Trump Aide Stephen Miller's Combative Style Goes Back To High School

Aug 11, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 5:14 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A relatively low-key White House adviser and speechwriter had a moment in the White House briefing room recently. Here's Stephen Miller pushing back at a reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN MILLER: I am shocked at your statement, that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. This actually - it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tamara Keith has more on the 31-year-old outlier who has become a White House insider.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Stephen Miller got his start waging battle in the classrooms and hallways of Santa Monica High School, a large, liberal and ethnically diverse campus in southern California.

ARI ROSMARIN: You know, Stephen made it his business at the school to be heard and be known. He was outspoken and a provocateur in every sense of the word.

KEITH: Ari Rosmarin was editor of the high school newspaper. Rosmarin says Miller seemed to get a thrill from being a conservative soldier behind enemy lines, challenging Latino students to speak English, arguing school announcements should be in English only, and saying people who disagreed with him weren't patriotic. At one point, as Rosmarin tells it, Miller, who often wore button-up shirts and even suits with pocket squares, approached him in the hall.

ROSMARIN: He ran up to me and, you know, essentially, like, ripped apart the button-up shirt and had a T-shirt with an American flag on it underneath and told me to - if I don't like it here to go somewhere else. And, you know, that I'm not - you know, anti-American and (laughter) that sort of thing. And I was stunned.

KEITH: Miller was raised in a Jewish home. And for at least part of his childhood, his parents were Democrats. Oscar de la Torre was a counselor at the school when Miller was a student. Now he serves on the Santa Monica-Malibu school board.

OSCAR DE LA TORRE: He seemed to feel that the growth of the country's diversity was the downfall of the country. I mean, he really did believe that.

KEITH: De la Torre chaired a campus committee focused on equity and equality in education. Miller joined the committee, though de la Torre thinks his aim was to sabotage it.

DE LA TORRE: Here we had this young man who was jaded. He sounded like he was, you know, some 50-something-year-old man who was just angry at the world. You know, he was very upset at everything. And in particular, anything that addressed issues of racism, like, he would get really agitated about.

KEITH: The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story. People who knew him in high school say Miller had a penchant for bold language and confident declarations. He rejected the idea that white privilege exists, would rattle off statistics about immigration and crime, and was big on the Second Amendment. And while it didn't help his popularity at Santa Monica High School, it won him a fan in conservative talk show host Larry Elder. After 9/11, Miller wrote a letter to Elder about his fight with school officials to have the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily.

LARRY ELDER: I thought it was a very interesting issue. I invited him on the show. And he was amazing. He just blew everybody away. He was articulate. He was funny. He was passionate.

KEITH: And he became a regular, appearing on Elder's nationally syndicated radio show some 70 times. Elder was wowed by this high school kid's interest in the Constitution, federalism and immigration policy, a fully formed conservative ideology at an age Elder says most guys would still be reading comic books. And Elder bristles at the idea that the young man he mentored would be called racist.

ELDER: What Stephen as opposed to is identity politics, race-based politics, lowering standards in order to achieve some sort of pre-engineered racial diversity. That's the kind of thing that drove him crazy. To call him a bigot just because he doesn't believe that racism is as big a deal as other people do, to call him a bigot because he believes that the borders ought to be secured - that's just, you know, liberal intolerance in my opinion.

KEITH: Miller's fight against liberal intolerance continued right through college at Duke University, where he became a cable TV staple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: You know, the people on the far left, they claim to be about free speech and expression. But as soon as you put something out there that offends them, all of a sudden, no, free speech out the window.

KEITH: In 2006, he spoke up for the white lacrosse players who had been accused of rape by a black woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: There was never any real evidence against these players. The DNA didn't match on any count, in any way, in any capacity this entire time. You have absolutely no reason to believe these players committed this crime. One of the players...

KEITH: The charges were ultimately dropped. After graduation, Miller went to Capitol Hill, eventually landing as communications director for Alabama senator, now attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Miller was a key player in helping Sessions sink bipartisan legislation to reshape the American immigration system.

ANDREW LOGAN: You have to remember in the beginning this was a very lonely effort.

KEITH: Andrew Logan worked closely with Miller in Sessions' office. One of the things they did was compile a booklet aimed at convincing House Republicans not to support the bill that had passed the Senate.

LOGAN: We printed off hard copies. And we walked it around to each of their offices all over Capitol Hill. That was - I think was sort of a culmination of our efforts.

KEITH: Logan marveled at Miller's determination and work ethic, staying up late to send long emails to immigration beat reporters. But unlike in high school and college, Logan says Miller was happy to have his boss, Senator Sessions, be the front man.

LOGAN: I think he was sort of a bit like an alchemist. Miller is very good at distilling his boss's vision into a persuasive product.

KEITH: And now his boss is the president of the United States. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK LIVELLA AND ADRIAN B'S "WITH YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.