When Santa Monica High School’s Class of 2003 signed each other’s yearbooks, they likely never imagined one of their own would become a key player in the White House. Much less the White House of President Donald Trump.
But Stephen Miller, 31, is a member of that class — and his peers in the liberal, well-heeled city of Santa Monica are mystified at how he became the White House senior adviser who crafted many of Trump’s most contentious policies, including the controversial travel bans.
“We don’t usually talk about other high school people,” classmate Jenness Hartley told TheWrap. “But now we’re like dude, Stephen Miller, what the f—?!”
TheWrap spoke to eight people who knew Miller from his time as a adolescent in Santa Monica, who say the last few months have been nothing short of surreal.
“I never thought I’d have to remember things about Stephen Miller,” Justin Brownstone, the class student body president, told TheWrap. “You’re like the fourth reporter to call me this month.”
Miller did not respond to TheWrap’s request for an interview. But his peers describe him as outspoken, articulate and argumentative teenager who got a thrill out of pushing people’s buttons.
“This young man was lucky he wasn’t beat up,” Oscar de la Torre, a former counselor and now school board member, told TheWrap. “He was very offensive.”
Miller was well known around Samohi, earning a reputation as a budding provocateur. In a school paper op-ed, he once bemoaned the decline of American society besieged by political correctness.
“When I entered Santa Monica High School in ninth grade, I noticed a number of students lacked basic English skills,” he wrote. “There are usually very few, if any, Hispanic students in my honors classes, despite the large number of Hispanic students that attend our school.”
In the article, titled “Political Correctness Out of Control,” Miller went on to lament the school’s promotion of safe sex for its students and claimed an LGBT club on campus was “fostering” homosexuality.
“We didn’t like him,” former classmate Natalie Flores said. “He was rude, he was racist, he was a misogynist, he was absolutely obnoxious.”
Miller’s new-found visibility has pushed many of his classmates to speak out.
“I don’t think I realized how hateful Stephen’s views back then were, mostly because I didn’t think anyone could really take him seriously,” Nick Silverman wrote on his Facebook page recently.
Silverman told TheWrap he wished he’d been more vocal during those high school days.
“This isn’t what we’re about,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”
Miller grew up in a liberal-leaning Jewish family. He has said that he became interested in politics after reading “Guns, Crime, and Freedom,” a 1994 book by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre.
Friends recall the family’s economic status abruptly changed when his parents’ real estate company experienced difficulties and the Millers moved to a less affluent neighborhood on the south side of town.
Jason Islas, who described himself as one of Miller’s two closest friends growing up, said that in the summer before his freshman year at Santa Monica High, Miller informed him they could no longer be friends because Islas is Hispanic.
“I remember being shocked,” Islas told TheWrap. “It struck me as kind of strange.”
Miller went on to Duke University where he wrote conservative columns for the school newspaper and gained national attention. After graduating in 2007 with a degree in political science, he went to work for then-Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and later with conservative Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who recently became Trump’s Attorney General.
Last month, Univision kicked up a media firestorm when it uncovered an old video of a speech Miller gave in 2002 as he was running for a student government post at Santa Monica High. The video, recorded by four of Miller’s schoolmates as part of audiovisual production class, is a fascinating look into what some have described as a “turning point” for the would-be politician.
“I would say and I would do things that no one else in their right mind would say or do,” Miller said in his speech. “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?”
Flores, who was at the event, said there was no mistaking the racist undertones of his comment, which drew jeers from the crowd and had faculty escorting Miller off stage.
“Our janitors were all people of color,” Flores said. “Before the speech he was the nerd who was smart and liked to talk about government. After the speech it was like, ‘What’s the point?’”
The video, less than four minutes long, also includes interviews with fellow students reacting to Miller’s speech.
“I find his actions appalling and infuriating,” one student says. “It’s really hard for me to tolerate him.”
Chris Mortiz, one of Miller’s only two friends during that time, said on the video: “Personally, I would have laughed at that.”
Moritz did not respond to TheWrap’s repeated requests for comment. But he told Univision recently that he didn’t believe his friend was a racist. “That speech … as I remember, it’s really written more as a satire. I think most people understood that,” he said.
Sophie Goldstein, who attended Hebrew School classes with Miller at Santa Monica’s Beth Shir Shalom synagogue, recalled a story that she said exemplifies who Miller was back then.
Her class, which encouraged debates, was discussing how to fairly deal with a leftover slice of pizza, when Miller did something she said stopped everyone in their tracks.
“In the middle of the discussion, Stephen just slapped his open palm down on the middle of the pizza slice, palm to cheese,” Goldstein recalled. “That effectively ended the discussion. Obviously nobody was going to touch some gross pubescent pizza slice.”
“It was very telling,” Islas said of the pizza incident. “He’s in a class as they’re debating the ethics over who should have the last remaining slice of pizza and he throws a wrench in the system and just slaps the pizza. There’s a question of how we live ethically and he just says, ‘Screw you!’”