In 'Atlantic' Profile, Stephen Miller Called 'Trump's Right-Hand Troll'
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have the backstory of a deeply influential White House staffer. Stephen Miller is an aide to the president in his early 30s. In public, Miller is devoted to repeating White House talking points and little more. In private, he's closely associated with pushing the president's hard-line immigration policies. The Atlantic, in a new article, has dubbed him Trump's right-hand troll. What's that mean? Journalist McKay Coppins interviewed Miller for a profile.
MCKAY COPPINS: Well, he grew up in Santa Monica in kind of this bubble of liberal affluence. His parents were Jewish Democrats and kind of well-respected in the community. He went to Santa Monica High School, which is famous in Southern California for being this bastion of multiculturalism and diversity. And Miller told me that, from a very young age, he had what he called a nonconformist streak.
COPPINS: So he was constantly pushing back against the sort of liberal consensus at his high school.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking of the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties," Michael J. Fox.
COPPINS: (Laughter) Or Alex P. Keaton, yes.
INSKEEP: Alex Keaton was the character's name.
COPPINS: Alex Keaton - right, right, right.
INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
COPPINS: Sort of Alex Keaton but more troll-y (ph), I think would be fair to say (laughter). He was constantly doing things designed to rile his classmates. He ran for student government once, giving a speech where he complained that the students shouldn't have to pick up their own garbage because janitors were there to do it for them. He kind of calibrated these things to anger and offend as many of his liberal peers as possible.
INSKEEP: And when he went on to college, didn't he dig in deeper?
COPPINS: Even deeper. He really became serious there. His most famous episode was - the Duke lacrosse scandal happened when he was there, when three white Duke lacrosse players were accused of rape. He really defended the lacrosse players and cast them as victims of political correctness.
INSKEEP: What happened with the Duke lacrosse players?
COPPINS: Well, so the Duke lacrosse players ended up being exonerated. The kind of accusations against them fell apart. And Miller kind of stood there as this vindicated figure. And he told me, actually, that that was the single episode from his college years that he's most proud of because he was able to stand athwart the totalitarian tendencies - these are his words - of the left.
INSKEEP: Did he arrive on the Trump campaign with a reputation then? Did people hire him knowing who he was and what he was about?
COPPINS: Oh, yes. He had been on Capitol Hill for several years by the time he joined the Trump campaign. And he was known throughout Congress as this sort of right-wing gadfly. He would, you know, rant about immigration, which was his signature issue. And he became especially close to Breitbart reporters. And that was kind of what his social scene revolved around. So when he joined the Trump campaign, people in Washington who knew him got a pretty good sense of where the campaign was headed.
INSKEEP: OK. I want to get to his trolling, as you said, this communication style. But first, let's talk about substance. You said that he would rant about immigration before he joined the Trump campaign. What is Stephen Miller's problem with immigrants?
COPPINS: Immigration is probably the issue that he is most known for. And also, he advocates for a very restrictionist immigration policy. He thinks, in general, there need to be many more regulations on how immigrants come in, where immigrants come from and there needs to be a harsher crackdown on undocumented immigrants and illegal immigration. Now...
INSKEEP: But I want to just figure out the sincere argument...
COPPINS: You know...
INSKEEP: ...That he holds here. Because there's a trolling argument about immigrants - you can pick out a crime committed by an immigrant and put it up big time on Fox News.
COPPINS: And they do that.
INSKEEP: But there's also the statistics, which don't show immigrants to be committing any more crimes than anybody else. I mean, what is the substantive argument that he advances for being so, so strong or so harsh on this issue?
COPPINS: The closest I got to getting a really substantive, coherent argument from him about why he cared about this issue so much was - he talked about how, from a very young age - and I'm just going to summarize what he said - he had an inherent bias against what he called criminals. Of course, all the arguments you just raised, you know, beg the question - why are you especially riled by crimes committed by undocumented people as opposed to everyone else? He doesn't really have a good answer for that. And it's why a lot of his critics say that you can see, you know, racial bias or xenophobia inflected in his kind of agenda.
INSKEEP: Yeah because he didn't end up being obsessed with financial crimes...
INSKEEP: ...For example.
COPPINS: Or the various corruption and the crimes by people on the campaign that he worked for.
INSKEEP: But illegal immigrants, he does rant about. But he does it effectively.
INSKEEP: And you call him Trump's right-hand troll. What do you mean by that?
COPPINS: Well, there's a specific style that he has adopted that's actually increasingly popular in the rising generation of conservatives. But you also see it in Donald Trump, where he delivers his arguments not really calibrated for persuasion but calibrated for agitation. The travel ban is a good example of this. Just the first week of the Trump presidency, the president signed this executive order plunging the airports into chaos. Hundreds of people were detained. Protesters swarmed the airports. The architects of that travel ban actually counted the anger on display among the opponents of it as a political win.
INSKEEP: And you have a quote here in which Miller talks about his communication style. And he says he doesn't necessarily favor provocation for its own sake. But he favors, quote, "constructive controversy with the purpose of enlightenment."
INSKEEP: Do you mean to say that if he's outrageous, more people pay attention to him?
COPPINS: He thinks that more people will pay attention and that it will also expose the hysteria and hypocrisy among his political opponents.
INSKEEP: How has Stephen Miller survived in the White House so long when so many other people around the president have been fired, indicted or fired and indicted?
COPPINS: (Laughter) It's a question I put to a lot of the people who have known him and who know him now in the White House and work with him. They say one of the key secrets to his survival in the White House is that he is actually content to be a staffer rather than a star. Right?
You saw a lot of people like Steve Bannon, early on, flame out because they were considering themselves as the principals. They were, you know, leaking to reporters all the time. They were casting themselves as protagonists in these grand narratives. And Stephen Miller - you know, he's 32 years old. He really is content to serve the president. And he's found ways to kind of shape his own mission and his own ideology in a way that serves the president rather than trying to use the president to advance his own agenda.
INSKEEP: So ultimately, is he an influential figure who is shaping American policies?
COPPINS: Absolutely. I would say there are few more influential people because he is so close to the president and the president listens to him.
INSKEEP: McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, thanks very much.
COPPINS: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: His story on Stephen Miller in The Atlantic is called "Trump's Right-Hand Troll." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.