It’s Stephen Miller TimeHas President Donald Trump found his Roy Cohn?
The pressure was building, and Donald Trump didn’t like it one bit. It was the spring of 2017, and the still-new president was growing ever angrier as waves of investigations washed over him.
“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump blurted out in frustration. Where was the whip-smart adviser who would be consummately loyal, utterly crafty, and at least as willing as Trump to do whatever it took to win? In policy, politics and even in personality, Trump has his Roy Cohn: Stephen Miller.
The president’s 34-year-old speechwriter and senior policy adviser—a position held by the likes of Ted Sorensen and Peggy Noonan—wields influence that extends well beyond his job titles. Miller is the primary architect of Trump’s signature policies on immigration, including the executive order that banned people from seven Muslim countries and the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration. He shaped the sprawling initiatives aimed at deporting undocumented people, lowering the number of refugees to near zero, and redefining who gets to immigrate legally. And as President Trump’s speechwriter, he is the author of many of the president’s most memorable—and most inflammatory—phrases: “I alone can fix it,” from Trump’s Republican Convention acceptance speech; “This American carnage stops right here, and stops right now” from the inaugural address, and a series of statements in recent weeks declaring the House’s impeachment inquiry to be a product of “the deep state.”
Three years into the Trump presidency, Miller is this administration’s ultimate survivor—the rare unrelated high-level, high-profile Trump adviser who has managed to sublimate his lifelong love of the limelight to serve a president who grows suspicious of aides when they get credit for the administration’s work. Like Cohn in his day, Miller has mastered the art of working mainly behind the scenes, yet emerging at strategic moments to take flak for Trump and serve as a vital and sometimes vicious rhetorical attack dog. During the 2016 campaign, Miller often served as the warm-up act at Trump rallies—his job was to deliver red meat, and he developed a routine that worked crowds into a frenzy of anticipation for the main event. Since Trump took office, Miller’s role has shifted more into the background, but he still appears regularly on TV as a fervent defender of the president, especially when the administration is under fire, and not just on immigration matters. In the first days after the House launched its impeachment inquiry into Trump, the president relied on Miller to go on TV and push back as Trump would himself—with heated, take-no-prisoners rhetoric, adhering to the first rule Roy Cohn taught a very young Trump in Manhattan in the 1970s: “If you’re hit, hit back a hundred times harder.” So there was Miller on Fox News, calling Trump the “real whistleblower” and blasting the intelligence official who revealed Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine’s president as “a saboteur trying to undermine a democratically elected government.”
In the new documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn?, which portrays Cohn as the original, essential sculptor of the public character Americans have come to know as Donald Trump, Cohn speaks in a decades-old interview: “I very early in my life broke with tradition and left my Jewish upper class-oriented life in New York and became a contradiction of everything I was supposed to stand for. I am myself an oddball in a lot of ways.” Miller so far has shied away from that kind of self-analysis, but many of those who have watched him develop into a flame-throwing advocate for a loud, nationalistic populism have reached similar conclusions about him: Like Cohn, Miller provides Trump with a savvy counselor who encourages his most pugilistic, provocative and populist instincts. And like Cohn, Miller goes for the jugular; he is quick, loyal, ruthless.
Like Cohn and like Trump himself, Miller has spent much of his life as an outsider, rejected and often disrespected by those around him. As a high school and college conservative phenomenon and later at work on Capitol Hill and at the White House, Miller has been, like Trump, a contrarian and a sometime prankster. Unlike many of those who have served in Trump’s inner circle, Miller is also ideologically driven—a quality that Trump, who changed his party affiliation six times before running for president as a Republican, has long viewed with suspicion. But stylistically, Miller and his boss are similar—the bombast, the provocation, the passion to project strength. Yet they are quite different as well. Where the president casually tosses playful (if cruel) insults, Miller scowls and snaps. When Fox News’s Chris Wallace in July played Miller a series of Trump’s most controversial remarks about Muslims and white supremacists and asked why Americans shouldn’t consider the comments racist, Miller replied that “The term ‘racist’ has become a label that is too often deployed by the left, Democrats in this country, simply to try to silence and punish and suppress people they disagree with, speech that they don’t want to hear.”
While Trump is excruciatingly sensitive to slights and insults, Miller relishes being seen as a dark, Machiavellian figure—much as Cohn did. Miller, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, has repeatedly denied that he’s merely out to provoke. He has said that he aims, rather, at “constructive controversy, with the purpose of enlightenment.”
Miller’s value to the president is almost unsurpassed in a White House where few people escape without a taste of Trump’s public needling or insults. “We have this running joke,” White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said early in the administration: “If we were going to get key man’s insurance”—a policy businesses buy to protect their most vital employee—“on anyone, Stephen would top the list.”
David Horowitz, the conservative activist and former leftist, has been Miller’s mentor since he was in high school. “Here’s a guy who’s loyal, brilliant, a great speechwriter and incredibly knowledgeable,” Horowitz says. “He’s the perfect complement to Trump and unlike the [Anthony] Scaramuccis of the world, the president can trust him.”
Both those who delight in the president’s norm-busting ways and those who are appalled by his ability to erode democratic traditions have latched onto Miller’s rhetoric as one of the most powerful and shocking weapons of Trumpism. In February 2017, after a federal judge struck down the initial version of the travel ban, Miller went on CBS’s Face the Nation to warn that “our opponents, the media and the whole world, will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” (“Great job!” the president tweeted in response.)
Among the appalled is Miller’s maternal uncle, David Glosser, a neuropsychologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. “What my odious nephew says about immigrants is word for word what was said about Jews coming into this country,” says Glosser. “He’s got to know where that stuff leads. He has to know those guys in Charlottesville would happily drag their feet over his lame body.”
Like Trump, Miller comes from a family that arrived during America’s biggest wave of immigration, around the turn of the 20th century. The Glossers, Stephen’s family on his mother’s side, come from a place called Antopol, a shtetl in current-day Belarus where violent anti-Jewish pogroms sparked an exodus to America. The Glossers, like the Millers, Stephen’s forerunners on his father’s side, who also arrived from the Pale of Settlement, flourished in the new land. The Millers and Glossers became retailers and lawyers and doctors. They bought real estate, joined their local synagogues and became leaders of their communities’ efforts to help the next generations of immigrants.
David Glosser, whose sister, Miriam, is Stephen’s mother, is keeper of the family lore. He knows that back in the old country, his great-grandfather Wolf-Lieb Glotzer lived in a one-room house with a dirt-floor kitchen, that his grandfather Sam lost an eye in the violence of a pogrom, and that his great-grandmother Bessie arrived in the United States speaking only Yiddish. He knows the story of how the Glossers came to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where they peddled dry goods to farmers and eventually transformed their business into Glosser Brothers, once the region’s leading department store, an operation that employed thousands and was listed on the American Stock Exchange. And Glosser knows the history of his family’s pro-immigration and civil rights activism, including the fact that in his great-grandfather’s will, the very first bequest, ahead of any provision for his family, was to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“We were hard-core Roosevelt Democrats,” Glosser says, “living in a place where Jews couldn’t get jobs in the steel mills or the banks. You couldn’t join the swim club, so our family decided to build a swimming pool that anybody could join. Our family made no-interest loans to newcomers. At one point, my father was president of the synagogue and on the board of Catholic Charities.” That tradition in the family, juxtaposed against Miller’s fiery rhetoric on immigration, has led some of Miller’s relatives to declare him an “immigration hypocrite,” a denier of his own family’s heritage. David Glosser knows his nephew is aware of his family’s immigrant history and political tradition. “He’s not an uneducated guy,” he says. Stephen knows that if the United States had built a wall in the early 20th century “against poor desperate immigrants of a different religion, all of us would have gone up the crematoria chimneys with the other six million kinsmen whom we can never know.”
Stephen’s parents, Miriam and Michael, originally followed in their families’ liberal footsteps: As late as 1989, both of them made donations to Democrat Bill Bradley’s Senate campaign in New Jersey, as well as to other Democrats, according to campaign finance records collected on opensecrets.org. But Miriam, who worked with troubled teenagers after she got a degree in social work from Columbia University, and Michael, a Stanford-trained attorney who practiced corporate and real estate law in California, pivoted toward a more conservative politics as Stephen and his older sister, Alexis, and younger brother, Jacob, grew up. (Both siblings are now lawyers at big firms.) Michael and Miriam, who did not respond to requests for comment, run a rental housing business in the Los Angeles area that controls about 2,500 apartments, mostly under the brand name California Villages. The couple “felt overtaxed and overregulated by crazy California liberals,” Glosser says.
Like the president’s father, Fred Trump, Michael Miller has a larger-than-life presence. He relishes political discussion; in Glosser’s view, he is “very arrogantly self-confident and uniquely able to ignore facts that contradict his opinions.” During Stephen’s teenage years, the Millers began donating to Republican candidates and conservative causes, with thousands of dollars contributed to Republicans such as then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and presidential candidate John McCain, as well as large gifts to the Republican National Committee. The Millers were also involved in Jewish organizations, including the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Michael served on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
It’s not clear that the Millers passed their politics on to their children; instead, it appears, it was Stephen who helped move his parents to the right. Neither of the elder Millers was ever “a rhetorical bomb-thrower,” says Glosser. “My sister knows the family history. I’ve never heard a racist word from either of Stephen’s parents.” Two of Stephen’s schoolmates from Santa Monica say that it was his advocacy that nudged his parents rightward. And Glosser says he saw Miriam, his only sibling, move more definitively to the right after Stephen joined the president’s campaign at the start of 2016.
At some point in the last couple of years, bashing Miller became something of a trend, reaching its nadir when his third-grade teacher, Nikki Fiske, told The Hollywood Reporter that eight-year-old Stephen “would pour glue on his arm, let it dry, peel it off and then eat it. He was a strange dude.” In response to that revelation, the Santa Monica school district placed Fiske on “home assignment” for a few days, saying she had violated rules about “release of student information.”
The last time Glosser talked politics with his nephew, Stephen was a recent college graduate who was adamant that gun control was a bad idea. Glosser put him to a test of ascending danger: Would Stephen be okay with his uncle owning a 12-gauge shotgun? Sure. An Uzi? Yes. A Howitzer? That too. “When I escalated to an Atomic Annie, which could fire an atomic bomb, his father rescued him from the conversation,” Glosser recalls.
In recent years, Glosser says, relatives have steered clear of bringing up politics with Stephen. “It can be a little uncomfortable,” he says. Other topics are off limits as well. “A couple of Thanksgivings ago, somebody asked him if he was dating anyone and he said, vociferously, ‘There’s to be no discussion of my personal life.’”
At Santa Monica High School, Miller’s big moment came in 2002, during his junior year, when he delivered a controversial speech at a student government election rally. “I’m the only candidate up here who really stands out,” he said. “I will say and I will do things that no one else in their right mind would say or do.” And then he asked, “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?” Miller delivered the line in an angry roar and looked satisfied as his classmates reacted in horror. Then, when two adults escorted him from the stage, he laughed.
Kids at Santa Monica High knew to expect the outrageous from Stephen. He had crafted an identity as a political provocateur—a rare right-winger in a very liberal place who delighted in outraging his classmates. In his earlier school years, Stephen had been known more for his obsession with all things Star Trek than for any political passion. But according to Chris Moritz, a close friend of Miller’s from middle school through high school and head of the high school’s Political Forum Club, Miller shifted in seventh grade from being a Democrat like his parents to a sharply conservative middle schooler.
“I like to think I had a big influence over that,” Moritz said in a film made by his classmates during their senior year. Moritz introduced Stephen to books by libertarian economists Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell.
The janitors remark was just Stephen being Stephen, Moritz has said: “He was just joking…Most people are so uptight, and they don’t realize the humor in some of the things he says.”
Miller later claimed that the speech was “satire.” Although many students did not take the speech as a joke, Miller was widely known as a class funnyman. He joked about his hair loss and about dumb pop songs, but also about how best to torture Saddam Hussein.
Miller has looked back at his teen self and said he sees a nonconformist reacting to an almost monolithically liberal school and city. “When we think of nonconformity, we tend to imagine kids in the 1960s rebelling against the system,” Miller told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “This was my system. My establishment was a dogmatic educational system that often uniformly expressed a single point of view.” Or, as he put it in an interview in The Atlantic last year: “I’ve always been a nonconformist…And in today’s culture, the nonconformists are conservatives.”
Miller traces his political awakening not to Moritz but to a book by the National Rifle Association’s longtime leader, Wayne LaPierre. In middle school, he took part in a magazine subscription drive; to win a prize, he needed one more subscription, so he bought himself Guns & Ammo magazine, where he read a piece by then-NRA spokesman and Hollywood actor Charlton Heston. Miller later recalled the column as “the first conservative writing I’d ever read.”
That story led him to LaPierre’s Guns, Crime and Freedom, a New York Times best-seller that argued that “the Warsaw ghetto stands in history as a shining example of the dangers of gun control.” The book inspired Miller to read more about libertarianism and the idea that America’s success was the result of a near-absolute commitment to individual freedoms. Miller became a strong defender of the Second Amendment; according to The New York Times he even introduced himself to fellow freshmen at Duke by saying, “My name is Stephen Miller, I am from Los Angeles and I like guns.”
Miller’s new political ideology quickly put him at odds with most of his high school classmates, especially on matters of diversity and race. He adopted the idea that the best path to a cure for “the disease of racism” was to “stress the one culture that we all hold in common—the American culture.” Writing for a local newspaper soon after he finished high school, Miller said that “if we are to entirely extract this venom of prejudice from the United States, I proclaim Americanism to be the key.” The emphasis on multiculturalism that he’d experienced in school was entirely the wrong approach, he wrote, because it kept people apart rather than uniting them in a focus on “why our ancestors came here.” His belief that the United States is threatened by immigrants solidified early on. In his high school yearbook, he included on his senior page a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt: “There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are American and nothing else.”
Miller’s parents, according to friends and relatives, took pride in his growing notoriety. “Michael was proud as a peacock,” Glosser says. But throughout his teen years, Miller’s classmates and teachers wrestled with the fact that they were often appalled and annoyed by things he said, even as they realized that their reaction was precisely what Stephen aimed to provoke. He was without doubt a talented speaker, they say, but he seemed to lack empathy for those around him. “We certainly tried to teach him what’s right and what’s wrong,” says Rabbi Jeff Marx of the Santa Monica Synagogue, a Reform congregation the Millers belonged to when Stephen was in high school. The Millers were “absolutely committed Jews, supportive of the congregation, good values,” says Marx, who taught Stephen in confirmation class and recalls him as “never shy about speaking up” and often taking “the opposite tack. What stood out for me about Stephen was that he stood out. He relished that role.”
The Millers’ previous rabbi, Neil Comess-Daniels, then and now the leader of Congregation Beth Shir Shalom, a Reform temple where Stephen celebrated his bar mitzvah, does not recall Stephen as a child, but has said in sermons and interviews that Miller’s work is “completely antithetical to the values of Judaism. We’re supposed to see the world through these glasses of moving from slavery to freedom, and somehow I think Mr. Miller took those glasses off.”
What some saw as acting out, others viewed as principled opposition to the status quo. A teacher who had Stephen as a student in middle school says, “Stephen’s narrative is very much the principled thinker who was appalled at the liberal pieties of the People’s Republic of Santa Monica. That’s true, but it’s not the full story. The full story starts with attention-getting. His father was a huge personality, really dominated the room, and this was Stephen’s way of gaining a place for himself in that room.”
Miller was a rabble rouser, but he also did his homework. When he launched a campaign to get Santa Monica High to require recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the school’s principal credited Miller with forcing a change that, while unpopular with some teachers and students, was actually required by California law.
It was the pledge controversy that first brought Miller to national prominence. He wrote to his favorite radio talk-show host, Larry Elder, then a conservative fixture on KABC-AM in Los Angeles, about the school’s violation. Elder had him on the air once, twice and eventually more than 70 times. On the show, Stephen slammed his school for being an “indoctrination machine,” accused a teacher of dragging an American flag on the floor, and railed against the multiculturalism that the school celebrated.
Listening to Elder’s show at home on the day Miller came on to talk about the pledge was David Horowitz, the former Marxist radical who had migrated across the ideological spectrum to organize a nationwide campaign against the left’s dominance on college campuses. Horowitz, himself a firebrand speaker and self-styled provocateur, invited Stephen to his house to talk about the scourge of “political correctness.”
“We talked and we saw eye to eye,” Horowitz says. “I thought, this is some ballsy kid. He could get into any elite college, but he’s willing to jeopardize that to defend his principles. He invited me to speak at Santa Monica High and he kept at it for eight months before he could get permission for me to come.”
Horowitz views Miller as a freedom fighter: “Comes 9/11, a patriotic moment, and schools are saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but at Santa Monica High, they trample the flag. Stephen Miller stays true to the values he was brought up with. He was like Gary Cooper in High Noon—he stood alone.”
Horowitz became Stephen’s mentor, advising him how to make a mark in high school, college and beyond. After heading east to attend Duke in 2003, Miller created the campus chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, Horowitz’s network aimed at exposing left-wing influence on college campuses. Horowitz continued to egg him on, encouraging him to press for equal time for conservatives at campus events and to expose what he saw as efforts by liberal professors to indoctrinate students. He and Miller both saw so-called identity politics as a threat to American unity and both viewed themselves as “the real liberals—for individual freedom, against identity politics, which is racist,” Horowitz says. “The reason Stephen was attracted to me is because, although my parents were card-carrying members of the Communist Party and his were just Adlai Stevenson Democrats, we both feel betrayed by the left.” Miller again invited Horowitz to speak, and in 2007, the two created “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” events on campuses around the country, taking out ads in college newspapers warning against jihadist extremists and the threat of terrorism. Many college papers refused to run the ad, saying it was Islamophobic and inflammatory.
At Duke, the other main sponsor of the campaign against “political correctness” was a graduate student, Richard Spencer, who would go on to become a prominent white nationalist, calling for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the United States. Spencer has said that Miller first came to his attention through his columns in Duke’s student paper. In 2006, when nationwide controversy erupted over allegations that three white members of the lacrosse team had raped a black stripper at an off-campus party, Miller was a rare voice defending the players from a rush to judgment. His willingness to stand by them despite campus-
wide assumptions that they had to be guilty won him a nearly constant presence on CNN and Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. When the players were exonerated, Miller pronounced it as proof that the criticism and abuse he’d been getting ever since high school were unfounded and unfair.
In 2007, Miller and Spencer, who met as activists in the Duke Conservative Union, organized a debate on immigration policy in which Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE, a nationalist online forum that argues that “the racial and cultural identity of America is legitimate and defensible,” faced off against Peter Laufer, a journalist who had just published a book, Wetback Nation, that called for opening the U.S.-Mexican border entirely, allowing a free flow of people between the countries. Miller and Spencer “were partners, not ships passing in the night,” Laufer recalls. “Stephen and Richard were gracious hosts, but they were ideologues interested in promoting their point of view through the device of this debate.”
Miller now strenuously denies ever working closely with Spencer. “I condemn his views. I have no relationship with him. He was not my friend,” Miller told The Washington Post. Spencer, who did not respond to requests for comment, has described himself as Miller’s “mentor.” “Clearly, I was influencing him,” Spencer said earlier this year on his talk show on YouTube. “I was a little bit older in this organization. I was the one pushing for the immigration debate.”
Spencer distinguishes his own views from Miller’s but praises him for taking on issues that most mainstream politicians shy away from: “Stephen is not me,” he told Vanity Fair. “He is not coming from my identitarian perspective, but he is willing to go there. He’s willing to take on those issues, which shows a lot of bravery.”
After college, Horowitz helped Miller find a place in American conservative politics on the Hill. “His ambition was to be a senator,” he says. “He came to me for help finding a job in Washington. I regret this, but I got him a job with [congresswoman] Michelle Bachmann, and she turned out to be a nutcase.” Horowitz says he helped Miller get his job with then-Senator Jeff Sessions too. And that job led him to Trump.
Hardworking and driven, Miller rose to become Sessions’ communications director, where he played a vital role in Sessions’s successful 2013 effort to kill the bipartisan immigration reform bill that came close to creating a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. His views on immigration formed the core of his politics, and while he knew policy in detail, he deployed simple, reductive language to deliver his arguments, both in Congress for Sessions and on the campaign trail, where he helped Tea Party Republican insurgent Dave Brat unseat GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whom he considered soft on immigration, in a 2014 primary in Virginia.
In January 2016, Miller joined Trump’s campaign as a senior policy adviser and immediately put his well-honed public speaking skills to work at rallies, endearing himself to the candidate and his supporters. “Don’t ever, ever let anyone tell you that you’re not a good person because you want to secure the border,” Miller roared, playing to the crowd’s sense that Democrats looked down on them, viewing them as nothing but bigots.
In the White House, Miller has continued to focus on immigration. This year, he moved to slash the number of refugees who would be allowed into the United States, reducing by more than 70 percent the tally of 85,000 refugees admitted in President Barack Obama’s final year in office. In fact, immigration is so central to Miller’s identity that it’s one of the first things his friends talk about when they describe the bond between Miller and his girlfriend, Katie Waldman, now Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary. Previously a spokesperson for then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and subsequently for Republican Arizona Senator Martha McSally, Waldman has described asylum-seekers as “a violent mob” and has a picture of the border as her Twitter cover photo.
In his own speeches, Miller portrays immigrants as a danger to Americans; he rarely mentions his own family’s immigration story, but he has sometimes noted his own “immigrant ancestors” and especially his great-great-grandfather, who “came here from overseas to start his American dream.” And he has mentioned his religion, especially in response to New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexican border to concentration camps. “I’m a Jew,” Miller said on Fox News in July. “As a Jew, as an American Jew, I am profoundly outraged by the comments from Ocasio-Cortez…. It is a sinful comment. It minimizes the deaths of six million of my Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Miller has scoffed at suggestions that his rhetoric stems from anti-Semitism (much of his language resembles that of the “America First” trope, which tracks back to Charles Lindbergh’s nativist campaign of a century ago) or encourages anti-Semitic extremists. Although he has sometimes reveled in depictions of himself as an evil force—Haaretz called him the “most-hated Jew in America” and Slate dubbed him “the mastermind of Trump’s most horrible policies”—he has occasionally shifted his tone to a style that Trump calls “presidential.” In this year’s State of the Union address, Miller gave Trump language that spoke of carnage and fear, but also gave a nod toward more traditional themes, embodied in introductions of victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, a World War II concentration camp survivor and a Holocaust rescuer. Those images of empathy and humanity bumped up against more typical Miller-Trump rhetoric about “caravans on the march” and an impending “tremendous onslaught” of dangerous immigrants.
The more lurid language dominates behind the scenes, according to people who have worked alongside Miller. In his book Team of Vipers, former White House communications aide Cliff Sims quotes one of Miller’s more incendiary lines, and the White House press secretary hasn’t denied the quote’s accuracy. “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil,” Miller reportedly said; within days, the line was quoted in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Politico, Slate and on and on.
It was inflammatory, tough, provocative—the kind of thing Roy Cohn might have said, the kind of line Trump would love. It was quintessential Stephen Miller.