Behind the closed doors of White House power, a lean, intense 30-something man invariably takes a position at Donald Trump’s side.
Listening and scribbling.
Random asides. Quips. Momentary inspirations uttered and quickly forgotten. They all sluice into the walking, breathing database that is Stephen Miller, the White House wordsmith and behind-the-scenes power broker whose job is to harness the thoughts and ideas of the least tamable of presidents. The whole mix must then be channeled into remarks that are both presidential and Trumpish.
Trump’s first State of the Union — given its importance, as well as the array of subjects and governmental turfs it’s likely to touch on — is sure to be much more of a collaborative effort than many of the president’s addresses. High-profile speeches are generally built with input from an array of White House advisers and administrators, and depending on the topic other high-ranking officials within the administration may take the lead. But Miller, a kind of Trump whisperer, is often at the center of the action, where he has remained, fixed in place, even as the White House has convulsed with resignations and firings.
“Stephen has almost this encyclopedic memory for things the president has said — not only policy, but particular words,” said Jason Miller, no relation, who served as a communications adviser on Trump’s presidential campaign and remains in contact with White House officials. “He trusts Stephen almost like he’s a catalogue of his phrases.”
Stephen Miller’s task is no simple one, people who have worked closely with both men say. It involves managing an enormous ego, as well as manipulating words. After all, as Trump said during the campaign, it is he who has the “best words.”
“Stephen really knows how to capture his voice,” Sean Spicer, who served as Trump’s first press secretary, said in an interview.
Trump intimates are loath to say which phrases from his speeches might have sprung from the mind of Miller or other aides, rather than the president’s.
“They’re sending rapists” from Trump’s announcement speech?
“The forgotten men and women of America will be forgotten no longer” in his victory speech?
“American carnage” at the inaugural?
They aren’t saying.
“He hates the idea that anyone puts words in his mouth,” a Trump friend said on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the president’s inner thoughts.
Throughout his decades in public life, Trump has been an unpredictable orator, a speaker more prone to riffing than sticking to the script.
“He prides himself in his lack of preparation,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump advocate who advised the billionaire in the early stages of his presidential campaign and remains a vocal supporter. “He prides himself on the spontaneity of his remarks. In the 40 years I’ve known him, he’s eschewed any kind of prepared speech.”
While Trump was toying with a presidential run in the late 1990s, he hired a ghostwriter, Dave Shiflett, to do a policy-oriented book, “Trump: The America We Deserve,” which was published in 2000. Shiflett had worked with high-maintenance clients who scrutinized every syllable. But not Trump. Shiflett never heard anything from the Manhattan developer. (Though he says he was summoned to New York by the developer’s formidable assistant, Norma Foerderer, for a two-minute meeting in which she told him to “tone down” the rhetoric because they didn’t want to make Trump sound “strident.”) Shiflett doesn’t think Trump even read the book.
Shiflett also wrote at least one speech for Trump, he said, an address to a Cuban American group.
“Being a speechwriter for Trump would be an odd job. It would be like doing musical scores for the Grateful Dead because they never stick to the score,” Shiflett said in an interview. “I don’t think you would need to be much of an expert speechwriter. He’s just going to say what he wants. He’s an improvisational speaker. He’s got that John Coltrane thing going.”
Some who have worked with Trump over the years, and been involved in his public remarks and writings, say the best way to manage him is through a bit of sleight of hand. Because he isn’t prone to fixate on details, he can sometimes be coaxed into agreeing to something — a turn of phrase, an idea — if he can be persuaded he came up with it himself.
“It’s easier to sell him an idea if he thinks the idea is his than if the idea is yours,” a person who knows Trump well said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions.
What’s almost always a winning approach when writing for Trump, people who know Trump say, is to hew to language and a rhetorical style that doesn’t sound too lofty.
“His speaking style is effective because he speaks colloquial English,” Stone said. “It’s direct and it’s not polished. Therefore it’s not phony. This is a guy, who although he is a billionaire, has never lost his Queens roots.”
That style seemed to serve him well during the presidential campaign. He may have been mocked by erudite commentators, who sniffed at his rhetorical tangents, his oversimplifications, his non sequiturs and his factual errors. But millions of voters heard someone who talked like them.
Even when Trump is on his best behavior and following the script, he can’t help but throw in little asides, such as “believe me,” when he’s feeling a crowd rev up. And that means everyone involved has to be on high-alert at all times.
“The teleprompter operator definitely earns their paycheck,” Jason Miller said.
The increased scrutiny of the campaign, though, required an off-the-cuff rambler to sometimes add more precision to the usual stream-of-consciousness.
Enter Stephen Miller. The 32-year-old emerged as an influential White House strategist, tasked not only with channeling the president’s thoughts and framing his words, but also playing a significant role in trying to steer the administration toward a more restrictionist position on immigration.
During the presidential campaign a scene played out with some frequency, colleagues say. Miller, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article, would be up front in the campaign plane with his portable printer and Trump would be slashing notes into the margins of another speech.
Jason Miller remembers Trump turning to Stephen Miller and saying, “Oh, this is great! Did we chat about this or did you just hear me say it?”
Spicer would watch with a sense of wonder.
“Stephen’s job is to listen to him,” Spicer, who resigned as press secretary in July, said in an interview. “They would sit on the plane. The president would dictate to him: ‘Take this down.’ It was amazing.”
Other editing sessions turned into in-the-moment focus groups, with key staffers who played large roles in shaping the campaign, such as Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway offering suggestions and reactions.
The formality of the address Trump is scheduled to deliver Tuesday — with its ornate and historical setting, and without the raucous rally crowds he connected with so well — presents a challenge for a president who seems most at home when he’s speaking off the cuff. And yet, he’s already shown that he can the pivot to that setting.
In January last year, just weeks into his presidency, Trump was getting ready to go to the podium for a joint address to Congress, and the man who prides himself on being unprepared was, actually, preparing. (They don’t get to call it a State of the Union when the president hasn’t been around long enough to really, you know, assess the state of the union.)
“He kept going back and forth on drafts over the weekend,” Spicer said. “He was heavily, heavily involved.”
Trump’s key advisers gathered in the White House Map Room, a space on the ground floor where Franklin Delano Roosevelt huddled with military officials after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The importance of the moment was lost on no one. Trump had delivered remarks at his inauguration that some commentators deemed dark and foreboding, particularly his line about ending “American carnage,” a reference to the toll of crime in U.S. cities.
“We knew that we had a huge opportunity,” Spicer recalled. “We really wanted to frame his agenda in a way that most Americans would understand.”
Trump sat with his Sharpie scanning drafts of the speech passed to him by Miller, while his then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and then-strategist Stephen K. Bannon lobbed feedback across the room. The teleprompter was in place for all to follow along during the planning session.
When it came time to deliver his remarks, Trump kept to the script, offering a focused, policy-centric address. He talked about bipartisan cooperation and national unity. Political analysts called the speech “surprisingly presidential.”
After a tumultuous first year in office, Trump will return to the podium able to boast about a roaring stock market and a victory on his tax cut plan. But he’ll also be coming off a frustrating round of political theater over the government shutdown, confusion over his position on immigration and fresh revelations about the investigation of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. And he’ll be without the guidance of Priebus and Bannon, who have long since left the administration.
But Miller, the Trump Whisperer, is still there. In the background.
Listening and typing.