Books about the Trump Administration have so far fallen into two broad camps: pro-Trump hagiographies (“In Trump We Trust,” “Let Trump Be Trump,” “Understanding Trump”) and dishy tell-alls (“Unhinged,” “Fire and Fury,” “Fear”).
Former White House special assistant Cliff Sims tries something different in his new book, “Team of Vipers”: a juicy pro-Trump tell-all.
As the title indicates, Sims mostly trains his fire on the people around the president. And in a move straight out of a 19th century novel of manners, he includes himself in that rogue’s gallery as a wide-eyed naif from the countryside who frequently wonders if he’s compromising his ideals in the big city.
The introduction promises something of a burn book, calling the president’s inner circle “a portrait of venality, stubbornness, and selfishness.” “We leaked. We schemed. We backstabbed. Some of us told ourselves it was all done in the service of a higher calling — to protect the President, to deliver for the people. But usually it was for ourselves.”
The pages that follow mostly deliver on that promise, but not as much as you would think.
In some cases, the revenge is a dish that’s fairly warmed over. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon is portrayed — surprise! — as foul-mouthed, rude and unkempt: “If he had been wandering around the streets outside Trump Tower, instead of inside it, passersby would have handed him their spare change.”
Omarosa Manigault, the former “Apprentice” villain and Trump Administration turncoat, is described — shockingly! — as a backstabber: “Let’s just say I did my best to get her what she needed. I figured she was trouble I didn’t need.”
And former White House spokesman Sean Spicer comes in for a heavy beating as — you won’t believe this! — an overworked careerist in an ill-fitting suit. In a retelling of the inauguration crowd size fiasco, Spicer takes most of the blame for spreading what turned out to be “alternative facts”: “Nobody stopped to make certain it was true. Nobody had time. Spicer, in all his manic glory, had worked us all into a frenzy.”
For the most part, these and other former staffers who take the brunt of the criticism in Sims’ book — former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former communications directors Mike Dubke and Anthony Scaramucci, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, retired moderate Rep. Charlie Dent, former economic advisor Gary Cohn — share a common trait: They’re already on the outs with Trump.
That makes the exceptions stand out. The book takes repeated shots at former campaign head and current White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, portraying her as self-serving, and, basically, a liar. An extended sequence describes her dictating a statement denying that she leaks even as she was texting with “no fewer than a half-dozen reporters” from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Politico and Bloomberg. (Sims, who was using her computer, writes that he could inadvertently see them because of iMessage syncing.)
“It became hard to look at her without getting the sense that she was a cartoon villain brought to life,” Sims writes. “Her agenda — which was her survival over all others, including the President — became more and more transparent. Once you figured that out, everything about her seemed calculated; every statement, even a seemingly innocuous one, seemed poll tested by a focus group that existed inside her mind.”
Overall, the book is cleverly packaged.
While a rising conservative journalist in Alabama before he joined the Administration, Sims is hardly a household name, and his book would be buried under a stack by the likes of Jeanine Pirro and Corey Lewandowski if it didn’t have a little spice. But as a conservative millennial who presumably wants to continue to have a future in the GOP, he can’t go full Omarosa, either.
For all his talk of a team of vipers, though, Sims has nothing but positive things to say about Hope Hicks, Vice President Mike Pence, Ivanka and Jared Kushner and First Lady Melania Trump and others who remain in the president’s good graces. And while he expresses reservations with Trump’s style and some of his decisions, he is generally simpatico with his core agenda and makes an effort to tout him as a genius in politics and branding.
That said, his praise is often inadvertently damning.
In one chapter, Sims describes an Oval Office meeting in which Ryan tried in vain to bring Trump up to speed on the health care bill, going into too much detail for Trump’s “short attention span.” Trump, bored, eventually got up and walked out of the room, even as Ryan was talking, walked down a hallway and turned on a flat-screen TV in the private dining room, leaving the speaker sitting awkwardly with Sims until the segment was over.
“The President sat back down. With no explanation, apology or acknowledgement of what had just happened, he resumed the conversation as if he hadn’t just walked out of the room to catch up on TV,” Sims writes. “What a power move.” (Italics his.)
As it turns out, the legislation that Ryan was discussing — one that Republicans had promised for years, a central part of Trump’s agenda, a bill that would affect the daily lives of millions of Americans — failed. And while Sims rightly casts some of the blame on Republican leaders in Congress, he waves away any responsibility by Trump, who he argues is too much of a visionary to get down into the weeds.
That may or may not be true, but in other sections of the book, he describes a Trump who can be very detail-oriented when the topic is one he cares about.
A careful student of cable news, Trump critiques which channel has the best on-screen graphics, obsesses over which reporters repeated the daily talking points, knows the camera angles in every room (he prefers the camera to show the right side of his head), shares opinions on the lighting and requires a staffer carry a can of his preferred hairspray (TRESemmé Tres Two, extra hold).
And when he decides to renovate parts of the West Wing, Trump is suddenly a detail-oriented micromanager, scrolling through decor options with his executive assistant, ensuring the decorations in each room are from the correct time period and even personally requesting a Pennsylvania company make a new batch of a discontinued wallpaper pattern. “No item of decor was too small to pass his notice,” Sims writes.
Trump never shows this same kind of care in hiring his staff, however, and Sims is not the only one to make the case that he’s being ill-served by his advisors. Excerpts of another upcoming book by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie show it goes even further in criticizing some of Trump’s advisors as “riffraff” who are greedy, inexperienced and not ready for prime time.
This is a fairly useful dodge for Trump supporters looking to explain away the troubled Administration as they consider their 2020 votes: It’s not Trump who is the problem, but the people around him. But it was Trump himself who hired those people, something he acknowledged about the job as a candidate in 2015.
“I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he said. “We want top of the line professionals.”
If, as Sims argues, Trump got instead a team of vipers, he has only himself to blame. As former Clinton adviser William Galston once noted, “every President gets the White House he deserves.”