Photo illustration by WG600*
It’s late on a friday afternoon in March, and I’m sitting across from Stephen Miller in his spacious, sunlit West Wing office, trying to figure out whether he’s trolling me.
This is no easy task. A provocateur as skilled as Miller doesn’t just announce when he’s saying something outlandish to get a rise out of you—he tries to make you think he means it. So you have to look for the subtle tells. The fleeting half-smirk when he refers to himself as a “conservative social-justice warrior” early in the conversation. The too-emphatic tone he takes later when he says the best movie he’s seen in the past 15 years is The Dark Knight Rises, and then chides you for not properly appreciating its commentary on the French Revolution.
“It takes on the issue of anarchy and social breakdown in a really interesting way,” he says of the Batman movie. “There’s a lot going on in the film that you, of all people, I’d have thought would be all over.”
I put that question to Miller, one way or another, repeatedly over the course of our meeting. He insists that he believes every word he says, and that he is not a fan of “provocation for its own sake.” But after some reflection, he admits that he has long found value in doing things that generate what he calls “constructive controversy—with the purpose of enlightenment.”
The conservative education of Stephen Miller began with a middle-school magazine drive.
He was in seventh grade, and, needing one more sale to qualify for a prize, he decided to buy himself a subscription to Guns & Ammo, which looked less boring than the alternatives. While flipping through the magazine one day, he came across a column written by Charlton Heston, the movie star turned gun-rights activist. It was, he recalled, “the first conservative writing I’d ever read.”
Growing up in the so-called People’s Republic of Santa Monica as the son of well-off Jewish Democrats—his father was a lawyer and real-estate investor, his mother a homemaker—Miller was uninitiated in conservative thought. But the magazine piqued his curiosity. Guns & Ammo led him to Wayne LaPierre’s book Guns, Crime, and Freedom, which he devoured, enraptured by the blunt force of the author’s prose. (“Clearly, the Warsaw ghetto stands in history as a shining example of the dangers of gun control.”) “I remember thinking to myself, If what I believe is true is so wrong on these issues … what else could I be wrong about?,” Miller told me.
When high-profile Republicans are asked to describe their early intellectual influences, they tend to name-check a lot of the same Serious Thinkers: Edmund Burke. Milton Friedman. Friedrich Hayek. Maybe Ayn Rand. Miller’s list is different. When I asked him which books had shaped his politics, he rattled off a procession of titles by screed artists and talk-radio personalities, including David Horowitz—the author of such works as Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes—and Larry Elder, who wrote The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America. What these books lacked in substance, they made up for in visceral appeal. “When I read Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be, it was like a page-turning thriller to me,” Miller recalled, fondly. “Every page was like some new revelation.”
But Miller’s youthful political reinvention was also a puckish reaction to his surroundings. In the beachside bubble of liberal affluence where he was raised, people saw themselves as proud citizens of a progressive utopia. There were festivals celebrating multiculturalism, and “racial-harmony retreats” for students. Yet there were also tensions around racial and class inequality. Jason Islas, a progressive activist who was friends with Miller when they were kids, says it was the kind of place where wealthy white liberals would “conspicuously celebrate diversity in very self-congratulatory ways”—and then avert their eyes from the problems in their own community.
Miller seemed to mold his new political identity with the express aim of needling these self-righteous neighbors. “I think it was a teenage rebellion against an upper-middle-class, liberal establishment that metastasized,” Islas told me. “The style of conservatism that he has could only have come out of a place like Santa Monica.” Yet there were also signs that Miller’s persona expressed something deeper. Shortly before they started high school, Islas recalled, Miller informed him that they couldn’t be friends anymore, citing Islas’s “Latino heritage” as one of several reasons.
On the evening of march 7, 2006, a scruffy-faced Miller stepped up to a podium in Duke’s Page Auditorium and retrieved a list from his breast pocket. “Making this event happen was not easy,” he began, in a grave tone. “We beseeched many departments, many institutions at Duke University, for funding. Many of them wanted nothing to do with us.”
Near the end of miller’s junior year, Duke drew national attention when a black woman accused three white lacrosse players at the school of raping her. Almost overnight, the campus became a battlefield. Protesters marched through the streets of Durham banging pots and pans and waving a banner that screamed castrate!! A group of 88 professors published an open letter declaring the case a “social disaster” that revealed their university’s systemic racism and misogyny. A cavalcade of news trucks surrounded the campus, and reporters swarmed.
For most students, the uproar was a nightmare. For Miller, it was an opportunity.
From his perch at The Chronicle, he took up the unpopular cause of the accused lacrosse players—crusading for their right to be presumed innocent, and casting them as victims of political correctness. He caught the attention of cable-news bookers and became a frequent guest on Fox News, playing the head-nodding yes-man to Bill O’Reilly’s cranky culture warrior. But he also turned up on shows that were less friendly to his position. During one particularly feisty interview with Nancy Grace, the host was so appalled by Miller that she was reduced to rolling her eyes and exclaiming, “Oh, good lord!”
This past february, thousands of right-wing activists descended on National Harbor, in Maryland, for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. A Millerian spirit of lib-baiting permeated the convention center’s exhibit hall, where young attendees in blue blazers and shift dresses roamed the premises collecting mischievous political swag. There were i ♥ co2buttons, and “safe spaces” coloring books (“Crayons not included, especially the white ones”). At one booth, a young man hawked socialism sucks T-shirts—Just imagine how people on your campus will react!—and at another, a woman in a Hillary Clinton mask and prison stripes posed for selfies with passersby.
Outside, I met a trio of young men in sport coats and asked them what they thought of Miller, who had helped write the speech Trump had given earlier in the day. One, a student from Hillsdale College, in Michigan, began enthusiastically recapping one of Miller’s greatest hits: his combative appearance at a White House press briefing in which he had berated a CNN reporter for “cosmopolitan bias” and schooled him on the true history behind the Statue of Liberty, before finally leaving the podium with a self-satisfied look. “I really admired that,” the student told me.
At a White House press briefing in August 2017, Miller accused a CNN reporter of “cosmopolitan bias.” (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
In the decade since Miller graduated from Duke, the kind of trolling he mastered there has come to dominate campus conservatism in America. Today’s archetypal college Republican is not a mini Mitt Romney with a copy of National Review tucked under his arm, but a red-capped rabble-rouser pranking the pious liberal students who fret that cafeteria sushi is a form of cultural appropriation or demand free tampons in both men’s and women’s bathrooms in the name of “menstrual equity.”
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Stephen Miller, enemy of the globalist elite, chose one of Washington’s poshest condo complexes to call home. For a man who has long seemed most comfortable surrounded by people who hate him, there must have been a certain appeal to CityCenterDC, where he bought a $1 million two-bedroom in 2014 (paid for, property records indicate, with the help of his parents). Not only did the sparkly glass complex in downtown Washington feature retailers like Gucci and Hermès and stylish restaurants like Momofuku, but it was also home to such establishment luminaries as Attorney General Eric Holder and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.
Since arriving in Washington, Miller had sanded off some of the rougher edges of his merry-prankster persona, refashioning himself as a serious ideologue. But he remained an agitator. Still in his 20s, Miller had become known on Capitol Hill as the chain-smoking, right-wing gadfly from Senator Jeff Sessions’s office who blasted out rambling emails to reporters and congressional aides at all hours on the dangers of illegal immigration. In 2013 he emerged as a devoted foot soldier in the populist right’s drive to kill a bipartisan immigration-reform bill—an effort that ultimately succeeded.
To the extent that Miller, a notorious workaholic, had a social life, it often involved getting together with reporters from Breitbart News, a reliable booster of his boss’s agenda. He grew especially close to Julia Hahn, an acid-penned writer and Steve Bannon protégé with whom he was sometimes seen at parties, engaging in private, intense-looking conversations away from the rest of the group. (Hahn would later follow Miller and Bannon to the White House, where she serves as a special assistant to the president.)
In this scene, Miller was not a misfit or a menace, but part of the vanguard of a growing conservative-populist movement.“People in that circle took him really seriously as an intellectual,” said a Republican Hill staffer who hung out with the group a handful of times in 2015. She recalled one get-together at which Miller asserted matter-of-factly that the Catholic Church was engaged in a conspiracy to financially benefit from the refugee crisis. The Hill staffer, a Catholic, was bewildered that no one else in the group was challenging him. “He just said it like it was fact, like it was indisputable,” she remembered—and when she asked him for evidence, he was “caught off guard.” For the rest of the evening, she said, “there was a different energy between us.”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin.
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
Trump uses the deceitful, poisonous snake to represent Syrian refugees and undocumented immigrants. It is objectively one of the most demagogic things he regularly says out loud (as an added bonus, it also works as a metaphor for Trump himself, something he seems to know and delight in). It is quintessentially Trumpian rhetoric: shocking, offensive, and destined to send his haters into paroxysms of outrage.
Early in the Trump presidency, Miller worked with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon to craft an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)
It also thrills Miller to no end. In his office, he spent several minutes describing to me—in meticulous, loving detail—how Trump conceived of this oratorical device himself; how, before certain speeches, he would announce to aides, “I’m gonna do ‘The Snake,’ ” which meant that Hope Hicks had to print off a fresh copy of the lyrics from her computer, where she kept them saved in a Word document for these special occasions; how Trump would go through each line and expertly “hand edit” the page, making tweaks “so that it works better as spoken word, or lands more dramatically in certain areas”; how the president’s crowds still show up to rallies hoping to hear him do “The Snake”; and how, on the days when he does, the opening lines are greeted as if they are “the first three chords of ‘Free Bird.’ ”
As Miller gushed, I realized that there was something familiar about this worshipful anecdote: He had shared it—several times—during his most infamous TV appearance. In January, Miller had been dispatched to CNN to refute reports that the president’s own staff was questioning his mental stability. But the interview, with Jake Tapper, devolved into a heated back-and-forth in which Miller repeatedly attacked the media and refused to engage with the host’s questions. The segment ended when an exasperated Tapper declared, “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time” and cut Miller’s mic. The clip went viral.
When I asked Miller about the appearance, he cast his eyes downward in a show of contrition. “You know, I’ve thought about it for a long time,” he said. “And I’ve decided that … if he ever offered it, I’d be willing to accept Jake Tapper’s apology.”
As a senior policy adviser to the president, Miller enjoys a position of uncommon influence for his age. In addition to running the speech-writing team and crafting Trump’s major addresses, he works closely with the communications office to shape the administration’s message, and he has a seat at the table in most areas of domestic policy. And yet—remarkably, given the divisiveness of his views—Miller has remained largely absent from news stories about intramural combat in the West Wing. While dozens of top officials have departed over the past 16 months, Miller has kept his head down and survived.
The lack of damaging leaks about him is partly a function of the fact that he is generally well liked among his close colleagues, who say he is more self-aware than his strident on-camera persona would suggest. “He knows the charges against him,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says, and he enjoys playfully nodding to his villainous image in interactions with co-workers.
Hogan Gidley, who works in the White House press office, told me he first bonded with Miller over their shared love of fashion. Describing Miller’s aesthetic as “policy chic,” he praised his friend’s collection of pocket squares and attentiveness to seasonal fabrics. When it comes to sartorial matters, Miller once told him, “springtime is my playground.” (Despite my numerous requests for details, Miller refused to tell me anything about where he bought his suits except to say that they were bespoke, and American-made.)
Miller’s allies say that his standing in the president’s orbit has remained so stable for another reason: He’s content to be a staffer instead of a star. “People have made him out to be some type of puppet master when nothing could be further from the truth,” Gidley said. “He executes what the president wants him to execute.”
I heard variations of this line from several people in the administration, and at first I was skeptical. Given his lifelong penchant for attention-getting provocation, could he truly be content playing the part of the obedient lieutenant? But as it turns out, Miller has found ways to channel his talent for trolling into the less visible work of government policy making.
When president trump needs to learn about an issue, he likes to stage his own cable-news-style shout-fests in the Oval Office. In lieu of primped pundits, he has to make do with White House staffers, but the basic concept is the same: Two people with conflicting points of view whacking away at each other as forcefully—and entertainingly—as possible. Trump seems to process information best in this format, according to people who have worked in the administration. Often, when the debate lacks a voice for a position the president wants to hear articulated, he will call Miller into the room and have him make the case.
Miller “can play both sides for the sake of the argument,” Gidley told me. “He can come in and play the staunch conservative or the Democrat, because he understands both.” What’s more, he often wins. “You can pull a debate-club argument out of a hat and Stephen can argue it convincingly,” a former administration official said. “It’s not that he knows everything in the world—it’s that he understands Trump. He’s been dealing with him a long time, and he understands how he inputs information.”
Miller told me that while there is sometimes a need for a devil’s advocate, he spends most of his time pushing for positions that he believes in. Indeed, a review of his record thus far leaves little doubt about the agenda he’s trying to advance, from more aggressive law enforcement to a conservative-nationalist economic policy. Notably, he’s emerged as one of the most strident immigration restrictionists in an administration known for such draconian measures as forcibly separating children from their parents at the border.
But Miller’s work in the White House has also borne the same trollish hallmark that defined his campus activism. One of his first acts on the job was to work with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon in crafting an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” They counted the anger on display as a political win.
Miller played a similarly disruptive role a year later, during congressional negotiations over immigration. While lawmakers scrambled to reach a compromise on legislation that would protect some 700,000 young undocumented immigrants who had come to the country as children, Miller was quietly hustling to block any deal that didn’t include major Democratic concessions, according to aides on both sides of the aisle.
When Miller found out one afternoon in January that Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were coming to the White House to pitch Trump on a bipartisan bill, he reportedly moved to stack the Oval Office with hawkish conservatives in hopes of swaying the president. By the time Graham and Durbin arrived, Trump was in an uncompromising mood: angry, dug in, and ranting about immigrants from “shithole countries.”
As Trump uttered those soon-to-leak words, which would poison the talks on Capitol Hill, Miller stood on the periphery. “He doesn’t have to command rooms to be effective,” one senior Democratic Senate aide said, “because he does his thing behind the scenes.”
Miller, of course, denies any suggestion that he would try to manipulate Trump. “My job is simple,” he told me. “The president has made clear what he wants to accomplish, and I’ll do the best I can to help that happen.” At the time we were talking, in late March, that still meant striving for a deal with congressional Democrats that would protect the so-called Dreamers from deportation—and Miller insisted he was working tirelessly toward that happy outcome.
But, alas, he told me in a tone of great disappointment, he had become convinced in recent weeks that Democrats would rather keep immigration as a political issue to campaign on than actually fix the problem. “They oppose anything that would actually prevent future waves of illegal immigration,” Miller explained. “It’s almost like they’ve adopted the position of immigration nihilism and anarchy.”
For what felt like the hundredth time that day, I found myself searching Miller for signs of trolling. His voice was steady; there was no smirk in sight. But his assertion was so inflammatory, so out there, so weighted down with words not normally uttered in the course of daily conversation—nihilism, anarchy—that I had to wonder: Does he actually believe this, or is he just fishing for a reaction?
In any case, these did not seem like the words of a man who was doing everything in his power to shepherd a bipartisan compromise on immigration to the president’s desk. So I wasn’t surprised when, a week later, on Easter morning, Trump announced that he was pulling the plug on a deal for Dreamers. “The Democrats blew it,” he told reporters on his way into a church in Palm Beach.
The pronouncement set off a wave of frenzied media coverage, with reactions from Capitol Hill, and analysis of what it could mean for the midterm elections, and stories of young immigrants bracing for the worst—their lives now more uncertain than ever. And though it didn’t make the headlines, the White House pool report from that weekend noted that among the president’s travel companions was one Stephen Miller.
* Opening photo credits: Courtesy of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District / The Chronicle / Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty / Pablo Martinez / AP / WG600 / The Atlantic…