Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House. Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity.

Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be accurate. I felt like most members of the White House press corps tried to do the same." Working for the Trump campaign, he met Trump during videorecording sessions. He was part of a campaign team that spent so much time at Trump rallies "that we could laughingly predict when the chants of 'Build the wall,' 'CNN sucks,' 'Lock her up,' and 'Drain the swamp' were about to begin." He had the "weighty responsibility" of occasionally commanding @realDonaldTrump, a Twitter account that is "inarguably one of the most powerful communication instruments in modern political history."

Sims was personally at Trump's side throughout Election Night 2016 and heard the president's talk of gaining the presidency change from "if" to "when" as the votes were counted.

He has plenty of criticism of Trump's character. He notes that Trump has a "recurring habit" of talking out both sides of his mouth in the same interview and then (depending on which of those claims later proves inconvenient to him) denying that he ever said it even though there is a record of it.

Trump's inner circle? It is, he says at the beginning of his book,
"a portrait of venality, stubbornness, and selfishness. We leaked. We schemed. We backstabbed. Some of us told ourselves it was all done in the service of a higher calling — to protect the President, to deliver for the people. But usually it was for ourselves. Most of us came to Washington convinced of the justice of our cause and the righteousness of our principles, certain that our moral compasses were true. But proximity to power changes that. Donald Trump changes that. The once clear lines — between right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness — were eroded until only a faint wrinkle remained."

Many of these stories are familiar, and the book reads to me overall like the 2018 books Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff and Fear by Bob Woodward, except that Wolff and Woodward were not insiders and Sims hasn't fully renounced his insider status. I don't imagine he can get a job within the Trump administration and maybe not even within the Republican Party after this book, so he's renounced that part of his career, but in this book he doesn't own his complicity in the wrongs committed by the campaign and by the administration and he doesn't sketch any redemptive plan for himself or others, so the narrative feels slimy.

Some of the characters

He describes Omarosa Manigault: "if there was any meeting, event, or policy specifically relating to the African American community, Omarosa would make sure she was right in the middle of it. She prided herself on being the President’s only African American senior adviser. That was her calling card, her legitimacy in the White House." He also refers to her as having "earned her spot on TV Guide’s list of 'The 60 Nastiest TV Villains of All Time.'"

Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, is "a cartoon villain brought to life. Her agenda — which was her survival over all others, including the President — became more and more transparent...as if she’d already collected ninety-eight Dalmatians with only three more to go."

He describes Ivanka Trump as "a living, breathing Barbie doll," which is his way of saying that she is very beautiful, and he adds that she is "unfailingly polite." That is not the same as saying that she is competent, nor that it is good for unelected politicians to employ their unelected family members regardless of whether those family members might have useful skills (see: nepotism). (Nor is politeness the same as kindness, which Sims points out later, in his epilogue, in reference to himself, when he says that he's learned "that while I was by disposition a polite person, I was not by nature a kind one.")

Trump's character

Trump cared more about winning the election than he cares about being President, Sims admits. Indeed, "the only two issues on which he seemed to have deeply ingrained, long-held beliefs were immigration and trade." Elsewhere, however, Sims notes a limitation of Trump's alleged concern for immigration: Shortly after taking office, Trump told a Christian Broadcasting Network reporter that he'd give immigration priority to persecuted Christians seeking asylum. Sims gives a 2018 update: "the number of Christian refugees admitted to the United States had fallen more than 40 percent under Trump. And as I write this, the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center says that the U.S. is only admitting an average of about one Christian refugee from Syria per month."

As an example of Trump's apparent lack of concern for healthcare: After he took office and the time came for the Republicans to overturn the Affordable Care Act, one House Republican, Charlie Dent, broke ranks and told Trump that the proposed changes to Medicaid were not acceptable. Trump tried to persuade him: "We need a win here, Charlie." In other words, it's not about what kind of healthcare the nation needs, but what kind of party loyalty the Republicans need so that that Trump can "win." The President then told Dent: "You’re destroying your party. We were going to do this, we were going to do taxes, we were going to do infrastructure — so many things. Big things. But we needed a win on this. And it’s a very selfish thing to do. Very selfish. It’s very selfish." How Dent's expressed concern about the value of the healthcare proposal could possibly be "selfish" is not explained in this book.

Sims also admits to his own bad faith actions on immigration, but falls far short of taking ownership and holding himself accountable. Reflecting on Stephen Miller, who once said of asylum-seekers, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil,” Sims says:

"...some members of the administration downplayed the successes of immigrants who came to America, assimilated, and made remarkable contributions to society, while going out of their way to vilify all immigrants with the stories of the bad apples. Any time a refugee or immigrant committed a gruesome crime in the United States, for example, Stephen Miller would come down to the comms office demanding a press release about it. Normally I would help make that happen. I was and am a hard-liner on the issue of illegal immigration."

Note how this argument pivots: Stephen Miller selects facts to give a distorted picture of immigrants. I, in a position of power, knowingly enabled him in his racism. I did this because I have a strong political opinion on immigration that aligns with Miller's agenda and the president's agenda. It is one thing to say that you have a right-leaning opinion and that it is strongly held. It is another matter to pretend that this explains or justifies why you enable White House officials in racist lies. Your political opinions oughtn't depend on endorsing statements that you know are false and racist, nor should you make those false and racist statements to propagate your political opinions. That does not make any sense. It only makes sense if you, yourself, are racist and you don't mind telling lies to achieve a racist goal.

Episodes

In an attempt to damage the Hillary Clinton campaign, Sims drafted a list of talking points about the women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment years earlier, a list which, he claims, was not meant to be final and was accidentally leaked to the press. "Trump never mentioned the talking points himself — something tells me he probably liked them," Sims says, "and I quickly realized that such a misstep was light-years from a fireable offense in this campaign." Trump later produced a three-minute video of himself interviewing four of the women, which Sims exclaimed at the time was "the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life." Steve Bannon also succeeded in seating the four women at one of the presidential debates, a move whose purpose may seem unclear. "If the goal was to rattle the Clinton campaign, it definitely worked," Sims observes.

Sims acknowledges that Trump's phrase "American carnage" in his inaugural address was not in keeping with the traditional presidential style. When did he act presidential? Oh, says Sims, after he ordered an anti-terrorism raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL. There was a big media moment, and he seemed to grasp the gravity of it. Those were good presidential optics, according to Sims.

Problems

At the beginning, he says of the Trump campaign team: "We were each doing the job of numerous Clinton staffers," his evidence being that "the Clinton campaign had literally five times more staffers than we did." But he gives us no reason to assume that the Trump campaign was doing the same work, in amount or in kind. Nor is it necessarily significant that Trump averaged two rallies a day in the month before the election while Clinton averaged only one per day. The number of appearances says nothing about the quality of the speeches, the political engagement of the crowds, the health of the campaign, or the virtues of the overall mission.

In the epilogue, he complained of an "ends-justify-the-means dystopia" exemplified by Hillary Clinton's comment, "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about." If this is his best "gotcha" quote, I am not impressed. There is serious debate over what civility is (is it just politeness? dialogue? democratic norms? can it be one-way, or does it have to be two ways?) and whether it is good or even possible to be civil with someone who is hurting you. It depends in large part on the nature of the harm and the type of civility that is asked for. Especially coming at the end of a book that is a laundry list of Trumpian actual incivilities (those of the man himself and of his inner circle), attempting to pin "both sides" responsibility on Hillary Clinton for saying theoretically, maybe the Democrats should be uncivil in response is not a convincing bait-and-switch. This book includes a memoir of the highly uncivil behavior of planting Bill Clinton's accusers in a debate audience for the purpose of rattling Hillary during her performance. In this quoted sentence from Hillary, she wasn't even complaining about that insult to her; she was objecting to value-based attacks on "what you stand for, what you care about." She was verbally highlighting a general difficulty or impossibility in being civil in response to that. She was making a meta-ethical comment about the purpose and limits of ethics. Saying that she is the dystopian one, following the screaming dystopian Trump campaign confessions that came through this memoir, is some next-level gaslighting. The author failed to draw a moral equivalence. Readers do not have to fall for this gaslighting.

He errs in giving Trump credit for the "marketing genius" invention of a liberal "War on Christmas." The real pioneer of that vapid, bad faith bit of us-them politics was Bill O'Reilly in 2004. The "War on Christmas" had been a seasonal staple on Fox News for over a decade by the time Trump leveraged it.

He says that Trump subscribes to "strong opinions, weakly held," by which he means that Trump tends to change his mind. When I have heard that maxim mentioned in other contexts, it means that someone has intellectual humility and readiness to accept evidence that proves their beliefs incorrect. It does not mean that they abandon their opinions for no reason, for reasons of popularity, or because they are bored.

In the context of Alicia Machado's accusation that Trump had insulted her, Sims notes that it wasn't "news that Donald Trump said something offensive about someone." He asks why cable news channels chose to cover behavior that wasn't news. I ask why he chose to work for a candidate who says offensive things as a matter of course.

He recalls an incident in which Trump was "basically compiling an enemies list — but these enemies were within his own administration." The president said: "Give me their names." Sims avers, "Only in retrospect did I see how remarkable this was." He does not explain why it is remarkable, so it is not a teaching about values, norms, and expectations about naming political enemies.

Sims rehashes the brouhaha about the MLK bust at the White House. A reporter erroneously claimed Trump had removed the bust; the same reporter later corrected himself, saying that the bust had been there all along and he simply hadn't seen it. Sims says: "In this instance, Trump was totally justified in his fury..." I would challenge this. I believe Trump would be justified in a brief flash of anger, perhaps prolonged annoyance, and a desire to correct the record (which the reporter did anyway). But "fury"? Why? Why is a minor reporting error still being litigated two years later? Sims figures that, in Trump's view, the incorrect claim about the MLK bust was part of a deliberate effort "to humiliate him and perhaps even delegitimize his electoral victory." That may well be Trump's perception, but that doesn't mean he was totally justified in taking that view. Sims recalls that Trump directed his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to attack the press for its reporting about the MLK bust and about the inauguration crowd sizes; Spicer was told to respond to the latter with new lies. Trump's friend, the billionaire Tom Barrack, brought in some supposed statistics and facts that made a counternarrative about crowd size. Sims personally typed up the list. "Nobody stopped to make certain it was true. Nobody had time. Spicer, in all his manic glory, had worked us all into a frenzy," he says. "We had no idea that nearly everything we were being told was wrong." Groups do tend to fall into a collective panic mode, so this may be true, but in saying this, he is not taking personal responsibility. After finishing the list as dictated by Tom Barrack, Sims' computer promptly crashed and he lost the entire document. "Between Spicer, Cairncross, and myself, we pieced the prepared remarks back together as fast as we could," he recalls. They were piecing together factually incorrect information from memory, and it was not becoming any more correct. "In retrospect, of course, we were engaging in a senseless, unrecoverable act of self-sabotage....as he prepared to throw away whatever credibility he’d built over decades in Washington, Spicer was quiet as a church mouse, almost like he was walking to his own execution." He frames this as a regret:

"Quietly, without the glare of the lights, I was embarrassed, too. I would go on to write countless presidential statements and remarks, numerous @realDonaldTrump and @PressSec tweets, thousands of talking points, and dozens of op-eds in major publications. Nothing I wrote was a bigger disaster — and more damaging to the credibility of the White House — than the first piece of work I put my hands to. Partly, I hoped, this could be attributed to typical first-day chaos. But the chaos never really went away."

But saying that one is "embarrassed" about a workplace failure is not the same as recognizing the damage it caused and having ideas about what one will do differently in the future and about general principles that others can follow.

"In Harry Hurt III’s Trump biography, Lost Tycoon, he wrote that Trump’s father, Fred, used to tell his sons, 'You are a killer ... You are a king ... You are a killer ... You are a king.'...if you’re trying to make sense of almost any action he took as President, this is the prism through which everything should be viewed."
During the campaign, Trump paid attention to crowd sizes as if "they were a running tabulation of his wealth." He inflated these numbers according to the principle of "truthful hyperbole," as he termed it in his ghostwritten The Art of the Deal (1987), because: exaggeration gets sales results; lies attract fact-checkers, and any media attention is good, and he likes to provoke reactions ("Trump is history’s greatest troll").

Some of his memories are apocryphal: He argues about whether Spicer stole a mini fridge from fellow White House staffers as he departed his position. (No, says Spicer; yes, says Sims.) He remembers Anthony Gilberthorpe, who claimed to have a “photographic memory" of the interaction between Trump and Ms. Leeds on a flight over two decades earlier. (Ms. Leeds had accused Trump of molesting her on that flight.) Other members of Sims' team made a snap decision to fly Gilberthorpe from Britain to New York, where he creeped out Sims by "look[ing] like the kind of guy who’d pull up to playgrounds with a basket full of candy" and eating all the staff pizza, and ultimately the man was given a brief appearance at the end of a Fox News segment to defend Trump's character. Sims gives a literary sigh of resignation: "as Donald Rumsfeld once put it, you went to war with the army you had." Well, no. That episode could have been done differently.

Some of his perceptions don't quite gel together. On the one hand: "The way we saw it, they [the Clinton campaign insiders] were the spoiled rich kids whose mommies and daddies bought them BMWs for their sixteenth birthday. We [the Trump campaign insiders] were still riding the bus to school and wearing last year’s fashions." On the other hand: Keith Schiller, who had led Trump's security staff for over a decade and who became Director of Oval Office Operations, "was one of the only nonbillionaires that Trump viewed as a peer." So, Trump generally surrounds himself with billionaires, yet all his staffers think of themselves as poor upstarts? If this is true, it's a strange juxtaposition that should have been fleshed out more in the book.

Another example of something that doesn't gel: As a journalist, Sims is alarmed by Trump's use of the phrase "enemy of the people." Sims recognizes that phrase from Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao. "I doubt Trump was aware of the history of the phrase," he says. "Then again, maybe he was fully aware and used it anyway, knowing it would spark outrage. Regardless, it made me squirm. But I never told Trump that, or tried to explain this, which was a failing on my part. So if the choice was between calling reporters enemies of the United States or mocking their errors — and it was — I was all in for the Fake News Awards." I disagree that the only choice is between labeling journalists "enemies" or "fake" (because no other U.S. politicians use this language); I also disagree that the label "fake" is nothing more than a jest or a mocking insult (because disinformation and misinformation are real phenomena, and to accuse all journalists of peddling disinformation can have a chilling effect on the press and it certainly misrepresents the role of a free press in a democratic society, and in the public's perception there may little difference between someone who is "fake" and someone who is an "enemy"). Sims did not mention Trump's July 2017 tweet showing him punching a representation of a CNN reporter, nor the mass shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in June 2018, nor — as Sims' book was going to press in October 2018 — Trump's response to the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, Trump's praise of the assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by a Republican congressman, or the pipe bombs sent to CNN.

Recalling one occasion when the Trump camp received positive news coverage, he called it "jarring. We had never experienced anything quite like this before. This must be what it feels like to be a Democrat." No, no, no. Anyone who watches or reads news coverage of the United States knows that Democrats have their share of negative coverage. In recent years, with his false rumors about President Obama's birth certificate, Trump has been a major source of negative media attention on Democrats. Sims, working for a campaign that mounted a successful effort to seat four accusers of Bill Clinton in a debate audience, knows this better than anyone. The line that Democrats always have positive media coverage is utter nonsense. It is not supported by any argument within this book. It's some kind of leftover Trump insider snipe that is not reality-based. It does not demonstrate that serious reflection has taken place.

He expresses some regret: "But as is so often the case, when I point my accusatory finger at someone else, I have three more pointing back at me. My greatest regret from my time in the White House is that I wasn’t a better picture of my faith to the President and my colleagues." I find this insufficient. He should also regret hurting people. He spent 2018 writing this book. During that time, he reflected on his own memories but did not interview ordinary people who have been injured by this administration's policies, both in the United States and in the ripple effects in other countries. Nor does he explain in this book exactly what his faith is (beyond the implication that he is Christian evangelical), what its specific values are, and what it would have advised him to do differently. Thus when he says he wants to be "a better picture of my faith to the President and my colleagues," I don't see him saying he wishes he'd helped the downtrodden instead of treading down upon them, but rather only that he he wishes he personally looked better, in some undefined way, in front of powerful people.

After Sims resigned, Trump stopped taking his calls.

"This wasn’t personal to him. And in a way I didn’t take it personally, either. He hadn’t lifted a finger for countless loyal aides before me, and I’m sure he wouldn’t for countless loyal aides to come. It was well known that in Trump World, loyalty was mostly a one-way street. But it’s one thing to know that, another thing entirely to experience it firsthand—to be unceremoniously abandoned by the President of the United States. 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."

These are Sims' concluding words, and they make sense if the book is a reflection on how he was hurt and not on how he hurt other people.

At the very moment that Sims' book was released, that is, in the early morning on Jan. 29, 2019, actor Jussie Smollett was the victim of an attempted lynching in Chicago. Smollett was doused with a chemical and a rope was put around his neck. His attackers reportedly used anti-Black and anti-gay slurs and shouted a Trump slogan. This is what ordinary Americans deal with. This behavior has escalated during Trump's presidency. If the author isn't reckoning with this reality, there's no real reckoning.

Areas that were not given much weight:
Syria is mentioned 12 times, North Korea 7, Iran 2.
Russia is mentioned 10 times. Putin, 1. Mueller, 1.
Climate, 2, in the context of the pullout from the Paris agreement.
Abortion, 8.
Gay, transgender, LGBT: 0.

In his epilogue, he says, "I’m proud that the president I served was Donald Trump." We must consider that his pride concerns a man he called "history’s greatest troll" within this very book, a liar who surrounds himself with villains and befriends only billionaires. The book is titled Team of Vipers. If that's a point of pride for him, I don't think he's really internalized his regret. I think this two-month manuscript is another example — just like the script given to Sean Spicer about the inauguration crowds — of something that was rushed to press.

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