In August, 2016, Cliff Sims, the C.E.O. of an Alabama-based conservative news site, joined the Trump campaign. He then followed Trump to the White House, where he worked as the special assistant to the President and as the director of White House message strategy, before resigning last year. On Tuesday, Sims published a book that is already a best-seller, called “Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House.” It’s a gossipy tell-all, sprinkled with stories of Trump yelling at Paul Ryan, Sims battling John Kelly, and a West Wing full of unseemly people looking out for their own interests. Predictably, after the White House declined to comment on the book, Trump himself lashed out at Sims over Twitter on Tuesday morning, writing, “A low level staffer that I hardly knew named Cliff Sims wrote yet another boring book based on made up stories and fiction. He pretended to be an insider when in fact he was nothing more than a gofer. He signed a non-disclosure agreement. He is a mess!” (The chief operating officer of the Trump campaign tweeted that the campaign will file a lawsuit against Sims.)
In fact, the President comes across better in the book than most of the people around him do—and better than he has in most of the other books written about this White House. Sims has doubts about Trump’s management style and occasionally about his rhetoric, but he remains fundamentally a believer. I spoke with Sims on the phone on Tuesday afternoon. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Trump is responsible for the people around him, how Sims views Trump’s approach to governance, and why he refuses to believe that the President might be a racist.
Are you proud to have served in the Trump Administration?
Yeah, it’s one of the last things I say in the book. I am proud to have worked for the American people, proud to have worked in the White House. And proud to have worked in the Donald Trump White House, in spite of a lot of the misgivings that I had—and I lay them all out in the book. It is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I am glad I did it.
By misgivings, do you mean serving this President specifically, or do you mean the people surrounding him?
Yeah, so, man, there is a lot to unpack there. There are certainly things that the President has done or said that I disagreed with at various times. And some of the things even prior to him being in the White House, things in the campaign obviously would make any Southern Christian boy from Alabama a little squeamish at times. And then the people around him—I think I am pretty clear in the title, “Team of Vipers,” that it is a tough place to work. But, you know, I include myself in the team of vipers, and certainly there were things I did there that I wish I had done differently at various times.
What was the biggest flaw of the people who surrounded Trump?
I think there is an inherent selfishness that is deeply ingrained in some corners of that building. There are various times in the book where I point out my own selfishness—maneuvering to push this staffer out, or to undermine this other colleague, or whatever it might be—and I justified those by saying it would be better for the President if this person were not doing this, that, or the other, but in reality, in retrospect, it was better for me. Those were selfish moves by me. And I think a lot of what I saw in there came from a very selfish place, and one of the criticisms I have of myself is that I didn’t have a servant’s heart a lot of the time while I was there. And that’s a criticism I would apply to a lot of people there.
Do you think there is something about the President that attracts people with these traits, or do you think this is true in every Administration?
I am not sure.
You are not sure?
It is the only White House I have ever worked in. I would have to imagine that any White House is going to be a very competitive environment, attract certain types of people who are clawing for those types of jobs. I bet a lot of it is not abnormal. I do think that the atmosphere that was created there—the work culture—bred that, exacerbated that. And, in any workplace, the culture is driven from the top down. And so I think there probably is something about the way the President leads his team that results in that kind of atmosphere. What exactly that is, I am not sure.
We can all agree that the President is not the most honest person on earth, and many people close to him have been indicted for lying to investigators. You have a President who has not completely separated himself from his business, and you have a lot of people close to him who seem like they are out to make a buck. Do you think there is a connection?
I don’t know. I have never really considered it in that context, man.
You have never considered it?
No, not in that way, exactly. I would like to give that thought a little more consideration before giving a response to it.
Consider it now. You know the President is not always honest with words, and many of his associates have gotten into trouble for lying to investigators. I am curious where you think that culture comes from.
I kind of think I just answered that question. Every culture starts from the top down. I think that you are hitting on something there, and I get where you are coming from, I just don’t know how to articulate how I feel. I think you have a point, but I am not sure how to add to it.
In the book, you write, “The Charlottesville response did not cause me to reconsider working in the White House, the way it seemed to with others. Part of it may have been that I was battle-hardened after a year in the foxhole. But I also just flat-out did not think he was racist. . . . I personally never witnessed a single thing behind closed doors that gave me any reason to believe Trump was consciously, overtly racist. If I had, I could not have possibly worked for him.” Do you want to expand upon that?
Yeah, yeah. I think there is another scene in the book that is illustrative of— Well, so, like, the Congressional Black Caucus meeting in the book, where they came in kind of loaded for bear and ready to really give it to him, and then they sit down with him and realize the same thing a lot of people do, which is: Man, you kinda just can’t help like the guy when you get in the room with him. He is very gregarious and a great host. I really don’t think there is a racist bone in his body. I can keep going on this, though, because I have thought a lot about this.
So when you hear things like birtherism, “shithole countries,” or that someone with Mexican heritage can’t be a fair judge, none of that stuff fazes you?
I think my take on that is very similar to Senator Tim Scott, the only black [Republican] United States senator’s take on it, which is that he can definitely be racially insensitive at times, and the Charlottesville issue really is a picture of something that I think is maybe unique to the Trump Presidency, where we are all watching the same movie, and yet we are seeing completely different things on the screen. If you give Trump the benefit of the doubt on Charlottesville, if you like Trump, when he says there are good people on both sides, what you think is, There are good people who say, “We should not have these monuments because they are monuments to slavery and racism.” And then there are also good people who say—
“Jews will not replace us”?
“Slavery and racism are abhorrent, but we shouldn’t get rid of those monuments, because it is our history, even our bad history.” If you give him the benefit of the doubt, that’s what you think. If you think he is a racist, if you don’t like him, you hear that, you say, “Well, this guy is saying there is such a thing as a good white supremacist.”
The crowd was chanting “Jews will not replace us,” just to be clear. It wasn’t people just concerned with monuments.
I am not trying to relitigate the whole Charlottesville thing. The thing I would have liked to have seen done differently is that the issue of race is such a divisive one, such a hurtful one, something that’s been a problem in our country for so long, that someone having the bully pulpit of the Presidency has an opportunity to bring racial healing and reconciliation in a way that maybe no one else does. I would love to see the President use his bully pulpit for that more effectively.
What’s your understanding of birtherism?
What do you mean? Like, what do you mean, what’s my understanding of it?
What the President was doing there.
I have no idea.
I watched that as a passive observer. That was long before I knew anything about him. I certainly think it was ridiculous, but I have never talked to him about it and don’t really know what that was all about.
Your book jacket says you advise “major corporations, CEOs, and media personalities on a wide range of public affairs and communications issues.” You are selling yourself as a smart D.C. insider, and yet you are telling me here, on the record, that you have no idea what that was about. Is that really what you are doing?
I know what it was about. I thought you were asking me what Donald Trump’s reasons for doing that—
So what do you think it was about?
I don’t know. I have never talked to him about it. I don’t know.
Really? You don’t know?
I guess I am confused at what you are asking.
You have written a book that is going to be a best-seller. You say the President is not a racist. You say you are a communications strategist, you’re selling yourself as a smart guy, and you are telling me you don’t know what birtherism was about. So I am asking you what birtherism is about.
I mean, I know what birtherism was about in terms of what the . . . . I guess I am confused at your question. I am not sure what you are trying to get at here.
You keep saying you know what birtherism is about, but you are not telling me what you think it is about. So what do you think it is about? You have written in your book that Trump does not have a racist bone in his body.
So I think that’s, like, a great example of a time where he does not step up to the plate and take on these race issues in an appropriate way, a helpful way for the country. No doubt that that was terrible. I don’t know what else you want me to say about it.
We have been talking for five minutes about this and it took you that long to say that.
I was not following, like, your line of questioning there. I don’t know why we are harping on this.
We can talk about judges with Mexican heritage, “shithole countries,” a ban on people from majority Muslim countries. You said this in your book, and I am asking why you think that.
My personal experience with him and the way he treats people, the way he treats his staff. I don’t agree with a lot of things he said on the race issue, and you have mentioned several examples of things that didn’t make me feel good. I don’t know what else you want me to say about it.
You said you were proud to work in this Administration, and you are going to make a lot of money off this book, and so it seems fair to ask you about things the President has said.
You write, “Trump could be impulsive, even reckless. Sure, he operated almost entirely off of gut instinct. But he was also the most methodical, patient person I’ve ever seen in the midst of a crisis—the eye of the storm. And you could bet every penny you had that he was going to get up and go to work the next morning.” So the picture of a President who sits around watching Fox is one you would call into question?
I think his style, in terms of the way he organizes his work day, has positives and negatives. If you go back to the things he has written in books, things he has said about the way he operated Trump Org, I do think that that kind of creative chaos can lead to outside-of-the-box thinking, but I think it breaks down in the implementation of his directives, the processes that are so important any time you are trying to implement federal-government-wide policy. That’s where that style has really caused some problems.
Do you feel any regret, especially if you make a lot of money from this book, that you are doing what you say others did, which is using this Administration to profit?
I think, ultimately, the problem right now is that you have books out there that are either super pro-Trump or super anti-Trump, or you have reporter books, and even the best reporters are reliant on their sources, who are often quoted anonymously, and we don’t know where they are coming from. Ultimately, I thought it was important for someone who was there to go on the record and put their name on an honest assessment.
If you had been there during child separation, would you have stayed?
I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe. A staffer always has two options that are honorable, in my view. You say your opinion, and, if the President makes a decision different from what you want, you either subordinate your view and get on board or you quit. There can be honor in both of those. I think the way Secretary Mattis quit—I think there’s nothing wrong with that. Where I have some heartburn is the “resistance from the inside” thing. That was certainly a policy I didn’t feel comfortable with, I didn’t like. I would have responded if I had been inside at the time when it happened. I’d like to think I would have been vocal. But you know what? I point out in the book that sometimes I was a coward.
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