The White House

“This is the worst f—ing job I’ve ever had.”

So snapped John Kelly on a March morning in the West Wing, according to a new book by Cliff Sims. The chief of staff was sitting in his office, a light-filled space where the White House swimming pool was just visible beyond French doors. “People apparently think that I care when they write that I might be fired. If that ever happened, it would be the best day I’ve had since I walked into this place,” Kelly told the small group of aides in front of him. “And the president knows it, too.”

One of those aides in Kelly’s office was Sims himself. In title alone, Sims was unexceptional—a communications adviser most notable for helping the White House in its efforts to overhaul the tax code. But by virtue of an uncommonly close relationship with President Donald Trump, starting on the campaign, Sims enjoyed access to many of this administration’s most telling moments—witnessing, for example, the former four-star Marine general come unglued under the demands of serving as Trump’s gatekeeper.

Sims recounts this scene and dozens more in Team of Vipers, his 384-page tell-all, which goes on sale Tuesday and was obtained by The Atlantic. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelly’s expletive-filled rant captures the spirit of this administration, at least as drawn by Sims. The book is filled with insights into some of the most defining elements of Trump’s White House, including the president’s strained relationships with former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the rampant infighting, and the mechanics—such as they were—that underlay key policy decisions. The result is a cutting account of an administration steeped in turmoil from the outset.  

That theme alone is unsurprising. It’s hardly newsworthy, for example, that the Trump-Ryan relationship was fraught. But Sims, in his up-close perch, vivifies the friction. He writes of the evening that Trump watched on television as the speaker criticized his remarks in the aftermath of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. From his private dining room off the Oval Office, “jaw clenched,” Trump yelled for his secretary to get Ryan on the phone. He then stood, clutching the remote control “like a pistol.” When his secretary gave him the go-ahead, Trump snatched up the phone.

“Paul, do you know why Democrats have been kicking your a— for decades?” his tirade began, as Sims tells it. “Because they know a little word called ‘loyalty.’  Why do you think Nancy [Pelosi] has held on this long? Have you seen her? She’s a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected. But they stick with her … Why can’t you be loyal to your president, Paul?”

His voice grew louder. “You know what else I remember? I remember being in Wisconsin and your own people were booing you. You were out there dying like a dog, Paul. Like a dog! And what’d I do? I saved your a—.” (A spokeswoman for the former speaker declined to comment.)

It was a stunning scene, the president verbally shredding the speaker of the House, a member of his own party. And all the while, Sims was listening from the entryway, the improbable wallflower of the West Wing.

In likely no other administration would such an obscure staffer see all that Cliff Sims did. But as Sims told me in a series of interviews, “I just wasn’t gonna move to Washington and work in this White House without trying to put myself in the middle of everything.”

That kind of ambition is common in D.C. newcomers, but Sims benefited from a White House whose norm-shattering first year included few limits on who could hang around the Oval Office. Sims just happened to take full advantage.  

Sims, then 32 years old, was brought into the White House after his successful run coordinating messaging on the campaign. There, he learned many of Trump’s quirks: how he preferred filming against dark backdrops because he didn’t like the way his hair looked against white ones. How it was best to always have a travel-size bottle of Tresemmé Tres Two hair spray on hand, just in case. And, perhaps most important, how Trump craved “normal” conversation. “I always tried to interact with him like a normal person,” Sims told me. “In between whatever work we were doing, I would look for opportunities to talk about what was in the news, or tell him about the latest gossip from entertainment or politics, or whatever.”

A level of ease and familiarity developed between the two, such that Trump wanted Sims in the room for meetings on a wide range of issues. He was present one afternoon in January 2018, for instance, when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, was pushing Trump to sign off on a campaign to raise awareness of the opioid crisis. As Sims tells it, Conway wanted to film a video of Trump encouraging people to send stories of how the crisis had affected them personally.

Trump, though, had a different strategy in mind. “We need to scare kids so much that they will never touch a single drug in their entire life,” he told Conway, according to Sims. “Just give this to Cliff and let him make the most horrifying ads you’ve ever seen. Could you do that?”

Sims “just nodded.” “No, I mean it,” Trump continued. “We need people dying in a ditch. I want bodies stacked on top of bodies … Do it like they did cigarettes. They had body bags piled all over the streets and ugly people with giant holes in their faces and necks.

“Next thing you know,” he concluded, “the kids don’t want to be cool and smoke anymore.”

At times, Sims witnessed fellow staffers—Conway chief among them—take swipes at each other behind their backs. He calls Conway a “cartoon villain brought to life” who bad-mouthed colleagues to multiple reporters by the hour. He credits Stephen Miller’s survival to the speechwriter’s ability to play both sides of the “globalist/nationalist” divide in the White House. While then–chief strategist Steve Bannon viewed Miller as his “right-wing protege,” his ideological ally against the so-called globalists, Miller was cultivating a close relationship with perhaps the globalist in chief, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Sims writes of listening in on Miller “plung[ing] the knife” into Bannon’s back and “twisting it with relish” during a conversation with the president. “Your polling numbers are actually very strong considering Steve won’t stop leaking to the press and trying to undermine Jared,” Miller said, according to Sims. “If Steve wasn’t doing that, I bet you’d be ten points higher.”

He also watched as senior officials privately laughed off many of the president’s stranger requests. In his first few days as director of the National Economic Council, Sims writes, Larry Kudlow emerged from a meeting with the president looking flustered. He told Gary Cohn, his predecessor, that Trump ordered him to “stop” a “special deal” that he believed Amazon was getting from the U.S. Postal Service. “Gary laughed loudly,” Sims writes. “‘Welcome to the White House,’ [Cohn] said, shaking Larry’s hand … ‘It’s total bulls—.’” Cohn explained that Amazon was not, in fact, getting “some special deal.” “He’s just mad at [Jeff] Bezos for owning The Washington Post.”

“‘So’ Larry replied hesitantly, ‘I shouldn’t do anything about this?’” Sims writes that Cohn told Kudlow not to bother, adding, “But now you know why I’m so happy to be leaving.”

Perhaps the liveliest pages of Sims’s book recount Anthony Scaramucci’s 10-day tenure as communications director, when he maintained a singular focus on rooting out the leakers. Sims writes of a morning that Scaramucci gathered the full communications staff. His goal was to motivate them against leaking to the press. He tried to do so using a “horrifying” technique: role-playing. He pulled a young staffer on the regional media team to the front of the room, “probably the last person in the room who would ever leak anything,” Sims writes.

“Okay, Tyler, I’ll be Reince Priebus and you be you,” Scaramucci said. The “Mooch” then assumed the role of Priebus, who was chief of staff at the time: “Tyler, I need you to leak something for me.”

After a brief silence, a distressed-looking Tyler responded robotically, “I cannot do that.” Mooch twirled his finger in a circle, Sims writes, prompting him to continue. “I cannot do that,” Tyler reiterated. “I report to Anthony Scaramucci and he reports directly to the president of the United States.” “Perfect!” said the Mooch, who was beaming.

As an observer and a writer, Sims has an eye for color and the kind of details reporters crave, those that will likely remain forever lodged in a reader’s conception of the Trump presidency. That’s not by accident: Before joining the campaign, Sims ran a news outlet in Alabama called Yellowhammer Media, where he broke high-profile state politics stories, including former Governor Robert Bentley’s affair with a staffer, which ultimately led to Bentley’s resignation.

But that instinctual attraction to the news, the color, led many of Sims’s former colleagues to believe that he’d joined Trump’s White House “just to write a book,” rather than serve the president. “He was taking notes every second from the minute he got there,” one former senior White House official told me. “It rubbed everyone the wrong way.”

Sims told me he was indeed a voracious notetaker during and after most meetings. (It’s the reason, he told me, he can attest that the quotes throughout the book are “very authentic.”) “The things I was looking for the most in meetings would be the things that would be potentially problematic if they leaked,” Sims said of his motivation to take notes. “I would write the entire meeting feverishly, like everything. Especially when Trump was talking, I would try to capture it verbatim as I could. Then I’d get to my desk and type it out.” From there, he said, he would compile the moments he thought were most interesting and put them in a “memories” file on his home computer. He said it wasn’t until after he left the White House, when he and his wife had long conversations about what the whole experience meant to him, that he considered stringing those memories together in book form.

Sims told me his aim in writing the book was not to scorch or, alternatively, deify the president. In large part, Sims said, it was a way for him to gain clarity and closure on how the experience changed him personally—and how he became, at many points, a person he didn’t like. Throughout the book, he calls himself “nakedly ambitious,” “selfish,” and “a coward.” He writes about his struggle to reconcile his Christian faith with working for a president who, for example, “totally lacked nuance” in his attitude toward refugees—particularly “persecuted Christians,” whom Trump “promise[d]” to help but “[never] did.” Sims writes that he took this concern at one point to Stephen Miller, who, he writes, told him, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.”

Meanwhile, he writes, he “never heard any of the faith leaders who actually had access to Trump” press him on the issue. He describes Trump’s evangelical advisory board as a collection largely of televangelist adherents to the prosperity gospel, people he “doubted” were “positive moral and spiritual influence[s] on the president.” “When the president occasionally struggled … to unify the country on divisive cultural issues, the silence of his ‘spiritual advisers’ was deafening,” Sims writes. “What is the point of having moral authority, as all these advisers claimed to, if you don’t stand up for morality?

“But as is so often the case, when I point my accusatory finger at someone, I have three more pointing back at me,” he continues, writing that his “greatest regret” from his time in the White House was “that I wasn’t a better picture of my faith.”

Perhaps the harshest indictment of the White House in Sims’s book is not so much the things he saw but the fact that he was able to see them, even as the administration barreled into year two. Ultimately, as Sims’s book suggests, John Kelly might have helped streamline access to the president, but he failed to quash the free-for-all rhythms that had governed the West Wing from the beginning.

The experience came to an end for Sims in spring 2018. As he sought to leave the communications shop for a role elsewhere, a complicated web of events would leave him on the cusp of one job after another, from the assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs to a senior adviser post at the State Department. When the latter offer fell through, Sims writes, he accepted that factions within the White House were determined to keep him out of the administration. He writes that Kelly told senior staff that Sims was “fired” for getting caught recording the president during a meeting, a charge Sims denies.

For Sims, the worst part, he writes, was that despite their close relationship, Trump never fought to keep him on board. “Kelly had told him I was untrustworthy. But he didn’t know whether to believe him because I’d always been so loyal. All he had to do was say, ‘Hey, leave Cliff alone, okay? He’s going to State, he’s out of your hair. But he’s my guy, so let him go,’” Sims writes. “But he chose not to do that … we were all disposable.”

Sims told me that he and the president have spoken since he left the White House, but declined to share details of their conversation.

Even though Sims’s book doesn’t hit stores until tomorrow, many outlets have published excerpts in the past week. I asked him how those named in the book have reacted to their portrayals. “The people inside aren’t really talking to me,” he said.

I asked Sims how publishing his book was any different from, say, Conway leaking details of private meetings to reporters. Those sorts of “selective leaks,” he argued, “are designed to sway things one way or the other … paint people in an unfair light.” His book, he maintained, presents scenes in their “proper context.” “I did use some discernment on like, ‘Is this fair?’ and I don’t—I can’t really say what the criteria for that was—it’s more like a gut thing.”

Sims said he’s aware that President Trump might tweet a blistering take on him personally. “That’s something I’ve thought a lot about … like how that would affect my life,” he said. “Number one, though, my identity is not wrapped up in being a Trump staffer … My identity is found in, you know, my faith, and I know who Jesus says I am. So if Trump wants to say I’m something else, then that’s—that’s okay.

“Like, I’m not saying—I don’t want the president to tweet, you know, something super negative about me. You know, it’ll suck,” he said. “But my identity is not wrapped up in this stuff anymore.”

As for the future, Sims told me that he’s considered everything from going to graduate school to becoming a missionary overseas. He said that he and his wife are in the process of adopting a baby from Colombia.

Though he’s “deeply conflicted” about it, he also said that he’s toying with the idea of running for office. He reminded me with a shrug that Senator Doug Jones, in Alabama, is up for reelection in 2020, and that he would be old enough to challenge him.

“I do think what Washington is lacking are people whose identity is not wrapped up in Washington. And so that makes me want to do it sometimes,” he said.

Because Trump’s imprint, he seemed to suggest, is still very much on him. In spite of it all, he does not think of his White House experience, like Kelly, as “the worst f—ing job” he’s ever had. In fact, Sims said, if he were to ever run for office, his former boss would probably serve as a guidepost. “I mean, it would be like a very Trumpian approach. Like, I’m going to go blow things up for four or eight years or whatever.” He laughed. “I feel like that sometimes.”

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