The senior Trump White House adviser waged ideological warfare as a young Senate aide, a new book reports. Miller, one journalist recalls, believed “through the force of his own will, he can just change reality.”
by Jean Guerrero
Stephen Miller was into mobster movies. Growing up, the walls of his bedroom were decorated with framed posters of Casino and Goodfellas—two of his favorite films. The characters in the Martin Scorsese films are largely amoral, but they live by a code. In Goodfellas, Robert De Niro’s character summed it up, “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” Miller occasionally styled himself after De Niro’s characters in those films. He wore a golden pinkie ring and slicked back his hair, polo shirts and button-downs with nice pants and a jacket—so he looked like a mobster.
His favorite film, Casino, was based on the life of Frank Rosenthal, a former Las Vegas casino executive, handicapper, and organized crime associate played by De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. He and his violence-prone friends have a glitzy lifestyle. Rothstein opens the film: “[I] was a hell of a handicapper, I can tell you that. I was so good, that whenever I bet, I could change the odds for every bookmaker in the country. I’m serious. I had it down so cold that I was given paradise on earth. I was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas.” Ace smokes cigarettes, wears all-yellow and all-pink suits, and is always preternaturally self-assured, fighting critics on television and placing carefully worded phone calls.
His friends do his dirty work. Miller loved Las Vegas. According to one of his friends who shared photographs with the author, he spent time there with family and friends wearing brightly colored outfits inspired by De Niro’s character. He appeared to study De Niro’s gestures—the loose hands, the fingertips-on-fingertips, the head tics—and incorporate them into his persona. Years later, he’d stand at podiums and conjure the old mobster in himself. “All these conservative guys can’t help themselves, it’s such a horrible cliché but they love the mafia,” recalls one classmate. “The mobster is the perfect encapsulation of the conservative worldview, where there’s no real law and order apart from ‘might makes right.’”
In 2009, Miller joined then senator Jeff Sessions’s office as communications director amid confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Miller wore a gold pinkie ring with a gemstone and skinny ties. “That was very memorable, because the Hill was usually pretty buttoned up,” says a former staffer. “Skinny ties weren’t really in yet.” Another recalled that he wore Italian-looking pointed-toe shoes. He smelled of smoke, speedily clinking down the hallways. He was imperious, striding into the offices of older aides, plopping his feet up on their desks and launching into pedantic diatribes. He was a fringe figure, ideological and a bit scary, bombarding people with emails late at night with “FYIs.”
Former Senate aides spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation. Two describe him as “vindictive.” One says he was like “an aggressive, nasty street fighter.” “He wants to project that he will do whatever he needs to do—and that anyone who crosses him will regret it.” Miller showed little interest in working with Democrats or moderate Republicans. “He was a lone wolf.” He told another aide: “You’re not a real Republican.” (Miller did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for the book from which this excerpt is adapted.)
Sotomayor was Obama’s first nominee to the court, and the first of Latin American heritage. Miller went to work trying to derail her nomination. Years earlier, Sotomayor had said, “I would hope that a wise Latina with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Sessions grilled her about the comment. “Aren’t you saying you expect your heritage and background to influence your decision-making?” he asked. “You have evidenced a philosophy of the law that suggests that a judge’s background and experiences can and should…impact their decision, which I think goes against the American ideal and oath that a judge takes to be fair to every party.”
Reporter John Stanton was covering Capitol Hill for Roll Call. He recalls getting calls from Miller, pitching him stories about why he thought Sotomayor was not qualified, calling her a “lesbian” or claiming “her position as a Latina woman created conflicts of interest because she would rule with a racial bias.” Stanton thought it was crazy. He says Miller’s comments about Sotomayor were nastier than those he made about men he disparaged. “He always had an axe to grind, particularly against Latina women but Latinos in general,” Stanton says.
Through lengthy press releases and emails, Miller also focused on attacking legislation that sought to assist the marginalized, such as federal spending on food stamps for the poor in 2012. Perhaps he remembered the words in one of his favorite books, The Way Things Ought to Be. “The poor in this country are the biggest piglets at the mother pig and her nipples,” Rush Limbaugh wrote. “The poor feed off of the largesse of this government and they give nothing back. Nothing. They’re the ones who get all the benefits in this country. They’re the ones that are always pandered to.”
Battling programs for the poor, Miller cast Sessions as a champion of the poor. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler wrote a piece fact-checking a Sessions chart on welfare spending in 2013. The chart claimed the government spends the equivalent of $168 in cash every day for each household in poverty. Kessler concluded that it was “misleading.” He gave Sessions three Pinocchios. Miller contacted Kessler and insisted that he publish a four-paragraph response: “Who watches the Post’s watchman? Your piece is disappointingly anti-intellectual…. Unlike your post, our analysis is honest, accurate and, most importantly, a constructive step towards helping those in need.”
Miller knew how to twist arms and wear people down, pressing buttons when they wouldn’t budge. Miller told Stanton, “You have to write a story that favors me because you did a story that helps out those guys.” And he was willing to play dirty if he didn’t get his way, according to Stanton, calling Stanton’s boss to complain about him. “[Miller] has this idea that through the force of his own will, he can just change reality. I hate to say it, but sometimes he has.”
Miller gave his peers headaches as he pushed negative stories about their hard-earned initiatives. One former aide says Miller pitched negative stories to Breitbart about her boss, a senior Republican senator who sought a compromise on immigration. Breitbart accidentally forwarded to her a memo critical of her boss that Miller had leaked. “It was pretty dirty,” she says. “I recall saying this to him once: ‘If illegal immigration is such a big problem, why don’t we do something to solve it?‘” She wondered if he wanted the problem to persist to have it as a wedge issue with which to divide Americans. While she gave presentations at conference meetings, “he’d sit there in the back lurking—and I just knew he was gonna take whatever I said and go send it to Breitbart.”
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, the Gang of Eight, was fighting to create a comprehensive immigration bill. The coalition included Republican senators Marco Rubio, John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Lindsey Graham, as well as Democratic senators Michael Bennet, Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez, and Chuck Schumer. After the loss of Mitt Romney in 2012, the Republican Party had concluded that it needed to become more inclusive and address the concerns of non-white Americans.
Miller launched a smear campaign against the historic compromise, with Breitbart as his battle tank. He twisted the details to make it sound like a death sentence to America, a mass amnesty that would “decimate” the country and cost trillions in welfare. Miller spread the myth that people who support legalization for migrants belonged to “the donor class.” The Gang of Eight were depicted as corporate agents looking for cheap labor. The narrative ignored and obscured a fundamental fact about legalization: that it legitimizes the workforce, which would require a fairer wage. Sessions said of the bill: “The longer it lays in the sun, the more it smells, as they say about the mackerel.”
Miller became chummy with Ann Coulter as she was working on the draft of her book ¡Adios, America!: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole. They bounced ideas off each other. With Coulter’s help and other combative right-wing personalities, Miller fueled nationwide contempt for migrants and the leaders who sought to compromise on them.
An influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America began to arrive at the border, fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty after decades of U.S. intervention in their countries. On June 5, 2014, Breitbart published photos of Border Patrol facilities overcrowded with the children, feeding the new climate of hostility that Miller had helped create. “This invasion is happening because Obama and his administration sent these ‘foreign invaders’ an open invitation and now Obama expects American citizens to take care of them,” wrote one commenter on the Breitbart website. “They are locusts consuming every thing in their path,” wrote another. “Shove them back over the border, where they belong.”
Miller’s lobbying paid off. The Gang of Eight bill died in the House that summer. The Republican Party, which had been seeking to change course and appeal to more diverse Americans, was forced to adopt Miller’s position.
Excerpted from Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda by Jean Guerrero. Available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.