Stephen Miller stood at the lectern in the White House press briefing room wearing his trademark skinny suit and tie and engaged in the kind of verbal combat he has been perfecting since high school.
Miller, 31, a policy adviser and speechwriter in the Trump White House, sparred with a CNN correspondent about legislation that would reduce legal immigration and require those immigrating to the U.S. to speak English. There was even a heated exchange about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty.
For those who knew Miller way back when, the exchange came as no surprise.
“Before he even addressed reporters about the immigration policy … I was like, that’s Stephen all over [President Trump’s prepared remarks]. You can hear it. You can just hear it,” says Nick Silverman, a writer in Los Angeles and former high school classmate of Miller’s.
“You can tell when it’s Stephen because he kind of paints this uber-nationalism with this kind of cinematic, almost flowery sparkle … you can just kind of tell when he has his handprints on a speech or in a statement because he was always into the glorification of ‘American culture,’ you know, whatever that is.”
While the briefing room scene went viral (even spawning a Pauly Shore parody video), it was hardly the first time Miller found himself in the spotlight. He first made a name for himself at Santa Monica High School — a large, liberal and ethnically diverse campus in Southern California.
His classmates describe Miller as an outspoken person who liked to push people’s buttons, challenging Latino students to speak English, arguing that school announcements should be in English only and saying people who disagreed with him weren’t patriotic.
Jason Islas, a local reporter in Santa Monica, Calif., and an activist, says he bonded with Miller in middle school over a shared affinity for all things Star Trek.
“He really was fascinated with Captain Kirk and that kind of alpha leadership persona,” Islas says.
They were close enough that Islas attended Miller’s bar mitzvah, but Islas says they lost touch the summer between eighth grade and high school. Once Islas finally made contact, Miller told him they couldn’t be friends.
“He gives me this sort of litany of reasons why he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore,” Islas says.
Islas says Miller listed many reasons for the friend breakup — most of them personal: Islas was too awkward, too short. But there was one reason that surprised him.
“The one thing that really sticks out in my memory was my Latino heritage,” Islas says.
It took Islas aback because in all the time he had known Miller, nothing had indicated he felt this way. In hindsight, Islas says that moment marked the beginning of Miller’s becoming, in his opinion, a provocateur.
“He was posturing himself as an anti-establishment figure in a world where the establishment celebrated diversity, inclusiveness and overall … the liberal values that, you know, he now makes a point of attacking all the time,” Islas says.
“I see where he is now as a teenage rebellion that metastasized into a kind of pernicious, illiberal, exclusionary ideology.”
NPR submitted a request to the White House to interview Miller, but after a query about the deadline, there were no more responses. White House spokespeople also didn’t respond to a series of questions about Miller’s earlier years and his specific duties in the administration.
Ari Rosmarin, the editor of the high school newspaper, says Miller got a thrill from being a conservative soldier behind enemy lines in progressive Santa Monica.
“Stephen made it his business at the school to be heard and be known,” says Rosmarin, now a civil rights lawyer with the Americans Civil Liberties Union.
“He was playing it out in the high school hallway, which I don’t think any of us had ever seen before.”
Miller was one of the few students who regularly submitted op-eds to the paper — so many that the newspaper couldn’t publish all of them.
In one op-ed headlined “A Time to Kill,” Miller wrote that he relished the thought of watching Osama bin Laden being riddled with bullets. “We have all heard how peaceful and benign the Islamic religion is, but no matter how many times you say that, it cannot change the fact that millions of radical Muslims would celebrate your death for the simple reason that you are Christian, Jewish, or American,” Miller wrote.
He disagreed with his fellow students who were concerned about the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and those who postulated that American policies could be to blame for anti-American sentiments. “Blaming America for the problems of countries whose citizens would rather spend time sewing blankets to cover women’s faces than improving quality of life is utterly ludicrous,” he wrote.
He would often come to the newspaper’s office to argue with the staff about what was written. Rosmarin calls Miller “theatrical” and says he went too far sometimes.
“For a lot of students, particularly Latino and immigrant students, it wasn’t funny,” Rosmarin says.
“He was aggressive. He was demeaning. He was condescending and was really challenging their place in the school to be there and the right to speak the language that they spoke. And, you know, that wasn’t funny.”
At one point, Miller came up to Rosmarin in the school hallway, unhappy with an op-ed Rosmarin penned in which he suggested that if people really wanted to be anti-war in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, they should stop driving SUVs.
“He ran up to me and he essentially ripped apart the button-up shirt and had a T-shirt with an American flag on it underneath and told me if I don’t like it here to go somewhere else. And that, you know, I’m anti-American and that sort of thing.”
Rosmarin was stunned but chalked it up to the fact that Miller, in his mind, was looking for the showmanship that moment created.
“In that way,” Rosmarin says, “he has a lot in common with his boss, in that, really king of some of these political stunts.”
Oscar de la Torre was a counselor at the school when Miller was a student. He now serves on the Santa Monica-Malibu school board.
“He seemed to feel that, you know, the growth of the country’s diversity was the downfall of the country. He really did believe that,” de la Torre says.
And that diversity was on prominent display at the high school. De la Torre was the chair of the campus committee for equity and equality in education. Miller joined that committee, but de la Torre thinks his aim was to sabotage it.
“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. He was very upset at everything and in particular anything that would help students of color or anything that addressed issues of racism. He would get really agitated about.”
Miller’s high school peers say he had a penchant for bold language and confident declarations. He rejected the idea of white privilege, would rattle off statistics about immigration and crime, and was big on the Second Amendment.
And while it didn’t help his popularity in high school, it won him a fan in conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who is African-American.
After Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Miller was fighting with school officials to have the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily, something he found out the school was required to do but hadn’t been.
Miller wrote a letter to Elder, who thought the issue was interesting and invited Miller on his show.
“He was amazing,” Elder says. “He just blew everybody away. He was articulate. He was funny. He was passionate.”
Miller became a show regular, appearing on the nationally syndicated program some 70 times.
Elder was wowed by the high school student’s interest in the Constitution, federalism and immigration policy — a fully formed conservative ideology at an age when Elder says most guys would still be reading comic books. And he bristles at the idea that the young man he mentored would be called racist.
“What Stephen is opposed to is identity politics, race-based politics — the idea that there ought to be some sort of special rules for women, for gays, for blacks, for Hispanics, lowering standards in order to achieve some sort of pre-engineered racial diversity,” Elder says.
“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 liberal intolerance, in my opinion.”
Miller continued the fight through college at Duke University, where he once again proved his media chops, making appearances on Fox and Friends and HLN’s Nancy Grace to discuss political correctness, free speech and terrorism.
“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,” Miller said on Fox and Friends in 2007.
Most significantly, Miller became a leading voice on cable, talking about the Duke lacrosse case, which was big news nationwide in 2006.
Miller spoke up for the white lacrosse players who had been falsely accused of rape by a black woman. The charges were ultimately dropped.
After graduation, Miller went to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a series of conservative lawmakers. He eventually ascended to communications director for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is now attorney general in the Trump administration.
Andrew Logan worked closely with Miller in Sessions’ office and called Miller a bit of an alchemist, pulling together the senator’s ideas and research from legislative analysts to create a product that was “greater than the sum of its parts.”
“I think one of the reasons why he was able to so quickly gain the trust of Jeff Sessions was that he had that ability to understand exactly what the desire was, what the intended outcome was and then come up with something that was on point and ultimately very persuasive,” Logan says.
Miller was a key player in helping Sessions sink bipartisan legislation intended to reshape the American immigration system. Miller helped compile a booklet of arguments and statistics aimed at persuading House Republicans not to support the bill that had passed the Senate. According to Logan, Miller would stay up late sending detailed emails to reporters covering immigration.
The bill never passed the House.
Logan disagrees with claims that Miller is an attention seeker, saying that in his professional life, Miller hasn’t been one to seek the spotlight.
Logan points to the immigration debate in 2013 as an example, saying you may find news stories written about spokesmen for other lawmakers, but not about Miller.
“We felt … it was not our job to be the story. And I think Stephen fit into that role naturally and certainly never tried to … put himself in the spotlight,” says Logan.
Miller’s mentor, Elder, agrees.
“I think he recognizes that if he is the star, if he is the story, then he’s not serving the best interest of the boss,” Elder says.
And now his boss is the president of the United States.
Few people interviewed by NPR are surprised that Miller with his determination and work ethic found success.
“What surprises me is that these views that he’s held for 15 years now, that he’s found a foothold with them within an administration, with a president, with a branch of the government,” says Silverman, one of Miller’s high school classmates.
“That’s what’s surprising. I always thought that his thoughts and stuff were too extreme to ever really be put into practice.”
On that, Silverman now knows he was wrong, like so many who predicted Donald Trump could never be president.
One of Miller’s high school editorials ended with this line: “As for those who question patriotism, I can only say that there are more people who agree with me than with you.”