Last Man Standing: The Immigration Insurgent Who Survived the Trump White House

October 22, 2019
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Stephen Miller, White House senior advisor for policy, speaks to members of the media outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2019. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Stephen Miller is sustained by the tears of his enemies. Or at least that was the running joke at Duke University’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, where as an undergraduate Miller wrote a polarizing bi-weekly column.

“No amount of crying, cajoling, being upset, yelling, screaming would make him feel bad about what he was doing,” Elliott Wolf, a fellow student columnist, told FRONTLINE. “Pushing back on Stephen is never a successful exercise.”

Wolf recognizes the same defiance whenever he sees his former colleague on national television. Now one of President Donald Trump’s top aides, Miller, 34, is credited with shaping the administration’s harshest immigration plans, including the travel ban and the zero tolerance policy that separated families at the border. FRONTLINE dives deep into the current administration’s immigration practices, and Miller’s role in them, in Zero Tolerance.

But more than a decade before he would shape critical White House policy, Miller was a university firebrand. Wolf remembers Miller cutting a slim figure on campus in dark suits, skinny ties and pocket squares. The two met in 2005, at a newspaper orientation event, and occasionally shared late-night grub. Well past midnight, Miller would wander into the local 24-hour diner — a popular hangout for the newspaper staff — impeccably dressed, with an appetite for disagreement.

“Usually, we were attempting to do work, and then Stephen would come in, and then we’d have a conversation and an omelet,” Wolf said. “And we would be out until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning talking.”

The conversation invariably veered toward what was then one of Miller’s pet causes: academic freedom for conservative thinkers on campus. He was president of the Duke chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, which focused on correcting a perceived left-wing bias in higher education. His debut column, “Welcome to Leftist University,” bemoaned the imbalance between Democratic and Republican faculty members, which he said forced conservative students to “make a cruel choice between being open about their beliefs and getting a fair shot at an A.”

Miller also invited his mentor, conservative writer David Horowitz, to speak on campus. The event provoked outcry by both students and faculty, which included professors named and shamed in Horowitz’s book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.

Horowitz first encountered Miller as a student at Santa Monica High School. Then 18, Miller had already cultivated a reputation as a conservative contrarian in his liberal California community. The unlikely right-wing wunderkind appeared regularly on The Larry Elder Show, expounding issues such as his high school’s failure to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily.

“We hit it off,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz was impressed by the teen, who he said was “jeopardizing all his chances, all his opportunities, because he was antagonizing his left-wing teachers,” he told FRONTLINE.

At Duke University, Miller’s profile catapulted to national prominence when a scandal engulfed the school’s lacrosse team.

In 2006, three players stood accused of raping a black woman hired to strip for the predominantly white lacrosse team at an off-campus party. Duke University and its surrounding community of Durham, North Carolina, erupted as the sordid details hooked media attention. Duke suspended the team and fired its coach.

Miller latched on. He dedicated several columns to the Duke lacrosse case, arguing that the “racial left” — by his own definition, people whose “worldview is dependent upon that belief that America is a racially oppressive society” — unfairly demonized the three white lacrosse players. “The racial left claimed the lacrosse players got preferential treatment because they were white,” he wrote. “In reality, their skin color appeared to earn them something very different — a witchhunt [sic].”

His commentary caught the attention of cable news networks. Miller famously berated legal commentator Nancy Grace on her own show for rushing to judge the lacrosse team. In the thick of the scandal, he also joined Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.

Wolf, his fellow columnist, said he declined similar cable news requests, though he admired Miller for sailing headlong into the media storm. Miller appeared to leverage the situation to “rile up people he didn’t like,” Wolf said.

Ultimately, North Carolina’s attorney general dropped the charges against all three lacrosse players, based on DNA evidence. The players reached an undisclosed settlement with Duke University.*

“A lot of people yelled and screamed at him at the beginning,” Wolf said. “I very much imagine it was an ego boost to any 21-year-old having had that kind of patience and then ultimately being proven correct.”

Miller penned his last column for The Chronicle in April 2007, shortly before graduating. Still riding fame garnered from the Duke lacrosse scandal, the 22-year-old moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a press secretary for Michele Bachman and later for John Shadegg, both members of Congress at the time. On Horowitz’s recommendation, Miller was eventually hired by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a leading immigration critic, and was quickly promoted to communications director.

On Capitol Hill, as in high school and college, Miller remained a political outsider — “a gadfly,” according to Washington Post journalist Robert Costa. He remembers Miller, in the early years of his career, as “a shadow around Jeff Sessions,” a quiet presence who said little but became notorious for writing lengthy emails to reporters.

“It would come into your inbox surrounded by other press releases from different senators that would be one or two sentences or a paragraph long,” Costa said. “Stephen Miller wrote screeds, screeds about immigration, and he was not taken seriously by most reporters.”

The New York Times’ congressional editor, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, describes Miller as brash, offensive, “a really interesting figure” who commands both disgust and admiration. Her book Border Wars opens on a meeting that catalyzed his trajectory to the White House six years ago at Steve Bannon’s Washington home, the center of operations for his right-wing site Breitbart.

There, in 2013, Bannon told FRONTLINE he met with Sessions and “a young guy named Stephen Miller” for a strategy meeting after a string of unexpected Republican congressional defeats. Bannon said he realized the party’s best hope was not to recruit new voters, but to mobilize people who already supported the conservative agenda. Over dinner and drinks, the three men agreed immigration would hit a nerve with the working class, already sore from a collapsing factory job market, and drive its members to the polls in support of candidates who are tough on immigration.

“The one and two issues will be immigration and trade,” Bannon told FRONTLINE.

They had a playbook. Now they needed a candidate. “And that guy a couple years later turned out to be Donald Trump,” Bannon said.

When that moment came, Miller joined Trump’s presidential campaign early, eventually becoming a speechwriter for the candidate. He also appeared as Trump’s warm-up act, inciting crowds on immigration and trade. At a campaign stop in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in October 2016, Miller invoked his ancestors. His great-grandparents’ generation, the Glossers, had launched a once-successful family business in the town. Miller lamented that the community had since suffered a recession, ruining his family’s business. He promised Trump as the remedy.

Members of Miller’s family still live in Johnstown, including his maternal uncle David Glosser. When he heard the speech, Glosser said he cringed, convinced his father — a first-generation American — wouldn’t have wanted his family tied to an anti-immigration campaign.

“Stephen is not the descendant of English lords, you know,” Glosser said. “He is the descendant of impoverished, persecuted peasant Jews living under horrible circumstances.”

A month later, Trump won the presidency. He crowned Miller as a top aide, advising immigration policy under the new administration. Bannon, too, claimed his place next to Trump — though he was fired less than a year later over the president’s growing dissatisfaction about his backchannels to the media. Similarly, Sessions, who rose to attorney general under Trump, was forced to resign late last year after clashing with the president over the Justice Department inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Davis says she’s surprised Miller hasn’t fallen from grace, too, as immigration policies like the travel ban unfolded as “public embarrassments.” She interviewed Miller in the midst of outrage against family separation, fueled by an emotive recording of children crying in a detention center. She expected Miller to spin his comments, to soften his stance. Instead, he adamantly defended the administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

“Very quickly it became clear that that was not what he was about,” Davis said. “He was calm. He wasn’t ranting. But he was very, as he usually is, he was very confident in and defiant about sort of the rationale for this policy.”

Miller has lately receded from the spotlight, appearing less often on television. Though he has previously talked to journalists about his path to Washington, the White House did not make Miller available to FRONTLINE for comment.

He remains at Trump’s side as the 2020 presidential campaign warms up, the last of the three men who met in 2013 at the so-called Breitbart Embassy, where he talked long into the night about the future of immigration in America. Six years later, Miller’s position depends on minimizing his reputation as a chief strategist, Costa said.

“He’s ingratiating. He knows how Trump operates. He knows he can never be the star,” Costa said. “And as others fall and leave the administration … Miller stays; he survives.”

And the president has openly praised Miller for his work, though Trump asserted earlier this year that his 34-year-old aide does not dictate the administration’s immigration agenda.

“Stephen is an excellent guy. He’s a wonderful person,” Trump told reporters in April. “He’s been with me from the beginning. He’s a brilliant man. And frankly, there’s only one person that’s running it. You know who that is? It’s me.”

This story was sourced using FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project. We’ve created new ways for our audiences to search, experience and share the in-depth interviews that we use to make our films. You can explore the 38 interviews used in the making of Zero Tolerance in an interactive archive that includes all the quotes from the film in their original context, plus hours of insights, analysis and stories not included in the final cut.

[*Correction 10/24/19: This story previously inaccurately described the cost of the players’ settlement. It has since been updated.] 

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