In the campy TV drama that is Donald Trump’s Washington, Miller has carved out an enigmatic role. He lurks in the background for weeks at a time, only to emerge with crucial cameos in the most explosive episodes. The one where Trump signed a havoc-wreaking travel ban during his first week in office, unleashing global chaos and mass protests? Miller helped draft the executive order. The one where the federal government shut down over a high-stakes immigration standoff on Capitol Hill? Miller was accused of derailing the negotiations. (“As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we’re going nowhere,” Senator Lindsey Graham grumbled.) To watch him in his most memorable scenes—theatrically hurling accusations of “cosmopolitan bias” at a reporter; getting his mic cut in the middle of a belligerent Sunday-show appearance—is to be left mesmerized, wondering, Is this guy serious?
I put that question to Miller, one way or another, repeatedly over the course of our meeting. He insists that he believes every word he says, and that he is not a fan of “provocation for its own sake.” But after some reflection, he admits that he has long found value in doing things that generate what he calls “constructive controversy—with the purpose of enlightenment.”
This is what makes Miller different from all the other Republican apparatchiks who became supervillains when they joined the Trump administration: He has been courting infamy since puberty. From Santa Monica High School to Duke University to Capitol Hill, his mission—always—has been to shock and offend the progressive sensibilities of his peers. He revels in riling them, luxuriates in their disdain.