Occasionally it’s good to read a book you don’t agree with — it makes you take stock of your own values. In that spirit I tackled “Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House” by Cliff Sims.
Sims, like presidential adviser Stephen Miller, is from the Jeff Sessions wing of the Republican Party. In 2016 he was the CEO of Yellowhammer Multimedia — “Alabama’s premier source for political news.” He was riding high after helping to bring down Alabama’s Republican governor, who was having an adulterous affair. Sessions arranged for Sims, 35, to work for the Donald Trump campaign as a communications adviser.
Even as he joined up, Sims considered Trump “a deeply flawed man,” but he joined because “the balance of the Supreme Court was on the line.” I agree with that, but not with the type of people he wants to see on the high court.
The book confirms the view of the White House presented by others: a chaotic place wracked by infighting. Trump is comfortable with the chaos, Sims wrote, but the tensions contributed to a “culture of ruthlessness” that was “so all-consuming that survival became a full-time job.”
Sims was one of the vipers. A special assistant who was close enough to the president that he carried a travel size of Trump's hairspray in his pocket, he in particular blamed people who had come from the Republican National Committee — chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and their allies — for anonymously disparaging Trump, and he worked to undermine them.
Since Priebus and Paul Ryan, speaker of the House for Trump’s first two years, are both from Wisconsin, it was interesting to read Sims’ comment that Trump considered them weak. Trump once walked out of the Oval Office in the middle of a Ryan presentation — a reflection both of Trump’s famously short attention span (“you could lose his interest in a matter of seconds”) and his lack of respect for Ryan.
As the White House environment grew more toxic, Sims missed Alabama and his friends from church and he even asked: “What does it profit a man to survive in Trump’s White House but forfeit his own soul?”
He found it hard to understand why, in moments of crisis, the “better angels … rarely prevailed over the demons of division, discord, and negativity.” I, in turn, found it hard to understand how a person who presents himself as pretty religious could keep working for such a president, even though Sims admitted that he too is flawed — selfish and ambitious as he sought a better White House job.
After serving 15 months, he got on the wrong side of Priebus' successor and was out of a job — even blocked from a position in the State Department. He tried to appeal directly to Trump, but to no avail: “I had let my personal relationship with the president blind me to the one unfailing truth that applied to anyone with whom he didn’t share a last name: we were all disposable.”
Sims sees his time on the Trump team as “a cautionary tale of the corrosive effects of power” and wrote that he is continuing to wrestle with his own moral failings. Give him credit for that, but also remember that he's proud to have worked for Trump and he didn’t leave Trump World voluntarily.
One of the book's interesting stories is that Trump offered NASA an unlimited budget if they could land a person on Mars before the end of this first term (not possible). The best chuckle was Sims’ characterization of Kellyanne Conway as Cruella de Ville.
As expected, I disagreed with Sims on many things, but his book is interesting and well written. And when even a Trump supporter provides story upon story showing how flawed our president is, that just reinforces how crucial it is for Trump to be defeated in 2020.
Judie Kleinmaier of Madison is a semi-retired opinion editor for The Cap Times.
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