- - Monday, February 11, 2019


By Cliff Sims

St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 360 pages

Cliff Sims, former CEO of Alabama’s Yellowhammer Multimedia, interviewed Donald Trump in 2015 on the eve of the Alabama primary. The interview was a success, they hit it off and Mr. Sims took a leave of absence to join the campaign.

From the start, his duties were largely undefined — writing speech inserts for campaign rallies, drafting talking points for senior campaign officials and surrogates, and, as he puts it, “developing our message.” This was apparently something he did well, earning him, after the historic upset 2016 victory, the title of “Special Assistant to the President and Director of White House Message Strategy,” one of those White House titles created for essentially undefined functions.

Officially, he continued to produce the expected materials, although his first large scale assignment, scripting Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s famous remarks to the media about their incorrect estimates of the inaugural crowd sizes, was a bizarre failure.

Whether the enmity between the two began there is unclear, but throughout the book Mr. Spicer is treated as hostile, a bad manager, a gum-chewing leaker, and disloyal to the president, as were chief of staff Reince Priebus and most others in the administration who had connections with the Republican National Committee.

As Mr. Sims burrows in, he begins, albeit perhaps unconsciously, to play the courtier game, one played in every court — and in many White Houses — since history began. Mr. Sims was always there, always on the spot, roaming the White House, stopping in to chat, sitting in, often uninvited, on meetings that looked interesting, and always taking voluminous notes.

And given the very small and tight geography of the White House, the president was never far away, always in need of a gofer, an errand boy, someone who will always respond properly to the ideas bounced off him — a courtier, in short. And for a year or so, Mr. Sims played the game well.

But a central problem faced by every courtier who manages to ingratiate himself with the prince or chief executive is that his success does not go unnoticed. And in a small space crowded with court functionaries — many of them members of warring cliques and factions, unscheduled meetings, unexplained missions, excessive face time and intense private conversations — never go unnoticed.

As Mr. Sims becomes absorbed in court intrigue, he increasingly also becomes involved with factions, each of them intent on gaining the president’s approval and all of them with their preferred media leaks. Mr. Sims supplies the names of leakers, again predominantly those with RNC connections, and leakees, as well as the various Washington restaurants and watering holes where they met.

To strengthen his status with the president, Mr. Sims, although he doesn’t use the word, became a snitch, reporting to the president on who was and wasn’t loyal, often helping bring careers to an end. On one occasion, he helped the president prepare an enemies’ list, fingering those staffers at all levels that he judged were insufficiently loyal to their leader.

As the story unfolds, life outside the White House and its cabals grows steadily less important. There’s little attention given to the compelling issues with which the leader of the free world is expected to deal, only the PR aspects. Instead, Mr. Sims expands on the internal battles, among them the very short tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director, to which he devotes a full chapter, “The Mooch is Loose.”

Mr. Sims had personal skin in this game, having been told by Mr. Scaramucci that he’d be named his deputy communications director and chief of staff for the communications department. But then came a New Yorker piece quoting Mr. Scaramucci, with startling obscenities included, about how he was going to deal with his White House enemies. Shortly thereafter, he was fired by the president’s new chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly. For the rest of his tenure, as reflected in his various comments, Mr. Sims never thought well of Gen. Kelly. And the feeling was obviously mutual.

Mr. Sims, whose own departure was ignominious, claims to have come to realize that the Scaramucci affair dramatized many of the administration’s flaws and “encapsulated every human flaw that I embodied during my time in the White House I clawed, schemed and maneuvered to secure a better position for myself.”

So what’s the moral of Mr. Sims story? Perhaps it’s that when you slither with the vipers, you’ll eventually get bitten.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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