by Fernando Peinado, Univision News
Donald Trump has found in the young Stephen Miller an adviser with the qualities to channel him: politically incorrect, self-confident and experienced with a microphone. All of this is on display in a video obtained exclusively by Univision News showing Miller on stage in his high school days.
Miller, now 31, has become one of the president's favorite - and most hotly discussed - spokesmen, partly because he is able to dissemble about election fraud without blinking, as he did this weekend in a round of interviews on cable TV channels. Trump rewarded him with a complimentary tweet.
In the high school video, Miller displays a precocious ability to go against the current and provoke controversy.
The video contains fragments of a brief 90 second speech by Miller during his junior year at Santa Monica High School in California in the spring of 2002, including a controversial reference to the job of janitors.
It was made for an audio-visual production class by four of Miller's school mates. At the time of the speech, Miller was running for a student government post and was such a polemic figure he was chosen as the protagonist for the video.
"Hi, I’m Stephen Miller, some of you may or may not know who I am," Miller says, smiling. “We’re not talking about that right now. I’m the only candidate up here who stands out. I would say and I would do things that no one else in their right mind would say or do. Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up our trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?”
The video, which was made several months after the speech, includes interviews with students who speak openly against Miller, as well as the perspective of one of his few friends at school, Christopher Moritz, who shared his conservative ideas and defends them still.
In an interview with Univision, Moritz said his friend was not a racist. "That speech … as I remember, it's really written more as a satire. I think most people understood that," he said.
"No one took it seriously … it was a joke, kind of a senior prank sort of thing."
The recording reinforces a profile of Miller that Univision and other media have formed from his early speeches and writings when he developed his reactionary political ideas.
In the video Miller appears with a light beard and a better head of hair than today, approaching the podium to give an election speech seemingly unperturbed by the boos from the audience. The amphitheater held more than 2,000 people, according to several students interviewed by Univision.
Out of context, the comment could have been interpreted as a bad joke, but at the diverse and tolerant Santa Monica High, many were offended, finding his words unacceptably classist and racist.
Miller was cut off almost immediately. In the stands, some offended students got up from their seats and were set to take the stage to face Miller, according to Natalie Flores, who was in the audience. In the video, the president of the student assembly, Coleen Yamamura-Clark, is seen jostling with Miller to get him to leave the podium. Counselor Don Hedrick and student vice president Justin Siplin escorted him off stage.
The Samohi student newspaper reported that, according to the organizers, the reason for silencing Miller was that he had exceeded his allotted 90 seconds. But other speakers had gone over their time without being cut off, according to students who also made speeches the same day. The newspaper reported that speeches had been pre-approved by Hedrick. But students who recalled that day told Univision they would have been surprised if Miller's outburst had received a green light and suspect he may have improvised.
Justin Brownstone, the student president at that time, said he had heard that remark about the janitors before. "He enjoyed saying things that were perceived as racist. The more he offended, the happier he was," Brownstone recalled.
"It was a racist remark because we all knew that our janitors were people of color," Natalie Flores said. Students said the custodians were Latino or black.
"This is USA, speak English"
More than a dozen students interviewed by Univision described Miller as a provocateur who used to make racial remarks. Many said he seemed to enjoy offending minorities and some gave details of incidents involving other students.
One of the student candidates, Moisés Castillo, who was at the amphitheater on the day of the speech, said he had heard Miller make offensive remarks in the school hallways.
He said he once witnessed an altercation between Miller and members of MEChA, a group that promotes Mexican-American identity. According to Castillo, Miller snapped, "This is the United States. Speak English."
"A comment like that stays buried in your mind. You don’t forget it even years later," said Castillo, who is a Coast Guard veteran.
Another Latino student who refused to be identified for fear of reprisals said Miller once shouted at him: "Go back to your country" and "speak English."
Univision requested an interview with Miller to give him the opportunity to recount his version of the incident, as well as the students’ accusations. By the time of publication, Miller had not responded.
In the video, Miller's friend Moritz dismisses the complaints of those who felt offended. "Personally, I would have laughed at that," Moritz tells the interviewer. "It's just joking."
Moritz, who today works as an investment banker, told Univision that his friend had a humerous streak. “I never heard once in my entire life, in public or in private, Stephen uttering a single racial comment at all,” he said.
Moritz added that Miller had “friends from very diverse backgrounds” at school, including a conservative black talk radio host.
He added that it was “unfair” to characterize Miller years later by his high school behavior. “Stephen should be looked [at] through the lens of his work in Congress and his work in the Trump administration …. going back that many years just gets into kind of a grey area.”
In an article last week, Univision reported how Miller developed a hostility toward Latinos and other minorities during his time at the Santa Monica high school. He pestered minority students and lobbied against the use of Spanish or the celebration of festivals that promoted their cultural identity. Miller turned his back on one former high school friend, Jason Islas, because he was Latino, Islas told Univision.
Miller's years in Santa Monica High (between 1999 and 2003) defined his ultraconservative ideology that has varied little since then. Miller now serves as Trump's senior policy advisor and is an influential voice on immigration matters.
He was involved in an executive order to bar foreigners from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States that was halted in court. In recent days, he has reportedly been working on a new order to impose restrictions on the nation’s guest-worker program, according to The New York Times.
Recipe against racism
Miller has said that an article, "My Dream for the End of Racism," published in 2005, is the best summary of his high school views on race. In that article, penned shortly after graduating for the weekly Santa Monica Mirror, Miller gave his recipe to end "the disease of racism."
He said he disagreed with a multiculturalism that segregated students in history classes, as well as the celebrations of cultural clubs.
"Instead of breaking down students by race and ethnicity, we should bring them together, all as Americans, all as equals. We should stress the one culture that we all hold in common - the American culture," he wrote.
Many of Trump’s campaign speeches were drafted by Miller and reflect his narrow vision of American identity.
For many former Santa Monica High students, this view of race and culture hides — under the guise of good intentions – the majority’s suppression of minorities’ cultural expression. Nor do they see how that discourse squares with the continuous provocations they recall from Miller.
In recent days, as more media articles have surfaced about Miller's past, more students have openly talked about the intolerance they perceived from their former schoolmate.
"He was a shameless racist," one ex-student, Charles Gould, wrote on Twitter. "In private conversations, he constantly made disparaging remarks about African-American, Latino and Asian students at our school."
The election in which Miller competed turned out to be historic for the school’s Latinos. Cynthia Santiago became the first Latin women to be elected as student president, Castillo won as a representative to the School District Board and Rivera as Commissioner of Elections. All three competed under the same platform called MAC.
According to the student newspaper The Samohi, Santiago prevailed with a speech in which he called for efforts to reduce the achievement gap between students of different ethnic groups and to unite the school. For Latinos, their victory was celebrated. "The fact that MAC swept in that election brought joy and pride to many," Rivera said.
Miller received only several dozen votes, according to Brownstone. He campaigned for the post of president of the student assembly, a position that would have given him the power to frequently address the students publicly.
At that time, no one considered him a serious contender, several students said. They certainly did not imagine that one day he would reach such a prominent position in the White House.