He hasn’t been parodied on “Saturday Night Live” or pictured on the cover of Time magazine. But Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old former congressional aide, has rapidly emerged as one of the more influential figures in President Donald Trump’s White House.
Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, works alongside his higher-profile counterpart Steve Bannon, the former head of the far-right Breitbart News. The president has affectionately dubbed the duo “my two Steves.” Some in the media have termed the pair the Breitbart wing of the White House.
Along with Bannon, Miller is credited with introducing Trump to a populist, nationalistic worldview that was previously relegated to the fringes of the conservative movement. It’s a role for which Miller has been preparing since he was a teenage conservative activist and first forged relationships with conservative thinkers. Those ties buoyed him through his tenure on the Hill and have now propelled him from relative obscurity into one of the most powerful positions in the country.
“I would not be surprised if Stephen [Miller] played a large role in crafting Trump’s platform,” said Robert Law, director of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a group that supports reducing immigration levels. “Every single component of it is basically what we have fought for, for a very long time.”
Miller worked closely with Law during his time as press secretary for Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, a fierce opponent of immigration.
Those closest to Miller describe him as preternaturally intelligent and hardworking. But outside Miller’s inner circle, his age, inexperience and unorthodox views have raised alarms about Trump’s tendency to value loyalty over Washington bona fides.
Immigrants on his mind
Miller was among the first Hill denizens to join the Trump campaign. In his slim-tailored black suits and skinny ties, he warned crowds of an influx of job-stealing immigrants at Trump’s rallies. He wrote Trump’s fiery, populist addresses at the Republican National Convention and the presidential inauguration. In recent weeks, he has attracted criticism for writing and rolling out the president’s temporary ban on refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Miller was blamed for pushing out the order without consulting key government agencies, including the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, resulting in chaotic scenes at airports across the country.
“You’ve got a very young person in the White House on a power trip,” said Joe Scarborough, a Republican, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
After that episode, The New York Times reported, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus introduced “a new set of checks” on Miller and Bannon’s power.
A White House press secretary did not respond to several requests to make Miller and others who work with him available for interviews.
Those who knew him on the Hill said they were not surprised at Miller’s new prominence. In a place populated by thousands of eager, young overachievers, Miller stood out, many of his former colleagues said.
He networked constantly. Then he took the extra step of following up with handwritten thank-you notes, a rarity for aides in the internet age.
He wandered the Senate hallways during votes to talk policy and pitch stories while other press secretaries mingled with each other.
He wrote copious press releases, firing them out throughout the day and sometimes during the night.
“The thing that stuck out about Stephen was how extremely smart and talented he was at such a young age,” said David Dziok, who worked with Miller in former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s office. “I thought, ‘This is a guy with tons of experience,’ when I met him. It turned out he was only 24 or 25 years old.”
But some aides who crossed paths with Miller were confused by such depictions.
A Republican who worked with Miller on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he remembered Miller as a “kid,” with no real responsibilities beyond dealing with the hard-line conservative media.
“My thought was … ‘Why doesn’t Sessions have a real, grown-up press secretary,’” the aide said.
One Democratic aide who worked with him said Miller came across as a typical, friendly Hill staffer until the subject of immigration was raised. Then Miller would appear angry.
“It was like flipping a switch,” the aide said. “He took on a completely different, very dark tone.”
In the spotlight
Miller was fresh out of college with no traditional political experience when he took his first job as a press secretary for $32,000 a year for Bachmann, a tea-party Republican. But he had plenty of practice drawing public attention.
He was what the Los Angeles Times called the “best-known and least-liked” conservative activist at his liberal Santa Monica high school.
Miller was turned on to politics before his freshman year through a subscription to Guns & Ammo magazine and the writings of National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the newspaper reported.
After the 9/11 attacks, he went on a crusade against what he later described on the conservative website FrontPage Magazine as “anti-Americanism [that] had spread over the school like a rash.” He argued against special treatment for immigrant students, the distribution of condoms at school, and what he saw as the school’s lack of respect for the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.
He befriended conservative radio host Larry Elder and called into the show to complain about episodes of liberal bias, prompting listeners from throughout the country to call or fax complaints to his school, the LA Times reported.
He also sparked a lasting relationship with David Horowitz, a conservative thinker whom he invited to speak at the school. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Horowitz “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements.”
Horowitz wrote a lengthy column on Breitbart.com last Tuesday about his friendship with Miller. “Even then, I was impressed by how articulate and smart this young man was,” he wrote. Horowitz said he provided recommendations to all three lawmakers who hired Miller on the Hill.
Miller continued his activism as a student at Duke University. He wrote columns for the school newspaper decrying political correctness and calling for stronger border controls, according to a recent account in the school paper — both issues that have emerged in Trump’s platform.
During the 2006 controversy surrounding the Duke lacrosse case, Miller got a national audience. He was among the few defenders of the three white players falsely accused of raping an African-American stripper at a team party.
For all his history of public combativeness, Miller’s former colleagues on the Hill said he was a team player. He worked for Bachmann from 2007 to 2009, then served as communications director for Arizona GOP Rep. John Shadegg, before landing in Session’s employ. For Sessions, he worked as a press secretary on the Senate Judiciary and Budget committees and, later, in Session’s office.
Helping the boss
Hill staffers are supposed to work in the background, allowing their bosses to take the public credit for their efforts, so it is often impossible to trace the work of a single aide. But co-workers from Bachmann’s office said Miller’s media savvy played an outsize role in the photogenic but gaffe-prone Minnesota congresswoman’s cannon shot to national prominence.
“I think he was a big reason she got on television to start with,” said Beau Rothschild, who was Bachmann’s legislative director. “He knew how to work the media.”
Miller rarely cracks a smile or inflects his voice while speaking in public, but his former colleagues say he had a dry sense of humor. He dispelled office tension by starting rubber-band wars — so many that when Bachmann moved offices, there were piles of rubber bands beneath the desks, Dziok said.
Sessions’ office did not return a request for comment. But Sessions praised Miller in Politico Magazine last June.
“When it comes to issues and messaging and policy, there isn’t anybody else that I’ve known that would be as valuable to a presidential campaign as he,” Sessions said. “Maybe other than Karl Rove.”
Miller has frequently been described as central to Sessions’ 2014 effort to torpedo the bipartisan Senate deal on a comprehensive immigration overhaul in the House.
It was an issue that Miller clearly cared passionately about. He worked closely with groups that advocated immigration restrictions to compile arguments against the “gang of eight” bill.
“With other press secretaries, you might get a release here or there,” said Law, of FAIR. “There has never been a comms person, or a media person, on the Hill I’ve interacted with that provided as much substantive material as Stephen did.”
Marguerite Telford, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies, said almost everyone working for her group had spoken with Miller.
“He is a big numbers guy and someone who wanted to know every facet of an issue,” she said. The Center for Immigration Studies is a think tank that pursues strict curbs on immigration.
During his time on the Hill, Miller was a frequent source for conservative publications, including Breitbart News. He worked closely with Bannon and his staff on “developing, messaging and strategy” to undermine the gang of eight bill, Miller told The Atlantic this month.
Aides from other offices who encountered Miller during this period, though, question whether he played such a central role in the gang of eight debates. Several noted that the immigration bill passed the Senate — where Miller was working — and was never scheduled for a vote in the House.
“It’s always foolish to give any person, particularly any staffer, too much credit,” one former Republican aide said.