Read: An obscure White House staffer’s jaw-dropping Trump tell-all
Alabama’s elderly governor, Robert Bentley, was widely suspected of carrying on a love affair with a political adviser 33 years his junior. Both were married. In March 2016, a source provided Sims with audio recordings of conversations between Bentley and the aide that removed any doubt about the nature of their relationship. Sims posted the complete audio on his website. In April 2017, Bentley resigned in disgrace, pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of misusing state resources to carry on the affair. “I was a conservative Republican,” Sims concludes his version of the story, “but proud that we had helped rid our party of one of its corrupt leaders.” Five months later, Sims was working for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
For almost two years, Sims worked in the Trump communications shop. Most of the anecdotes in this memoir present vicious vignettes of Sims’s former colleagues in the messaging department. Sean Spicer is depicted as a bullying incompetent; Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a pious butt-coverer; Kellyanne Conway as a duplicitous self-promoter; Mercedes Schlapp as a vituperative schemer; Anthony Scaramucci as a twitchy lunatic. It all rings true enough, precisely because we have heard so much of it already.
The stories about Trump likewise ring true: wandering out of meetings that bore him, blaming everybody else for his own mistakes, lying and boasting incessantly. You’ve heard much of this already too. Sims depicts Trump as such an addled, useless buffoon that the 45th president comes to seem almost harmless.
Trump, Sims writes, micromanaged the redecoration of the West Wing for his incoming administration.
He hovered over his executive assistant, Madeleine Westerhout, as she sat at her desk outside the Oval Office scrolling through decor options on her computer, while he pointed at items he liked. No item of decor was too small to pass his notice—from rugs to wallpaper.
When the White House called York Wallcoverings in Pennsylvania to tell them the President wanted an order for the Oval Office delivered by 7 p.m. that same day, they thought it was a prank at first. When they were assured that this was a personal request from the new commander in chief, they panicked. They’d stopped making the pattern that Trump personally selected three years before. So the good folks at York had to stop everything else they were working on, hand-mix the inks, print ninety-six double rolls of out-of-stock fabric, and make the two-hour drive to deliver the product, all before dinnertime. Which, miraculously, they did.
The President also, with great pride and concentration, selected the color palette for the rest of the West Wing and ensured that decorations in each room were from a corresponding time period …
Something else also caught his eye in the Roosevelt Room, a modest-sized conference room just across the hall from the Oval Office. Along the wall on the south side of the room stood eight flags: the U.S. flag, the presidential and vice presidential flags, and flags for each of the five branches of the military—Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy. The president especially liked the military flags, because they included streamers—long pieces of fabric—embroidered with the major campaigns in which each branch had fought …
In the early days of the administration, aides would sometimes come into the Roosevelt Room and realize the flags were mysteriously missing. Invariably they would come to find out that Trump had requested they be moved into the Oval Office and placed along the walls behind his desk …
Eventually they acquired a second set so the president could enjoy them encircling his office and the Roosevelt Room could be left in peace.
That story is one of the two entirely new things I learned from Team of Vipers. The other is that Melania Trump watches very nearly as much cable TV as her husband.
The true protagonists of Team of Vipers are the unsung staffers of the Trump administration—young people who came with Trump to Washington for excitement, for principle, for self-advancement, and then often themselves recoiled in horror as debacle tumbled after debacle.
“None of us are going to be able to get a job in this town after all this,” Sims quotes one former Republican National Committee aide as saying, after Trump praised the very fine people on both sides of the Charlottesville demonstrations in the summer of 2017.
“I’m going to try to go to an agency,” said another. “I talked to a friend from the Bush White House and they said that’s the way you exit—go to an agency for a while, then leave for whatever part of the private sector your agency dealt with.”
A third staffer laughed and said, “Sounds good, but you’re forgetting that everyone thinks we’re racists.”
That concern for future viability provides the great central organizing theme of Team of Vipers. Sims mockingly describes one escape route followed by the less Trump-loyal members of the staff. Off the record, to friends and reporters, they would say, in his mocking summary:
I’m repulsed by what’s happening here, but if good people like me don’t stay, just imagine who will replace me. It was an irresistible mix of moral superiority and personal ego-stroking all wrapped into one.
Yet Sims himself underwent his own dark night of the soul shortly after the Access Hollywood videotape was reported by The Washington Post in October 2016. As the campaign reeled in disarray, Sims questioned himself.
Had it been a mistake to come here? I had played a major role in exposing accusations of sexual misconduct by a Republican governor in Alabama. He never recovered. How could Trump come back from this? How would I?
After a brief interval of introspection, Sims persuaded himself to stay with the campaign: “I couldn’t think of a single thing that would have been made better—for my country, my family, or myself—by Hillary Clinton being elected president,” he writes. It would actually be cowardly for him to quit, he reasoned, a betrayal of his fellow Christians around the world.
In the coming weeks, when American Christians demeaned their Trump-supporting brothers and sisters for lacking moral courage, I often thought of Egypt. What about Egyptian Christians, whose churches were bombed and whose dead bodies were paraded through the streets while you flaunted your moral superiority on Twitter from the comfort of your couch? Did they lack moral courage, as well, for supporting a Muslim authoritarian over an Islamist who wanted the streets to run red with their blood?
You may wonder: How does this analogy make any sense at all? Is Sims suggesting that Hillary Clinton was some kind of jihadist supporter who would soak the streets of America with American Christian blood? No, no, not at all … well, okay, kinda. Yes. Yes, he is.
Through Team of Vipers, Sims again and again expresses his unease with the corrupt ways of Washington, D.C. He despises “spineless opportunists” in Congress; media that “peddle half-truths and manufactured narratives”; a Justice Department that—he alleges—“abused their power in ham-handed attempts to take [Trump] down.” Sims acknowledges that Trump has done severe damage to American democratic institutions. “But he also exposed what we already suspected: many of them were rotten to the core,” he writes.
It’s all truly a puzzlement. Yet through the fog and confusion, through the doubt and anguish, one eternal truth of American democracy insisted on making itself heard.
I started getting approached with job offers and consulting requests. I turned down the former but decided to launch a consulting firm to take advantage of the latter. And the money being thrown around quickly made me realize why so many people who come to D.C. end up getting stuck in the swamp. But I wanted to do something more for my life; I wanted to do something meaningful, something with a purpose.
You have to turn to the jacket flap to learn what that something meaningful would turn out to be:
CLIFF SIMS … now advises major corporations, CEOs, and media personalities on a wide range of public affairs and communications issues. He lives with his wife and dog in Washington, D.C.