that Republican candidates were not talking enough about culture war issues and immigration and focusing too heavily on an economic message, people who spoke to him said. America “is the apex of achievement of Western civilization,” Miller said, with “a heritage to be jealously guarded.”
Miller founded AFL in early 2021, as a newly elected President Biden issued a flurry of executive orders dismantling the former president’s nativist agenda. Miller was involved in policies fervidly challenged by civil rights groups that banned immigration from several Muslim-majority countries and separated immigrant children from their parents.
“During the four years of the Trump administration — especially in the arena of immigration — every single executive action, no matter how rigorously lawful, was subjected to a never-ending stream of activist litigation,” Miller said. “One of my goals when I left the administration was to try to help and inspire and coordinate a larger legal movement on the conservative side of the spectrum to do the same.”
AFL was among several groups incubated in the first year of the Biden administration by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a central hub of the GOP’s pro-Trump wing. CPI describes AFL as a “partner” on its website, and three AFL board members, including Mark Meadows, who served as a chief of staff to the former president, also have top CPI posts.
Neither of these tax-exempt groups is required to disclose its donors to the public, though federal campaign records show Trump’s political committee, Save America, donated $1 million to CPI last year. In its 2021 annual report, CPI called AFL “the sling that hardworking, patriotic Americans can use to fight back against the abusive Goliath of the Biden Administration’s Deep State.”
CPI’s revenue exploded last year to $45 million, up from about $7 million in 2020, according to its latest tax filing, obtained by Accountable.US and the Center for Media and Democracy. Its $1.3 million donation to AFL was the largest of eight grants that it made last year. Tax records also show AFL last year received $25,000 from DonorsTrust, a nonprofit that contributes to a number of right-wing causes, and $10,000 from Citizens for Self-Governance, which favors a convention of states to limit the power of the federal government.
Miller declined to answer questions about the group’s donors. “It’s best for your adversaries to have less rather than more information when they meet you in court,” he said.
A Washington Post review found at least four dozen AFL-backed lawsuits filed in federal courts around the country since April 2021, some of which have received little attention outside of right-wing media.
To attack Biden’s aid to disadvantaged, minority farmers, Miller’s group made a brash choice for lead plaintiff: Sid Miller, the Trump-endorsed agriculture commissioner of Texas, who has questioned Biden’s dire warnings about white supremacy and compared Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes in social media posts.
Sid Miller did not respond to interview requests. The lawsuit was later amended to include four White plaintiffs who, unlike Sid Miller, actually carried federal farming loans, according to court documents.
The suit argued that the debt relief approved by Congress was unconstitutional because it excluded “white ethnic groups that have unquestionably suffered ethnic prejudice,” referring to Irish, Italian, German and other European immigrants and Jews. Sid Miller is White, with primarily Scotch and Irish roots, but said in the lawsuit that he has 2 percent African American ancestry.
“Any person with a traceable amount of minority ancestry must be regarded as a member of a ‘socially disadvantaged group,’” the suit said.
Sid Miller earns a $140,938 annual salary as a statewide official. He reported owning about 145 acres of land, a nursery, landscaping business and a ranch, as well as stock in dozens of companies, according to public records. Known for his signature white cowboy hat, he was first elected agriculture commissioner in 2014 and previously served as a state lawmaker.
To Black farmers who say they have felt the sting of racial bias, making Sid Miller the face of the legal challenge was an insult.
“Here is this very powerful person in a huge state who instead of wanting to assist Black farmers filed a lawsuit to block aid?” asked Boyd, who farms soybeans and other crops in southern Virginia. “It’s really disheartening.”
Judge Reed O’Connor, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, ruled in July 2021 in favor of the White plaintiffs, the third of four federal court orders that summer against the program. Congress repealed the program in August.
Boyd and three other minority farmers represented by civil rights attorney Ben Crump sued the federal government two months later, alleging breach of contract by doing away with the debt relief program. That case is ongoing. Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres in the past century, which agricultural experts attribute in part to discrimination in government loan programs.
Three weeks after AFL challenged the aid to minority farmers, it turned to an even larger federal program: the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which gave women, minorities and veterans a head start to submit applications for nearly $29 billion in pandemic relief. The suit argued that the fund was likely to run out of money before White restaurant owners got a chance to apply and thus discriminated against them.
A federal court in Texas agreed in late May of 2021, as did an appeals court in Tennessee that reviewed a similar lawsuit. At the same time, Gregory León, the son of a Venezuelan immigrant and the owner of Amilinda restaurant in Milwaukee, received notice that he would receive $285,000 from the fund to help him get through the pandemic-related downturn. Just two weeks later, as León struggled to pay vendors, he was among about 3,000 restaurant owners who got another government letter: The fund had been quashed by litigation.
León said he seriously considered closing down.
“I know the pandemic didn’t care what your race was, but it definitely affected certain people harder than others. This country was built on the backs of immigrants,” he said. “I find it quite shocking that people like Stephen Miller don’t see that … The message is that if you’re not White you’re not welcome in this country and you do not deserve opportunity.”
AFL has notched some of its biggest successes in the Northern District of Texas, a popular venue for conservative plaintiffs because it includes divisions where one to three judges nominated by Republican presidents handle all civil cases. The lawsuits opposing federal aid for minority farmers and restaurant owners, among others, were all filed in that district.
Liberal organizations are also known for “forum shopping,” and frequently challenged Trump policies in the Northern District of California, where most judges were nominated by Democrats. But the small size of some divisions in the Northern District of Texas allows conservative plaintiffs to essentially handpick a particular judge by filing in certain courthouses.
That strategy was apparent in an AFL lawsuit filed in August 2021, which argued that the Affordable Care Act does not outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The case was filed in the Amarillo division, where Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump nominee whose anti-LGBTQ views set off alarms, is assigned all civil cases. In response to questions from U.S. senators in 2017 about those views, Kacsmaryk promised to impartially apply the law.
Last month, Kacsmaryk ruled in favor of the AFL-backed plaintiffs, including two Texas doctors unwilling to prescribe hormone therapy to transgender minors. The judge had previously certified the case as a class-action lawsuit, extending its impact on health-care providers nationwide.
“This is obviously a case that raises concerns about the most extreme form of judge shopping,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, counsel at Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights group. “This is also a case that ignores the reality and prevalence of health discrimination against the LGBTQ community in the health care context and the serious harm that causes.”
Miller called the ruling “epochal” and an “inflection point for what I believe is going to be the biggest legal battle for the next generation.”
The Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment.
Another ongoing AFL-backed lawsuit assigned to a judge nominated by Trump argues that the Texas A&M University’s hiring practices are unconstitutional “by giving discriminatory preferences to female or non-Asian minorities at the expense of white and Asian men,” leading to promotions for “inferior faculty.”
A Texas A&M spokesperson, Laylan Copelin, said the university is planning to recruit faculty whose research is focused on “underrepresented communities” but does not make hiring decisions based on gender or racial preferences that would hold back White or Asian men.
“It appears they were more interested in using Texas A&M to support their fundraising and publicity efforts, as opposed to addressing any actual misconduct,” Copelin said.
AFL partnered in this case and several others filed in Texas with the state’s former solicitor general, Jonathan Mitchell, who is credited with the novel legal strategy behind the state’s 2021 ban on most abortions after six weeks.
Most of the AFL-backed lawsuits are still pending and allege that federal agencies are withholding public records about a range of right-wing targets, including the prosecution of Jan. 6, 2021, rioters, censorship by Big Tech, the origin of the coronavirus pandemic and a laptop used by President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Many of the records requests echo allegations made by the far right and are treated as news stories by conservative media outlets. AFL has also demanded nearly every federal agency to produce documents related to Biden’s executive order promoting racial equity, which Miller has called “government sponsored and directed racism.”
In some of the requests, AFL claims “widely recognized status as a representative of the news media” to expedite its requests.
Federal court judges have ruled against AFL in lawsuits opposing admissions criteria to ensure racial diversity at Philadelphia magnet schools, a New York program that considered race in determining eligibility for covid-19 treatment, a vaccine mandate for civilian federal employees, and Biden’s removal of Sean Spicer, a White House press secretary under Trump, and Vought, an AFL board member, from the U.S. Naval Academy Board of Visitors. AFL is appealing most of those cases.
“They step forward,” Spicer said. “No one else on the right is doing what they are doing in terms of holding the administration accountable.”
As a nonprofit charity that receives tax-deductible contributions, AFL is precluded from participating in any activity that urges voters to support or oppose particular political candidates. Instead, the group spent on ads and mailers this fall that broadly attacked the Biden administration and the left wing in states with high-stakes races for governor and Senate.
The ads, which included misleading and false claims about Biden’s policies on racial and LGBTQ issues, were condemned by left-leaning civil rights groups. “They’re trying to create mass hysteria and fear,” said Joni Madison of the Human Rights Campaign.
AFL Vice President Gene Hamilton, who worked in Trump’s Justice and Homeland Security departments, defended the ads in a previous statement that speaks to the group’s broader mission.
“The Biden administration and left-wing officials in education, business, and governments across the country are imposing policies that systemically and routinely discriminate against American citizens based solely on the color of their skin. That is illegal,” he said. “Our advertisements make the point that racism is always wrong — regardless of who it is targeted against.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.