Trump’s other Steve: Stephen Miller’s rocket ride to power in the White House

Did you see the photograph released earlier this month of Donald Trump glowering at the camera from behind a secluded, scholarly Mar-a-Lago reception desk as he rests the fat tip of his Sharpie on a legal pad tilted upward to conceal the words that are, or are not, there?

If you did, and if the image convinced you that Trump was, in fact, writing his own inaugural address, as he claimed, we have some bad news for you: Trump did not write his inaugural address.

Instead, the speech was written by a skinny, balding, previously obscure 31-year-old former Capitol Hill aide named Stephen Miller.

Normally this information would be of little importance to anyone outside the Beltway. Presidents have been outsourcing their speechwriting duties since James Madison and Alexander Hamilton helped George Washington compose his farewell address in the late 1700s, and modern presidents — including Barack Obama, who is considered more literary than most — typically employ whole teams of writers to put words in their mouths.

But speeches aren’t the only things Miller is writing for Trump. According to a recent Politico report, Miller — now Trump’s senior White House adviser for policy — is also penning the president’s executive orders, including the divisive ban on immigrants and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries that triggered worldwide chaos over the weekend.

What’s more, Miller — along with former Breitbart CEO turned chief Trump strategist Steve Bannon — is writing these unilateral decrees without consulting lawyers from the affected agencies or lawmakers on Capitol Hill, “stoking fears,” as Politico put it, that “the White House is creating the appearance of real momentum with flawed orders that might be unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.”

Questioned Monday evening on MSNBC about the decision by acting Attorney General Sally Yates not to defend the entry ban, Miller responded piously: “It’s sad that our politics has come so politicized.”

This is new territory.

And so now, given that Stephen Miller is, for all intents and purposes, rewriting the laws of the United States of America — even though Miller is not a lawyer, or an elected official, or even particularly experienced in governance — it’s probably worth knowing a little more about him.

Stephen Miller at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Bangor, Maine. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Stephen Miller at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Bangor, Maine. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Here’s a quick primer.

Miller reached out to Trump shortly after the Manhattan mogul announced his presidential run in June 2015; he officially joined the Trump campaign as a senior adviser in January 2016. He soon became Trump’s top policy guy and sole speechwriter. (Trump famously improvised most of his campaign speeches.)

How did Miller crack Trump’s inner circle? Likely by reminding Trump of himself. It’s not just that the two men both subscribe to a far-right, anti-immigration, anti-free-trade nationalism. It’s that they are both inveterate self-promoters — provocateurs skilled at attracting attention, building their brands and gratifying their own egos by courting controversy.

Miller started his gadfly act early. Raised in a Jewish and Democratic family in the toniest section of ultraliberal Santa Monica, Calif., he was inspired — in part by a copy of National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s 1994 book, “Guns, Crime, and Freedom” and in part by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 — to reject his parents’ politics while still in high school, “resolv[ing] to challenge the campus indoctrination machine” instead.

Young and aggressive, Miller saw leftist, peacenik, multicultural conspiracies everywhere. He railed against his school’s Spanish-language announcements, claiming that such concessions only served to hold Hispanics back. “Latino students recall Miller telling them dismissively that they would do better to work on their English language skills rather than spend their time forming clubs based on ethnicity,” the Los Angeles Times recently reported. “Some called him racist.”

Miller went on to complain, in a column titled “Political Correctness Out of Control,” about the availability of condoms on the Santa Monica High School campus. He took issue with the administration’s acceptance of gays and lesbians, later writing that “just in case your son or daughter decides at their tender age that they are gay, we have a club … that will gladly help foster their homosexuality.” He griped that his fellow students weren’t being required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or to learn how heroic their predecessors were. Maybe American soldiers shouldn’t have killed Indians? Miller asked, sarcastically. “Or, better yet,” he continued, “we could have lived with the Indians, learning how to finger paint and make tepees, excusing their scalping of frontiersmen as part of their culture.”

“For many people, the things [Miller] would say and do were offensive heresies,” Ari Rosmarin, former editor of the school newspaper and now a New York attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Los Angeles Times. “He loved playing that role, loved drawing people’s outrage. He loved the performance.”

“He would take the opposing position and almost shock people,” said one acquaintance. “He would sort of chuckle and enjoy that.”

Miller also realized early on that Santa Monica High School was too small a stage for him. So, as Politico’s Julia Ioffe has pointed out, Miller didn’t just invite button-pushing Southern California arch-conservative David Horowitz to speak on campus; he immediately claimed that the administration had denied his request, then documented the injustice in Horowitz’s publication, FrontPage Magazine. While still a teenager, Miller reached out to conservative talk radio personality Larry Elder, becoming a regular guest on Elder’s show and inspiring listeners from around the country to call the Santa Monica High switchboard to complain about liberal bias run amok. Shortly after graduation, Miller published a column titled “How I Changed My Left-Wing High School.”

“Stephen Miller, 17 years old, just graduated from Santa Monica High School,” read his bio at the bottom. “Since his Junior year in High School, he has been a guest on local and national radio over thirty times.”

Miller continued to provoke — and promote his own provocations — at Duke University. His microphone was a biweekly column in the Duke newspaper called “Miller Time,” which Miller used as “a way to court angry reaction and put himself at the center of major campus controversies,” according to Ioffe:

He wrote that interacting with the population outside the campus was overrated. “Durham isn’t a petting zoo,” he chided. “The residents won’t get lonely or irritable if we don’t play with them.” He was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq and called Ted Kennedy a “traitor” for criticizing American use of torture. He went after professors for being registered Democrats. He blamed 9/11 on “politically correct domestic security” and unenforced immigration laws. He wrote about black students’ racial “paranoia” and their mistaken understanding of where true racism resides. The problem is not rich, conservative white people, he wrote. It’s “Democrats [who] continue to fuel the destructive vision of a powerful, racist white oppressor from which they need to protect black voters in order to keep their lock on that vote.” He wrote that “worshipping at the altar of multiculturalism” undermines American culture and ignores the fact “we have shared with the world the cultural value of individualism and liberty, a value rooted in our unique and glorious history of settlers, pioneers and frontiersman [sic].” Although he identified himself as “a practicing Jew,” he lamented the “War on Christmas,” saying “you’d probably find more Christmas decorations at your local mosque.” Maya Angelou, in Miller’s mind, was “a leftist” full of “racial paranoia” who shouldn’t be allowed to give the opening address at the start of the school year. In a column called “Sorry, Feminists,” he wrote that the gender pay gap was actually because of women working fewer hours and choosing lower-paying professions. “Women already have equal rights in this country,” he wrote. “Sorry, feminists. Hate to break this good news to you.” (“It’s not chauvinism,” he signed off. “It’s chivalry.”)

Miller “very much knew the impact of his work, and he planned and plotted,” a fellow Duke Chronicle alumnus told Politico. “He was very businesslike about it. … It smacked of architecture, like he intentionally provoked people, and it worked for him because he was making a name for himself.”

Stephen Miller departs after attending meetings with President Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Stephen Miller departs after attending meetings with President Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

According to Richard Spencer, the white nationalist alt-right founder, he and Miller met each other and clicked as members of the Duke Conservative Union (DCU). In October, Spencer told Mother Jones that “Miller helped him with fundraising and promotion for an on-campus debate on immigration policy that Spencer organized in 2007 featuring influential white nationalist Peter Brimelow.” Another former member of the DCU confirmed to Mother Jones that Miller and Spencer worked together on the event. At meetings of the Conservative Union, Miller “denounced multiculturalism and expressed concerns that immigrants from non-European countries were not assimilating,” a former DCU president told the magazine.

“It’s funny no one’s picked up on the Stephen Miller connection,” Spencer said. “I knew him very well when I was at Duke. But I am kind of glad no one’s talked about this because I don’t want to harm Trump.”

(“I have absolutely no relationship with Mr. Spencer,” Miller wrote in an email to Mother Jones. “I completely repudiate his views, and his claims are 100 percent false.”)

After appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” and on “Nancy Grace” to defend the white Duke lacrosse players who were falsely accused in 2006 of raping a black stripper — “Being a white, male lacrosse player was all it took,” he wrote at the time — Miller went to Washington. He first worked as a press secretary for Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann and John Shadegg before landing with Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions in 2009. (Horowitz recommended Miller for the job.) Miller soon became Sessions’ right-hand man, “providing,” as Tucker Carlson told Politico, “the intellectual architecture for a [nationalist] insurgency against the Republican Party.”

“When I was in Sessions’ office, this movement for nation-state populism, the intellectual framework for that was being formed,” Miller explained in the same story, noting that he fought to kill the Gang of Eight immigration bill in 2013. “A big part of my day was being in touch with the people who were the key players in that. … We saw ourselves as a kind of think tank for immigration issues and linking that to the larger questions of globalism and populism.”

Always the media-savvy operator, Miller developed a symbiotic relationship with Bannon’s Breitbart — “the platform for the alt-right,” as Bannon himself once put it. Miller fed the site scoops; the site promoted Miller’s media appearances. “Stephen Miller is a jewel,” Bannon said in June, before signing on with Trump. “We try to get as many of his TV things as we can. Some of them have been epic.”

On the Trump campaign, Miller transferred his talents to the stump, often serving as the candidate’s warm-up act. “Everybody who stands against Donald Trump are the people who have been running the country into the ground, who have been controlling the levers of power,” Miller would shout. “They’re the people who are responsible for our open borders, for our shrinking middle class, for our terrible trade deals. Everything that is wrong with this country today, the people who are opposed to Donald Trump are responsible for!” No other speechwriter has ever taken on such a role at rallies. It was yet another example of how much influence someone can amass, in Trump World, if the boss decides he likes you.

Now that Bannon and Miller are ensconced in the West Wing — Trump lovingly refers to them as “my two Steves” — their influence seems limitless. For instance, Bannon and Miller not only devised Trump’s controversial travel ban; Miller in particular spent Saturday directing how it would be implemented, overruling Homeland Security officials and insisting, according to reports, that green card holders would also be barred from entering the country unless granted waivers on a case-by-case basis. On the same day, Miller “effectively ran the National Security Council principals meeting” — an unprecedented move. In terms of policy, Miller — who knows his way around Capitol Hill and remains close to Sessions, Trump’s attorney general nominee — is probably even better positioned than Bannon to steer Trump in his desired direction, even though he’s a less familiar boogeyman among liberals.

“You could not get where we are today with this movement if it didn’t have a center of gravity that was intellectually coherent,” Bannon himself said in June. “Stephen Miller was at the cutting edge of that.”

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