At the height of the Duke lacrosse case, Stephen Miller made a name for himself on national television defending facts.
Ten years later, Miller—Trinity ’07 and now President Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser—finds himself being ridiculed by everyone from Joe Scarborough to Stephen Colbert for appearing Sunday on morning news shows and repeatedly promoting widely debunked claims about voter fraud in New Hampshire.
Even KC Johnson, the author of the “Durham-in-Wonderland” blog who called Miller “one of the heroes” of the 2006 lacrosse case, said Miller’s relationship with facts seems to have changed in the past decade—for the worse.
“If in the spring of 2006, he were making the sorts of arguments that he made last week on the Sunday talk shows, his role in the case would have been utterly useless,” said Johnson, now a professor of history at Brooklyn College.
“He would have been, if anything, a detriment to the players," added Johnson.
Miller did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
While many in the media, as well as activists both on and off campus, rushed to condemn the lacrosse players who were accused of rape, Miller loudly insisted that they be presumed innocent until there was clear evidence to the contrary.
“He began to speak up at a time when, to use a phrase that has suddenly become common, Mr. Nifong was dominating the airwaves with alternative facts,” said Johnson, referring to the disbarred Durham district attorney who brought the case against the players. “There was a particular narrative about the case, all of which was simply false.”
In April 2006, one month after Crystal Magnum—a local college student and stripper—falsely accused the players of rape, Miller went on HLN’s “The Nancy Grace Show” and rattled off a list of problems with the accusations against the players.
“As the facts started to come out, there were many irregularities and inconsistencies that troubled me like many other people,” he said.
At one point, Miller, then a senior at Duke, called Grace out for repeatedly referencing bruises on Magnum as evidence that she had been assaulted. Showing his attention to detail, he noted that the bruises had been photographed at 12:03 a.m.—before the alleged rape occurred. Miller also dismantled the accusations point by point in a series of detailed Chronicle columns.
Fast-forward 10 years, however, and Miller does not seem to have that same attention to detail or that same insistence on the importance of facts.
During appearances on Sunday morning talk shows on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, Miller repeatedly promoted widely debunked claims about voter fraud in New Hampshire, earning himself “four pinocchios” from The Washington Post’s fact checker.
Johnson described it as “disappointing” to see Miller use his skills “to advance arguments and to present data that are divorced from reality.”
Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” appeared dumbfounded as he described Miller’s weekend performances as “horrendous” and “an embarrassment.” Colbert mocked Miller, calling him a “liar” and challenging him to appear on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” so that he could call him a liar to his face.
During his appearance on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, Miller said the “issue of bussing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics.”
“It’s very real. It’s very serious,” he said. “This morning, on this show, is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence.”
No evidence for this claim has ever been laid out, and several prominent Republicans in the state have unequivocally denied it.
Miller did not stop there. He also made claims—again without evidence—about non-citizens and dead people threatening the integrity of the voter roles. These claims have also been debunked.
“Just for the record, you have provided absolutely no evidence,” Stephanopoulos said.
Miller’s response: “George, it is a fact, and you will not deny it.”
For those who were present during the heat of the lacrosse case, the difference between Miller’s use of facts then as compared to now is impossible to miss.
Elliott Wolf, who was president of Duke Student Government in the immediate aftermath of the lacrosse scandal, remembered Miller’s use of evidence as “thought-out and strategic”, even though Wolf noted he never agreed with Miller’s politics.
“There were times that I rooted for Stephen, particularly when he appeared on Nancy Grace,” said Wolf, Trinity ’08. “He intelligently articulated the need to not rush to judgment and [to] presume the innocence of the players.”
Johnson speculated that rather than impressing upon him the importance of facts in a highly-charged situation, the lacrosse case may have given Miller the opportunity to relish an ideological fight.
“Maybe he’s changed to some extent that he’s emphasizing more just the ideological side of things and less the grounding,” Johnson said.
Wolf added that Miller may have been using the lacrosse situation as a way to advance his ideological arguments, noting that he “politicized the situation as much as he could."
“I felt Stephen’s goal was to use the situation in service of his larger argument, that conservative voices were marginalized on campus and that ‘good people’ were under threat from ‘liberals,’” Wolf said.
Miller’s apparent placement of ideology before facts stands in contrast to his criticism of the “Group of 88”—a group of faculty members who signed an advertisement in The Chronicle which some saw as rushing to judgement in the case—for doing the same.
“You have a situation where, on the one hand [the Group of 88] realized that there’s absolutely no foundation for anything they did, but on the other hand they’re not going to confront the flaws of their own radical and divisive ideology,” Miller said during a January 2007 appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.” “It was always for them about their political agenda.”
Wolf and Johnson also surmised that Miller may be simply changing his tactics to adapt to his new audience.
At Duke, Miller was in the midst of a largely liberal student body and academics. Now, his audience is the general public—and in particular a group of voters who distrust journalists and fact-checkers.
“I posit that his current audience doesn’t have the same grounding in reality as his audience at Duke,” Wolf explained. “Living within the facts could be a handicap when speaking to them. From my experience with Stephen, if he’s saying something, it is a tactic to serve a broader, well-thought-out goal. So my guess is that he changed his tactics to suit his audience, as opposed to went off the rails.”
Johnson echoed Wolf’s conclusions, noting that Miller is “operating in an environment where facts just seem to matter a whole lot less.”
Wolf noted that whatever his motives are, Miller’s actions so far have paid off.
“I have to give him credit as a tactician,” Wolf said. “He may now be the most powerful Duke alum on Earth.”