Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House
By Cliff Sims
Thomas Dunne Books, 2019
When people leave the Trump administration, they tend to fall into three categories: Group A gets lawyers; Group B gets jail time; Group C gets book deals. Cliff Sims, who worked as a communications aide to the Trump campaign and administration until his tenure ended abruptly in the spring of 2018, fits squarely in Group C. The problem is one followers of what we must call “Trump books” will recognize from many earlier titles: the more you know, the less you can write, either because your lawyers forbid it, or because your prison cell doesn’t come with stationary, or because you’ve signed one of the non-disclosure agreements that have filled Donald Trump’s world like oxygen for the past sixty years (Trump’s youngest son Barron signed his first one the same month he learned to write his name). It’s challenging to write a tell-all when your legal fees will exceed your book advance.
It’s even more challenging when you don’t have anything to tell, which is Sims’ problem. His book, Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House, could easily have been written by a complete stranger to “Trump World”; despite the fact that Sims met with the candidate, met with many of the campaign’s most prominent felons, and actually spent time in the White House of the worst Presidential administration in American history, there’s virtually nothing in this book that couldn’t have been written by a careful viewer of MSNBC.
But he was there in the hallways for a year and change, and he got a St. Martin’s deal, so here is Team of Vipers, ready to tell readers what they already know about the Trump White House: that it’s fundamentally broken, that it’s full of whispers and accusations, and that it’s ruled over by a temperamental, dimwitted tyrant. In every single anecdote Sims relates, every single encounter with as-yet-unindicted top Trump administration officials, and especially every single scene actually shared with Trump himself, the stain of the book darkens a bit more. Everywhere in the book, Trump is a coarse, self-absorbed, petulant, dismissive employer. Sims is fairly explicitly aware of this; he even watches it seep into his own life:
Mirroring is a phenomenon in which people subconsciously mimic each other in social settings - their body language, posture, and gestures. In Trump World, mirroring took on a life of its own. At home, I’d find myself repositioning my silverware the same way Trump would at the dinner table. While making speeches I would realize - sometimes in the moment, sometimes while watching video after the fact - that I was using certain Trumpian mannerisms. All of us on staff seemed to have adopted his counterpunching mentality, at various times deploying it against the press, our political adversaries, and even our colleagues.
But “mirroring” can only be blamed for so much. Half-way through the book, during an appalling scene in which Trump takes Sims aside, literally uses the words “Give me names,” and proceeds to listen eagerly while Sims slanders every one of the colleagues he works with and smiles at every day, readers will be recalling the truism that defines “Trump World”: not “power corrupts,” but “power attracts the corruptible.” Team of Vipers would have considerably more punch if it weren’t so clearly written by one of the vipers.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.