I could see Stephen Miller's political career taking root when we were just 16 years old.
The future senior adviser to President Donald Trump was a fellow delegate with me at "Boys State," a weeklong summer program in California for rising high school seniors interested in civics and government. Sponsored by the American Legion, a few students from each high school in the state spent a week in Sacramento, where we learned about elections by creating our own "government" from the ground up.
Miller made an aggressive effort to become a leader of our adolescent experiment in mock government. The speech he delivered to get elected -- and what he did after his victory -- are moments I'll never forget, even more so now that he's in a position of real power.
Now 31, Miller is one of the most prominent West Wing staffers, known as a mini-Trump of sorts who can deliver a rapid-fire -- sometimes fact-challenged -- defense of the President on the Sunday shows that delights Trump even if it confounds almost everyone else. His vociferous backing of Trump's most controversial policies inspired Stephen Colbert to depict him with his head decapitated on a spike. David Letterman came out of retirement to call Miller "creepy" in an interview with New York magazine.
Congratulations Stephen Miller- on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2017
Fifteen years ago, long before achieving such infamy, teenage Miller joined more than 900 young men for the "Boys State" program at California State University. The program is a formative time for many aspiring leaders, and its alumni list boasts many famous names, including Bill Clinton, Chris Christie, Neil Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Rush Limbaugh and dozens more senators, governors and celebrities.
I called Miller to talk about our time there and some of his more memorable activities at the camp, but he wouldn't comment on the record for this story.
Each dorm hall at the college was considered its own "city" and, as you might expect, high school boys conducted government in predictable ways. Our city proposed "jailing" anyone who dared to use our bathroom without paying a "tax." (Our jail, if I recall, would also be in the bathroom, which was punishment enough.) There was an "assassination attempt" on an elected "mayor" who fell out of favor. Someone wrote "BOMB" on a piece of paper and slipped it under his door, an act that was followed by a debate over whether the device had, in fact, "killed" him and if he could still hold legitimate power in his new state of non-existence. By the end of the week, our cities went to "battle" with one another, which was fought in the form of a midnight brawl in the common area that left many of us with bruises. It was great fun.
This was the environment into which Miller thrust himself headlong and was very successful.
Miller and I were placed into the same "county" and he ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Before the election, my fellow county-mates and I gathered in the shade of trees to hear speeches from the students up for election. While most speeches were mundane and forgettable, Miller stood out.
A lanky young man who looked serious beyond his years, Miller began by shouting his case for why we should make him our leader. Roaring at the top of his lungs while he paced across the grass, Miller took us by surprise when he called for a fierce campaign of espionage against our neighboring counties.
Unlike his competitors, Miller didn't speak in clichéd generalities. He had a plan. He declared that he would organize a "black ops" force to spy on and infiltrate the other counties in an effort to -- I suppose? -- sabotage them. To Miller, the other boys in the camp weren't here to cooperate in the spirit of forming a more perfect union, but were to be dominated. They weren't "us." They were the enemy.
His raucous speech was a tremendous success. Miller knew his voting base: A hoard of testosterone-fueled teenage boys itching for something to believe in, even if it was just made up. Miller whipped us into a frenzy, and the crowd, myself included, cheered on the ridiculousness.
Once he had most of us firmly on his side, Miller let loose his catch-phrase.
"It's Miller Time!" he declared, a reference to beer that seemed edgy to many of us at 16. His branding also benefited from his shared name with the California rock band.
Miller was elected with a resounding majority.
It wasn't long, however, before some of us began to question our decision to elect someone merely for the shock value. At a county meeting later that week, Miller was involved in an incident that quickly spread around campus. He stood to his feet and, in a rage, yelled and flipped over a table, which crashed in front of him. The room fell silent. No one knew what to think.
There was this weird shock.
-- Nick Silverman, fellow Boys State delegate
He had this huge outburst," recalled Nick Silverman, a fellow Boys State delegate who travelled with Miller from the same high school. "There was this weird shock.
But looking back all these years later, maybe things weren't quite what they seemed. It's possible that Miller's shtick that week -- the charismatic speech, the "black ops" talk, the table flip -- was all part of his plan to simply "win the game" by being elected to something at Boys State and make a name for himself.
A few months before Boys State, Miller ran for class office at his high school, an episode that may offer clues to the theory that his hijinks the following summer were part of a ruse. As many news outlets have reported, Miller was a contrarian and provocateur as a student at Santa Monica High School, where he basked in the attention he received for making outlandish statements that went against the grain of the school's progressive culture.
In parts of a speech for the high school student government election, sections of which were unearthed by Univision News Miller ran on the platform of leaving garbage on the ground for the janitorial staff to clean up.
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," Miller said in the speech, according to Univision. "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?
Many students were shocked by his comments, but his close friend Christopher Moritz -- who would later accompany Miller to Boys State -- confessed at the time that it was mostly a goof.
He's just joking. It's a joke.
-- Christopher Moritz, Miller's friend
He's just joking. It's a joke," Moritz, who did not return a request from CNN for comment, said at the time, according to Univision. "Most people are so uptight and they don't realize the humor in some of the things he says.
In his own way, Miller was Politician Trump long before Trump was: Provocative, controversial, unpredictable and unforgettable.
Illustrations by Rebecca Clarke.