Stephen Miller’s brash path from Duke campus to Trump White House

A decade ago, an outspoken Duke University student turned up on cable TV to denounce political correctness and defend three lacrosse players wrongly accused of rape.

A conservative columnist for The Chronicle campus newspaper in 2006-07, the student had a brash style, directing his razor-sharp words at professors, smoking bans, Ted Kennedy, women’s studies, David Letterman, Duke President Richard Brodhead and the city of Durham.

That student, Stephen Miller, is now a senior policy adviser to President Donald Trump and is widely reported to be a key author of the inaugural address and last month’s controversial executive order on immigration. The order, which imposed a temporary ban on refugees and residents from seven mainly Muslim countries, prompted large protests at the nation’s airports and condemnation from some foreign leaders. Still, one poll showed that many Americans support it.

Miller, 31, is the lesser known of Trump’s “two Steves,” the other being Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, the conservative website big on scandal and conspiracy. Together, Bannon and Miller are considered to be the brain trust behind Trump’s populist, America-first message and his promise to shake up Washington.

After a stormy weekend of demonstrations, the roll out of the executive order was criticized for the chaos it caused and the apparent lack of communication between the White House and federal agencies. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a Republican, seized on Miller’s role: “You’ve got a very young person in the White House on a power trip, thinking that you can just write executive orders and tell all of your cabinet agencies to go to hell.”

The White House did not respond to a request to interview Miller. But on Monday, Miller appeared on “CBS This Morning” to defend the immigration restrictions.

“I think anytime you do anything hugely successful that challenges a failed orthodoxy, you’re going to see protests,” Miller said, adding that just 109 people had been detained in airports. “In fact, if nobody’s disagreeing with what you’re doing, then you’re probably not doing anything that really matters in the scheme of things.”

Relishing a fight

At Duke, Miller never seemed to have a problem with disagreements. He sought them out, and enjoyed the fight, according to those who knew him.

“He’s the most sanctimonious student I think I ever encountered,” said John Burness, Duke’s former senior vice president of public affairs and government relations. “He seemed to be absolutely sure of his own views and the correctness of them, and seemed to assume that if you were in disagreement with him, there was something malevolent or stupid about your thinking. Incredibly intolerant.”

Others say Miller took a principled, almost heroic, stance during the feverish 2006 controversy surrounding the Duke lacrosse case, in which three white players were accused of raping an African American stripper at a team party. The case dragged on for months, with Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong forging ahead with the prosecution despite a lack of evidence.

The university canceled the lacrosse season, and a “Group of 88” faculty members came out against the team. Miller was a lonely voice insisting that the players were innocent. They had been “railroaded,” he said.

“It took a lot of guts to do what he did,” said KC Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who co-wrote a book on the lacrosse case.

“The prudent response of any student, even if they believed the sort of things that Stephen believed, would have been to stay quiet, because this was not an atmosphere conducive to speaking up,” Johnson added. “I think it did take a lot of courage, and he has to get credit for that.”

Ultimately, the three students were declared innocent by the North Carolina attorney general, and Nifong was disbarred.

In the heat of the lacrosse case, cable TV networks were happy to book Miller on their shows, where he was a crusading defender of the accused. He appeared on “Nancy Grace” and “The O’Reilly Factor,” well spoken and conversant with the details of the case. He was quick to take faculty and administrators to task for their handling of the situation.

Response to 9/11

Growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., Miller had attended a liberal high school where racial and ethnic minorities were the majority. There, the Los Angeles Times reported, he was among the few students who adhered to the daily Pledge of Allegiance amid run-ins with the administration. He became interested in politics after reading Guns and Ammo magazine and the writings of National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre, the newspaper reported.

“It was after my school’s response to the 9/11 attacks that I decided to become involved,” Miller wrote in the conservative “During that dreadful time of national tragedy, anti-Americanism had spread all over the school like a rash.”

He set about being a very public critic, putting pressure on the school’s administration to change, he wrote in the article, “How I Changed My Left-Wing High School.” He succeeded; among the changes, teachers were directed to talk about the Iraq War “in an even-handed way.”

“The key is to gain access to the press, and to be vigilant about keeping pressure on the school or university,” he wrote in what amounted to his blueprint for conservative activists. “Write articles and letters to the editor, use the internet, handout fliers, or write to radio show hosts and reporters. Be persistent. You must also discover the school’s sources of revenue and proceed to legitimately threaten the money supply.”

Off to Duke

By the time Miller arrived at Duke to study political science, he was an experienced rabble-rouser.

He was a follower of David Horowitz, the conservative writer who founded Students for Academic Freedom, a group that waged a battle against what Horowitz said was classroom bias by liberal professors. Miller was president of the Duke chapter of the group.

Johnson said Miller was like a number of conservative students at elite campuses who “in a bizarre sort of way have their perspective sharpened by coming to campus because they’re forced essentially to defend their positions every day, and who sort of relish that opportunity.”

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11 Miller was determined to stage an elaborate memorial that required weeks of organizing student groups, Durham officials, fire and police departments, and the university to join in the event, which included planting 2,997 flags on campus – one for each victim.

He got Duke to give $4,000 for the spectacle, he wrote in an online article, which he considered a major victory: “Anything that portrays America as under attack by Islamic terrorists, as even the most purely apolitical 9/11 memorial inevitably will, challenges the university dogma.” The event, he wrote, was “one of the most memorable and meaningful days of my life.”

Besides patriotism, terrorism and his defense of the lacrosse players, Miller also wrote about race, diversity and what he said were condescending attitudes toward minorities, as well as “racial paranoia.” A column about racial injustice wasn’t about an African American student – it was about someone accusing him of being racist.

“If, say, a young black kid thinks that no matter how hard they work wealthy white people are going to hold them back, (which could not be more false; companies in fact often go out of their way to achieve diversity) it saps their motivation and has devastating results on their potential for success,” he wrote.

Not a mentor

While at Duke, Miller encountered a fellow member of the Duke Conservative Union, Richard Spencer, who was a graduate student. Spencer would later become a figure in the “alt-right” movement who founded a white supremacist organization, the National Policy Institute. Media reports have said Spencer mentored Miller, a claim that Miller denied. Last year, Miller told The Daily Beast that Spencer’s claim of mentorship “is totally false and obviously ludicrous. … I strongly condemn his views.”

The link between the two men has been exaggerated, Spencer wrote in an blog post Wednesday titled “Stephen Miller and Me.”

The two worked on an immigration policy debate at Duke. But, Spencer wrote, “After we left Duke, we drifted apart. The last time we spoke was, I think, around 2009. We were friends, but we haven’t been in communication for some time.”

The mentor story has become a meme that has gotten out of hand, Spencer wrote. “There’s no man behind the curtain.”

Late in his time at Duke, Miller founded the Terrorism Awareness Project, which aimed to educate students about Islamic terror threats. The group tried to buy college newspaper ads headlined “What Americans Need to Know About Jihad.” But some college papers wouldn’t run the ad, and Miller appeared on “Fox & Friends” to talk about the issue.

After graduation, Miller would have a series of political jobs on Capitol Hill, where he worked for former U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and John Shadegg of Arizona. He then went to the office of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, an early Trump supporter and now his nominee for U.S. Attorney General. Miller was communications director and was credited with helping Sessions defeat a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013.

In January 2016, Miller left Sessions to join the Trump campaign. He quickly became a fixture on the campaign trail, where he was the warm-up speaker at the raucous Trump rallies – whipping up the crowd with populist rhetoric in his dark suit and skinny tie. A story in the Washington Post noted Miller’s move from Sessions to Trump.

“I’M IN HEAVEN!” tweeted Ann Coulter, noting that it was a sign that Trump was “not backing down on immigration.”

When Burness saw the story he emailed a colleague. “‘Is this possible that this is our Stephen Miller?’ They said yes, and I said, ‘Oh my God.’”

Johnson was astonished, too. He had only met Miller a couple of times, but it made sense that Miller was attracted to a candidate who railed against political correctness.

“It’s clear he was a talented person,” Johnson said, “but nonetheless this is a meteoric rise.”

When Miller wrote his farewell column for The Chronicle, he framed the yearlong Duke lacrosse affair in terms of race, not just the fault of one rogue prosecutor. He called it “a horrifying tutorial in the moral bankruptcy of the left’s politically correct orthodoxy and the corruption of our culture at its hands.”

“From the beginning, this column, along with my political activism, has made me a controversial figure,” Miller wrote. “As a deeply committed conservative who considers it his responsibility to do battle with the left, this is not in the least surprising.”

McClatchy reporter Anna Douglas contributed to this report.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Miller’s writing

Excerpts from Stephen Miller’s columns published in The Chronicle at Duke University:

Jan. 11, 2006

“American cinema is being converted into a propaganda machine. For the doubters, let me flip it around. When was the last time you saw a conservative film? Maybe a movie about the evils of the Islamic holy war, the merits of capitalism, even one about America as a force of good in the world? ... The Hollywood crowd feels sympathy for the terrorists, detests Republicans and sees America as an obstacle to a better world. ... Of course this is not limited to the silver screen. Shows like Queer As Folk, The ‘L’ Word, Will & Grace and Sex and the City, all do their part to promote alternative lifestyles and erode traditional values.”

Feb. 8, 2006

“Islamic terrorists have declared holy war on the United States. They have declared a death sentence on every man, woman and child living in this country. They are actively seeking, with the assistance of radical Muslim despots, weapons that would permit them to execute hundreds of thousands of Americans in a single attack.”

April 5, 2006

“The second question I’d ask is what people hope to gain from Duke students spending less time on campus and more time in Durham. I have nothing against the town, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a rich treasure-trove of life and culture waiting to be discovered by the eager student. I would more accurately describe it as one of the last spots in America anyone would visit were it not for the presence of Duke University. ... Duke is, in fact, the only thing that keeps this city alive. As the number-one employer in Durham and the city’s only major draw, if we were to pull out, instead of worrying about town-gown relations, the city would have to be worry about becoming a ghost-town. Which it quickly would.”

Aug. 28, 2006

“The more information that surfaces the more apparent it becomes to fair-minded observers that our lacrosse team was railroaded and that three of our fellow students are being put on trial not because of evidence but because of a DA’s incompetence and malice. ... Sadly, many in the community have shown that they are not fair minded but would rather hunt for witches than search for justice.”

Sept. 11, 2006

“Why aren’t our airports, borders or ports secure? Why have not the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission been implemented? Why are there 3,000,000 people in the United States who have overstayed their visas? Why isn’t the murder of 3,000 people enough to shake us out of our apathy? ... Maybe, if more people researched the true story of Sept. 11, in all its horror, it won’t take another attack, and more untold devastation, to motivate us to fix the perilous status quo.”

Oct. 11, 2006

“Reform the Program in Women’s Studies that now seems to be an effort to indoctrinate students in radical feminism (imagine the reaction to a degree-granting Duke program to indoctrinate students in conservatism or monarchism). A proper women’s studies program would study women from all angles, not one. ... End all racial discrimination in University admissions. So-called affirmative action – which is a system of racial preferences – is not simply misguided. It is a devastating, paternalistic policy endorsed by white liberals more concerned with how they look to their elitist friends than to the well-being of the minorities they claim they want to help.”

Nov. 20, 2006

“Duke, in lockstep with the modern American university, worships at the altar of multiculturalism. As we obsess over, adulate and extol the non-American cultures we ignore the culture we all hold in common. ... Every year Page Auditorium is packed to celebrate Indian and Asian culture, while crucial American cultural events like Thanksgiving, Christmas, President’s Day and Veterans Day are ignored and forgotten.”

Dec. 4, 2006

“It’s the most wonderful time of year – but you wouldn’t know it looking around Duke’s campus. ... You’d probably find more Christmas decorations at your local mosque. ... There is absolutely no single logical reason why we shouldn’t have a Christmas tree on the quad and a Nativity scene in the Bryan Center. Eighty-five percent of our nation is Christian and every single one of us, Christian or not (I’m a practicing Jew myself), is living in a country settled and founded by Christians and benefiting daily from the principles of Christian philosophy on which our forebears relied.”

Feb. 26, 2007

“The lacrosse allegations provided a fantastic opportunity to advance a social agenda and to keep the distance between the paranoid delusions of widespread racism upon which so many of the careers and the lives of the activists have been built and the rather obvious reality that the overwhelming majority of whites in America are not racist (and in fact commit rape against black citizens with disproportionate infrequency). ... Is it any surprise radical students, activists and faculty latched onto these charges with such euphoria? Or that to this day they have neither apologized nor retreated?”