When I met him on Thursday morning, Cliff Sims was just a few blocks away from the White House, the place he worked for the “500 extraordinary days” that provided most of the material for his memoir, Team of Vipers, released last week. Sims endured on Donald Trump’s campaign and in the West Wing by laying low; he was an unseen member of the communications staff, an unnamed source to reporters, a self-described fly-on-the-wall taking notes as history in all of its splendor and grim stupidity unfolded before him. Now, Sims is suddenly on the record and highly visible as he promotes his story to the media and the public, a tour that began in New York on Good Morning America with George Stephanopoulos — whose own political memoir about his time working for Bill Clinton, All Too Human, served as inspiration for Sims — and has included stops at some of the president’s most TiVoed programs, like Morning Joe.
An Alabama native who first met Trump in 2015, when he was a guest on his radio program, Sims is a conservative who believes in the central ideas to which the president’s critics object, like restricting immigration and cutting taxes. This book is not his penance, and in interviews — including this one — Sims says he doesn’t regret working for Trump. Instead, he regrets aspects of his own behavior over the last three years, moments he says he was petty or cowardly or out to serve himself rather than the president and the country. Sims is unsparing in his judgment of many of his former colleagues, like Kellyanne Conway, whom he describes as a prolific leaker. But many of Sims’s issues with the people he worked with boil down to their lack of loyalty to Trump; that unlike him, they weren’t true believers and they wanted Trump to become something other than who he is. For some readers, this might be hard to take, and Sims is conscious of this, writing at one point that “many people reading” his book might say, “Thank God,” upon learning that “some of the President’s most senior aides” seemed to think there was “something patriotic about undermining Trump’s most disruptive impulses.” He found such people “cowardly,” however. Whether or not you’re inclined to agree, the story Sims tells is a worthwhile one. He is a better writer than most others — journalists included — who have published books about this White House, and while the anecdotes he shares reveal little we didn’t already know about Trump, they are illuminating nonetheless. If you’ve ever asked yourself what kind of person would go to work in Trump’s White House, or struggled to see those who do as anything more than agents of chaos or worse, Sims’s story does a lot to explain how a person could find themselves in such a situation and what it really feels like on the inside. One of the most interesting moments in the book is a scene in which a crisis surrounding the president is unfolding in the press (as it always is) and Sims finds himself and his colleagues standing around, watching it happen on the TVs in the West Wing. He writes, “It was like we all started just watching the television show, forgetting that we were actually supposed to be supporting actors.”
Although he paints a sometimes flattering and consistently sympathetic portrait of his former boss, no rollout of a White House “tell-all” would be complete without Trump directing an angry tweet in the author’s direction, making the book in question more popular than it would’ve been had he ignored it (See: Wolff, Michael; Woodward, Bob; Omarosa, Omarosa). As if on cue, Trump called Sims a “low level staffer that I hardly knew,” “a gopher,” and, “a mess.” He said Team of Vipers was “yet another boring book based on made up stories and fiction.” Trump also claimed Sims signed a nondisclosure agreement. Asked if that was true, Sims said he “assumed” he signed whatever Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie, and Sean Spicer — all former Trump aides who went on to write books — signed. Pressed further, Sims said, “I really don’t remember. I do vaguely remember flying through a giant stack of onboarding paperwork, both at Trump Tower and then again when I came into the White House. But I really don’t remember what all was in there.” Whatever the case, by 10 a.m. on the fourth day of his national coming-out party, Sims had been awake for four hours and estimated that in that time he’d already done about a dozen interviews. For around 60 minutes, we talked in an unoccupied radio booth at ABC News’ Washington bureau about his note-taking process, how he defines leaks, and whether you can be good at your job working for president Donald Trump and still be a moral person. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you document what happened during your time with Donald Trump? Some of the passages in the book are highly detailed. Reading it, I thought you either had to be recording it or taking detailed notes immediately after the fact.
I didn’t have any audio recordings of any of this stuff, but what I did do, as part of my job when I first got there in the White House is — you know, you’ll see me in the background of all these pictures of whatever meeting, like foreign leader meetings or whatever it may be, and it’s really funny to look back at it now, because in almost every picture I have a pen and pad in my hand, and the reason is that we kind of operated under the assumption that something’s gonna leak out of these meetings.
I was just sitting in these meetings, taking detailed notes, especially about what the president said. Because normally that’s when we hear that “Trump said XYZ,” and I would say, “Well, kind of, but that’s not exactly right.” And so I have these like — had all these detailed notes from those meetings.
And then part of the reason why I think that it rings so true, especially when Trump is talking in the book, is I wrote so much for him that I know how he talks. I know his syntax. I would take these notes I took for work and I would go home and, on the weekends — I read George Stephanopoulos’s book, [and] he would on the weekends sometimes just remember all these things happening. At the time, I don’t think he was trying to write a book either, it’s just we all want to remember this time of our life. So I just had all these notes, almost like a diary of, like, What does this mean for me? And what I experienced and all of that together kind of became this book.
Did it ever occur to you to just ask if you could just record the meetings and have it on file?
Well, no, because most of the things that we’re talking about here happened in, like, the Cabinet Room, or the Oval or wherever, where phones aren’t allowed. Like, there are boxes outside the room where you drop your phone before you go in.
I don’t mean to seem hung up on it. It just struck me while I was reading it, there were like chunks of text that I thought, you know, how could you remember when so much is happening all the time?
But I think also one of the things that I realized was that my background as a journalist was extraordinarily helpful in writing this book. I intuitively noticed details that maybe you wouldn’t if you hadn’t spent years — I mean, you know, your stories are always very detailed about like you know, you’ll probably write something about the way I’m sitting right now or just like whatever [Note: His manner of sitting was unremarkable], you just, it becomes a part of you that you notice things like that.
Where are those notes now?
There’s kind of two sets of notes, so to speak. One is, you’ve got the things that I did at the White House, kind of just part of my job. When I left the White House the last time, I left them there. So pretty much all the stuff I wrote was based off the other set of notes: I’d go home late at night and kind of repackage things.
Hold up. If I transcribe this, people aren’t going to understand what my face is doing right now. But I’m making a very perplexed face. You left your notes from your 500 days there?
There were a lot of them. Some of the folders, some of the …
Did they ask you to leave them?
No, but I just kinda made an assumption that those are part of my job. You know what I mean? Those are part of the record, I assume, and so I left those there.
I just can’t believe you left your notes.
Well, because some days it’s like, I don’t have my notebook here, I need to grab a piece of paper. I scrawl whatever out and there are burn bags all over the White House that — you just dump reams of stuff into them throughout the day. All kinds of stuff goes into the burn bags, so some of it was burned over time.
I didn’t know that about the White House.
We have garbage cans, but the default is like — let’s just put stuff in the burn bag.
So do you know what happened to your notes?
No, I don’t.
I have sort of a tricky question and I don’t know how to ethically, transparently handle it.
What a strange lead-in.
Well, I never said I was a great interviewer. So you were asked by Joy Behar on The View if you leaked and you said no.
How do you define a leak?
Well, first of all I think all leaks are not created equal, right? So you have like national security leaks. Like, if you leaked a transcript of the president’s foreign leader calls.
That would be the most literal definition of leak, right? Classified information?
Yes. And then there are others, like a policy thing. If the president made a decision that’s not public yet and so we’re going to leak this policy thing to try to get him turned around because maybe the backlash will be so severe that he’ll change his mind or whatever. The best example of that is, I remember at one point, I think it was Politico, did a story that the president was going to pull out of NAFTA. That he had told the aides that he was going to pull out of NAFTA. Well, it ended up, of course, he never did pull out of NAFTA.
A lot of people say that the losing side of that policy argument leaked that. Then there is, “White House official says Donald Trump is crazy,” kind of stuff. And then there are, like you know, a reporter calls and says, “I’m hearing XYZ about this, is this true or not?” And it’s like, “Well, on background I can say that that’s not true.” Or “Okay, that did happen,” or whatever.
So it’s all these different leaks and I think when the public hears “leaks,” they think more of the former type. You leak privileged information, or insider details about policy that wasn’t public yet, or you trashed the president. I never did any of that.
When Trump says leak, what does he mean?
I think, more often than not, he probably means: How in the world did the transcription of my foreign leader calls get out, or how did Politico know we had talked about pulling out of NAFTA? That kind of stuff.
How do you think about it? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, if a reporter were to call someone in the White House and say, “I heard this was said in this meeting, can you tell me on deep background who was in the meeting and can you provide me with some more context about what was said,” and they comply, is that a leak?
I think there’s some gray area there. Because as a press or comms staffer, you know it’s part of your job to interact with the press and you want to be as helpful as you can in appropriate ways, so there is a version of what you just laid out in which I don’t think it would be leaking to help provide some context to a story you’re writing. We can use a literal version. Doesn’t bother me at all. You called me before and said, “I’d like to write a story about the way that Donald Trump does videos, about how he records.” And I helped you understand the quirks that he has and the way that he works and whatever — and I wasn’t named in this story as a source but I was willing to help you with your story.
Were you still working there at the time? I can’t remember.
I can’t remember now either. But that’s an example of, whether I was working there or not, I would have been willing to help you with that story.
So I guess my question is: How do you justify telling Joy Behar on national television, unequivocally, “No, I haven’t leaked,” given how nuanced the definition of leaking is.
Because I know the connotation of what she’s saying there. I understand what she’s getting at, so I feel comfortable saying no to that.
You never leaked any privileged information?
Honestly I was sort of perplexed by your answer to Behar. As you said, you were a source on stories like mine regarding the president’s Rose Garden videos. And in parts of the book, you group yourself in with others — you use the word “we” about the infighting and the way that it spilled out publicly.
There was definitely a time in the White House where I and many others had a very kill-or-be-killed mentality. That these people were coming after me and they’re gonna shape the story that they want out there, so “we” better do the same thing. I think that was a pervasive mentality early on in the administration and one in which I 100 percent felt like I fell into at various points.
But more often than not, it was, you know, I would just say to the president that Sean Spicer sucks. And that’s way more — you know if your ultimate goal is to influence the way that the president makes decisions at a staffing level, why do it through the media when you can just tell him directly? I mean, as I lay out in several scenes in the book, the president says, “What do we think about Sean?” You know? I would tell the president what I thought about Sean.
I miss that era so much.
I do not.
Was there a moment when you thought you’d become, or were becoming, someone you didn’t like, or someone who scared you during the campaign or in the White House?
I didn’t feel like I had become someone who scared me. I did feel like that there were things about me, that I’d become someone I didn’t like, though.
It was mainly because of stuff that we just talked about. Like the things that I was willing to do to get ahead, or to push somebody else out. Really just like the raw ambition that kind of manifests itself when you get closer and closer to power and people in power.
I’ve obviously written about palace intrigue over the last two years. I’ve always justified it — and maybe this is just me bullshitting myself, you tell me what you think — as important because when we understand what the environment in the White House is like, since the fish rots from the head down, it says something about the president. I never just assumed that the people in the White House, or those who had left the White House, who were talking to me about other people still there, were purely out for themselves, purely trying to get ahead.
Certainly the way you justify that — I justified a lot of these things in the moment. Would it be way better for the president if Sean Spicer were not the press secretary because it was an unmitigated disaster? Not just on the camera, but in ways he didn’t see? In terms of how he interacted with the press? I mean, you’re a reporter, you know how bad it was.
So yeah, I justified it by saying it would be better for the president — but if I’m honest with myself, the main motivating factor was that it would have been better for me if he were not here.
What did you want?
Just to be left alone to do a good job. What I wanted was a meritocracy, and that’s not what I found in the White House. It was like, who are you friends with? Who is your buddy that has the power to put you in a certain spot?
I talk a lot about my faith in the book and how I wrestled with Donald Trump as a person and the values that he holds close and the values that I hold close. But another thing was, you know, I gave in to the atmosphere that I’m just talking about — the cutthroat atmosphere. I never attempted to make that better. One great example — I know there were other Christians in the White House and some of them I didn’t get along great with. And at one point, I thought it would be really cool if we figured out a way to get outside of this, like everything is work, work, work and we gotta go at each other’s throats and, you know, whatever. What if we did a Bible study together in the morning? It’s a lot harder to go at somebody when you spent a half-hour of your day praying with them. You know what I mean? I never had the courage to do something like that while I was in the White House.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I just didn’t. It was like I was so caught up. I’d rather rip your face off than sit here and pray with you for 30 minutes. There is, I think, cowardice in that.
Can you be good for this president, can you be successful at helping him achieve his goals, and be a moral person?
Yeah. Sure. Look — every staffer has a decision they make every time the president makes a decision, if they disagree with it. Is what he is about to do so reprehensible to me that I need to quit? Or do we just have a disagreement on policy and, as a staffer, I’ll ultimately subordinate my views to his and get on board. A great example is Charlottesville. For some people, what happened in Charlottesville was reprehensible to the point that they could not morally stay. And I think that’s okay.
Who actually left? Did anyone actually leave? Nobody actually left.
Uh, well I guess … I feel like Gary Cohn wrote the letter.
Yeah, but he just leaked it to the press.
I do think some of the lower-level staffers — there’s a scene in the book where I hear them talking about that, like, “Maybe we should leave.” I can’t get inside their head to know whether that was because they were worried about their career or were repulsed by Charlottesville, but the point that I’m making is I do think that you can be a moral person — be a good person — and work for Donald Trump and try to help him, you know, steer him in a positive direction.
I think that Mike Pence is a genuinely good man. And granted, he’s kinda inextricably linked to it all because he got voted in there, and so he’s the vice president, but I do think that he’s maintained his moral integrity working there in what can be a pretty tough place to do that.
I remember when Trump was selecting a vice president, having this conversation more often than I’ve had it since, like — What are the reasons that someone would take that job? And you can apply it to any job in the administration, I guess. One of the ways you could justify it is that you’d be a barrier against Trump’s worst impulses coming to fruition. That’s probably the best reason to take a job like that, right?
But how true is that?
Well, I did talk about some of that in the book, that when my wife and I were talking about whether or not I should go do this, that she made a great point, I think, which was: How many people have this chance? And if we don’t take this chance, how in the world can you ever again say, “I wish there were people in Washington who represented my values or represented the way I think.” It’s like, wait a second, you had a chance to be that person and you said you didn’t want to do it.
If I were a cynic, I might look at this and say, this is a really well-constructed story, it’s really well-written. There are compelling reasons to give the protagonist the benefit of the doubt. But you are a comms guy, so is this just a brilliant bit of PR?
I think we’ve done a really good job with the rollout of the book. But if I were wanting to make myself the hero of this story, I probably wouldn’t have written the book that I did. Because in a lot of ways, I’m not the hero of this story.
But you wouldn’t be the hero of your story if you did not accept fault and blame yourself and if you’re weren’t hard on yourself in parts of it, right? It’s much easier …
I see what you’re saying.
You are all too human in this story, right? You’re the flawed protagonist. But if you weren’t, nobody would buy what you’re saying, right?
I see what you’re saying. I mean, look, I’m a cynic, too. If I don’t know me from anywhere other than what I’ve seen on TV, then a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. I don’t know how to combat that other than just being myself. I do think I went into this whole — like I’ve never been this public-facing before. I’ve never had to go on TV before, and actually, Anthony Scaramucci gave me some interesting advice.
Oh? Who’s that again?
I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. Mooch said, “Well I think the key is, on TV, you play the person that you want to be and so it [keeps] you, like, a step removed from the personal aspect of it.” I think he’s saying that it’s like a psychological tool to give you some separation. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought — I can’t do that. I think the reason why it comes across as authentic is because you watch me in real-time as I wrestle with the answer. I think that’s so rare on television.
Yeah, it’s hard to have a nuanced conversation on TV.
Yeah, my point is I wanted to just be me on TV, and if people hated it or thought I was some freaking huckster from Alabama or didn’t believe it … Then, like, there’s nothing I can do about that. But it is just me.
What did your family think about all of this?
My mom was one of the first people to read the book after it was done and actually she’s a great editor, like copy editor. After reading the book, she called me and kind of apologized to me because I think they were frustrated when I was in the White House, that I didn’t talk to them that much and when we did talk, I didn’t want to talk about it, really. My dad said after I left, “There was something different about you while you were in there,” and they didn’t know what it was at the time. If he had asked me at the time if I was stressed out, I would [have said], “No.” I didn’t feel stressed while I was in the White House, but further removed, I realize just how much anxiety went along with working in that building.
I guess I say all that to say that they were very supportive of what I was doing. They are a great example of the evangelicals around the country who said, “You know, I don’t like Hillary. I don’t know what I think about Donald Trump, but I’d rather take a chance there because I don’t like anything Hillary is gonna do policy-wise.” But I will say that our family, in general, is much happier and much closer now that I’m out of there.
You said a few times that you still think he is fit to be president, right?
How do you come away from all of this and think he’s fit to serve?
What is the metric by which we decide if someone is fit to serve? Is Donald Trump the prototypical president, if I could craft the president that I would want? No. Are there other Republicans, conservatives who I would prefer? Yes. But at the bare-bones level, is this person intelligent enough to hold the office? Is he trustworthy with the nuclear codes, so to speak? There’s kind of a baseline of fitness, and I think he meets those benchmarks, but that is not to let him off the hook for the tons of ways that I wish he were different or better.
I’m trying to have a nuanced perspective on him as a human, on his abilities. That’s really difficult to do in the current media environment where you pretty much either hate the guy or you love the guy.
I know, based on people I’ve gotten to know very well, whom I’ve covered, or just whom I’ve talked to for almost four years now, that the president has flashes of being caring, even empathetic. He can be paternal. But on balance, I see him as being almost a debilitatingly self-centered individual. And I think it would be debilitating in any context: business, if he were the mayor of a small town, and certainly as president. Is that an inaccurate description of him?
I don’t think so. I do think that he is extraordinarily focused on himself and the way that he is perceived. I think some of the things that we just mentioned, there are times when Trump, the brand, is in conflict with Trump, the man. I think that the Parkland shooting is a great example. I wrote in the book that, behind the scenes, he was adamant that — I’m going to Parkland tomorrow to make sure these people know that I care. There’s another part in the book where he finds out that [William] Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL, has been killed, the first one under his command. And I can tell that it hurt him. Like it really hit him, the weight of what he has to do. Those moments are not on-brand, though, because the Trump brand is the hard-charging — go look at the cover of his book, the campaign book, Crippled America, and he’s scowling and looking down, and it’s like, tough — never back down. And some of that is part of who he is. But I do think that — even if it’s a very small part of him — he does care about people. I just think he has an almost complete inability to communicate that in a way that he feels comfortable with publicly.
So if he shows a flash of sensitivity, is he quick to shut that down?
I think probably so, yes. Like, can you imagine Donald Trump crying? I can’t.
I don’t think he could be impeached for being an asshole or anything. But I think the leader of the free world should be someone with a capacity to display empathy. As you said, he should be able to unite the country.
I guess the only thing that I would disagree with you there is that it’s disqualifying. Like is that something I would love in our leader? Yeah, sure. But I don’t think that makes you literally unfit to be president of the United States.
You really think he’s intelligent enough?
Yeah, definitely. I do, I do. People always talk about things like, he doesn’t read or whatever, and I think it’s kind of hypocritical to criticize him about the way he learns when we spend all our time telling kids that, “You’re just a visual learner or you learn this way and that’s okay,” but as president, that’s disqualifying. I’ve seen, for instance, on the trade issue, where they come in with maps and charts that show various economic data and he consumes it like boom, he’s got it. Quickly.
So I think he’s very smart, but I do think that there’s a … there is sometimes an overreliance on his gut instinct.
I mean, if you go with your gut and your gut is based on your moral code, your faith, that’s different from the president going with his gut and his gut is based on, like, “Will I win if I do this or not,” right? That seems to be what guides him.
He is willing to endure any amount of criticism to do something that he thinks is the right thing. What I could never quite ascertain, though, is what is the moral code by which he ascertains what the right thing is.
You never got any clues?
I mean, uh, there’s no question that the quickest way to give the president advice that he will take, is to present it as, this is why it’s best for you, if you don’t tweet that or you say this that way, or whatever.
Russia did not seem to be an active topic of conversation in the White House. Is that the case?
When people talk about the mayhem in the White House and how there are no rules, one hard and fast rule — though it was never spoken — was that that’s just the one topic that no one discusses.
I just — probably just out of, you know, why would I want to have a conversation about a topic that, even if it’s an innocuous conversation. I’m gonna have to go and get asked about later?
It was purely not discussed because of concerns regarding legal visibility?
I don’t know. Again, no one ever had this conversation. It just never came up. No one talked about it.
Does the president fume? There are always stories, like, “the president’s fuming about this.” Based on those reports, you would think that he always has smoke coming out of his ears. Does he fume? Is he a yeller?
This is actually one of the parts of White House reporting that drives me crazy. Like, there are parts of the day where I’m mad; there are parts of the day where I’m happy, and I have any number or range of emotions. So I may get really mad about something and yell for a few minutes, and then ten minutes later I’m on the phone with my buddy and I’m not even thinking of that anymore.
I think this caricature of Trump as stewing all day, in my experience, is inaccurate. Someone compared him to a tea kettle — that he gets steamed up and you just need to let him blow off steam and then he’ll go back to being okay. And if he doesn’t do that, he goes from being a tea kettle to a pressure cooker — and we all know what happens with a pressure cooker. There’s too much pressure in the pressure cooker so he’s going to explode.
What do you hope this book will do?
I really sincerely hope that this is the one book that people read if they want to know what it’s really really like in there. And we’re at a point right now where this is the most talked-about White House in history and the most written-about White House, probably, in history. There’s books about it by former staffers and journalists and all that kind of stuff, and most of them come at it with a perspective, I think. If you’re Omarosa, you want to burn the place down. If you’re Sean Spicer, you want to paint the rosiest picture you possibly can.
I forgot he wrote a book.
And even if you’re Bob Woodward, even if you’re a very respected journalist — you’re reliant upon sources, many of whom you can’t name for whatever various reasons. And I just wanted to be the one person who is willing to put my name on a firsthand account, kind of a first draft of history.
Would you want to go the Stephanopoulos route?
I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I’ve had — I’ve been approached, especially in the wake of the book stuff, with a lot of different, similar opportunities. Somebody at NPR closed their piece out by saying something to the effect of, you know, you may see him on TV every day for the next ten years or he may disappear as a missionary in some foreign country and we will never hear from him again — and I think he’s kinda right about that.
Do you think that the book has so far been successful in clearing the air about you? I’ve talked to other people who’ve left the White House and there is this sense that it hangs over you, even if there are aspects that are positive, especially in communications.
In terms of politics, I don’t care if I ever work in politics again. I do feel like there are a bunch of former White House people who had not gotten the jobs they thought they were gonna get when they left, and I’m in a little bit of a different position than some of them, because I don’t need the money. But I don’t think there’s any question that some of the people who’ve approached me now would not have ever approached me were it not for this book, and were it not for the things I said in this book. I think that that’s fair. I don’t know if clearing the air is the best way to put it, because there are parts of the country, segments of the population, who now dislike me more than they would have had I not done this book.
So I think it cuts both ways. In media, it probably helps. But I kinda want to move back to Alabama. What’s it mean when I move back to Alabama? To be determined.
If I was writing a book about the White House, I would fear an inevitable attack by Trump, because God knows what kind of crazy supporters he has. But I also would want him to attack the book, because it has proven to be very good for books when he attacks them. Were your feelings complicated about whether he and the White House would attack the book? And after he did, how did you feel?
My feelings were complicated. One of the things that surprised me after he tweeted about it was I did not feel anything. I thought maybe I’d feel sad. I mean, I devoted a couple of years of my life to this guy. But for whatever reason, I felt absolutely nothing.
I think part of it is that I’m in a rare position in Washington in that I really don’t need him. Like, there’s nothing that he can do that can hurt me. I found my identity in things other than my work — my faith and that kind of stuff.
Is any part of you happy about it, though? Just from a purely — you wanted a best seller.
I don’t think I’m happy about it.
Would satisfied be a better word?
I just feel fine about it. Honestly, the first thing I thought about after I walked out of there was, there’s a scene in the book where Trump likes an article he saw in the New York Times or something and he said, “Why don’t we get this framed. Will you go get it framed for me?” And so the first thing I thought was, I’m gonna go blow that tweet up, big as I can, and I’m gonna frame it in gold — in honor of Donald Trump. Because why not? I think that would be the most Trumpian thing I could possibly do with that tweet.
Well, thank you for your time.
This was fun.
Refreshing to talk to you on the record.