Two Views of a Single Presidency

A pair of tell-alls from Chris Christie and Cliff Sims reveal a great deal about Trump—and their authors.

Chris Christie's book "Let Me Finish" on sale
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The people who serve in the Trump administration have never been reticent about telling their stories.

They have, however, mostly declined to put their names to their tales.

That preference for anonymity has begun to end. On the same day—January 29—Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and Trump ally, released a memoir of his political career, Let Me Finish, and the former Trump communications aide Cliff Sims published an account of his service in the Trump White House, Team of Vipers.

Each book offered up some news-making stories. Sims confirms in excruciating detail the bizarre story of Sean Spicer personally stealing a drink mini-fridge from his own staff. The story was reported in The Wall Street Journal the day Spicer resigned, and was ferociously denied by Spicer at the time and in his own memoir—but after Sims’s account, nobody will doubt that the Journal’s report was true in every shabby detail.

On a somewhat more world-historical level, Christie reports that President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, convinced themselves in February 2017 that they had silenced the Russia matter by firing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Christie quotes himself offering this authentically wise advice to Trump: “There is no way you can make this process shorter, but there’s lots of ways you can make it longer. And the biggest way for you to make it longer is by talking about it. Don’t talk about it. That’s the biggest, most important bit of advice I can give you. Don’t talk about it.”

But as so often with insider memoirs, the value comes not from the big stories, but from the small ones.

Christie’s core argument in the Trump-specific portion of his memoir is this: In April 2016, Christie accepted the assignment to run the Trump campaign’s transition process. He went seriously to work to produce something like a normal Republican presidential administration. Trump dangled the vice presidency before Christie as a reward for a job well done. Not one for false modesty, Christie acknowledges that he wanted the office. Governor Christie—as he would remain until January 2018—threw himself into the transition assignment with his familiar intensity. He not only vetted names for offices, but also offered achievable goals for the first year of the new administration.

In the end, all this work was discarded. Christie blames Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon—each of whom feared that a more orderly administration would hem his own influence. Christie minces no words about the consequences:

Instead of high-quality, vetted appointees for key administration posts, [Trump] got the Russian lackey and future federal felon Michael Flynn as national security adviser. He got the greedy and inexperienced Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He got the high-flying Tom Price as health and human services secretary. He got the not-ready-for-prime-time Jeff Sessions as attorney general … Too many Rick Dearborns. Too few Kellyanne Conways. A boatload of Sebastian Gorkas. Too few Steven Mnuchins.

As Christie phrases it even more pungently in the book’s most quoted passage, by junking the work of the transition team, Trump burdened himself with “amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons—who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for, sometimes seemingly without so much as a background check via Google or Wikipedia.”

Christie’s underlying message for the book’s intended one-person presidential audience: It’s not too late to save the day—but only if you “let me finish.” He has evidently not surrendered his ambitions either inside the Trump administration or as a political force in his own right in 2020 or 2024.

Through this shrewd and strategic book, Christie picks his battles carefully. Where he feels on solid ground, he does not flinch from taking even the hardest punch. He tells this funny—and winning—story about the aftermath of his epic January 2014 press conference, in which he answered questions about Bridgegate, the malicious closing of the George Washington Bridge to punish a balky mayor of Fort Lee. Christie accepted every question, answering until the press had no more to ask.

When the press conference was finally over, I went back into my office by myself … My shirt was wet with sweat. A moment later, my phone rang. It was a Dallas number. Against my better judgment, I said hello.

“Is this Governor Christie?” a woman asked.

“It is.”

“Could you please hold for President Bush?”

George W. Bush came on the line. “You did a great job today,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. President,” I said. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear from you.”

“You stood up there,” he said. “You took all the incoming. You did really well.”

“Mr. President,” I said. “I was on TV for almost two hours. Don’t tell me you watched the whole thing.”

“Buddy,” he said. “I’m retired. I watched the whole damn thing. You’re my guy. You know that. Don’t you worry about it. I’ve just got one question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Did you do it?”

I couldn’t believe he was asking me that. “Mr. President,” I said, “I just spent all that time on national television saying I didn’t.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Now it’s just me and you, Chris. Remember, I’m the guy who made you US Attorney.”

“Mr. President,” I said, “I did not do it.”

And indeed neither the judicial process nor an independent investigation subsequently found that Christie had advance knowledge of the malicious closure.

But where Christie feels he stands on less certain ground, he preserves a discreet silence. He says not one word in his memoir about his decision to cancel the project to build the first new tunnels under the Hudson River in a century. Nor does Christie delve deeply into the question of exactly why Trump would cooperate with Kushner, Bannon, and Flynn to wreck his own transition and surround himself with incompetents and criminals.

Christie defends his decisions with the gritty realism of the political professional.

Donald Trump was going to be the president, I could help him, and he needed me. The fact that I stood with him early would be good for me and good for my state. If he won, I’d have influence that other people didn’t. I had confidence in my own political judgment. This was a practical decision by me. An election is a binary choice, and I did not want Hillary Clinton to be president.

Yet that gritty realism proved highly unrealistic in the end. Chris Christie could not help Donald Trump. He did not wield influence, as his own book testifies. Standing with Trump was not good for Christie, nor good for New Jersey. The Trump administration’s tax and health-care plans badly hurt New Jersey, crushing Christie’s already weak approval numbers and all but wiping out the New Jersey Republican Party in the state elections of 2017 and the congressional elections of 2018.

That outcome might have prompted second thoughts. Smart and gutsy as he is, Christie must himself feel them. The book’s opening chapters detail Christie’s career as an anti-corruption U.S. attorney who prosecuted wrongdoing regardless of party affiliation. He cannot have been duped by Trump. He duped himself. A book in which this intelligent and determined political pragmatist reckons with that mistake could be a masterwork of American political memoir.

About the time Christie was launching the Trump transition process, Cliff Sims was stumbling upon the greatest opportunity of his rising career in Alabama conservative talk radio.

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.