In the late summer of 2018, The New York Times reported that St. Martin's Press had signed a seven-figure deal for a "tell-all book" about President Trump's White House.
The amount of the advance raised eyebrows because the author, Cliff Sims, had served 18 months in that White House without making much of a name for himself anywhere else.
Who was this Cliff Sims? What did he mean to Trump? And what might a book called Team of Vipers add to what had already been written and said about the snake pit at 1600?
These questions are not entirely answered in Vipers, although we do witness more scenes of White House aides at odds and colleagues giving each other the shiv. For those who have followed any of the half-dozen earlier "inside stories" of Trump World, all this will be as familiar as re-used videotape on cable TV news.
But Sims's personal recollection does conjure up memories of the film classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a starry-eyed Jimmy Stewart comes to the capital with big ideas and high ideals. The cinematic Mr. Smith is utterly unprepared for the big time, but he has heady moments of triumph and bitter moments of disappointment — and he can hardly wait to get home again.
In Sims's case, home is Alabama, where he was once president of the campus chapter of College Republicans at the University of Alabama. Sims moved on to blogging and radio talk-show hosting, and started a news website called Yellowhammer. He earned notoriety by uploading a 45-minute recording of a sexually charged telephone conversation between the state's governor and the governor's chief of staff. The governor, a Republican, would be forced to resign.
Thereafter, Sims scored an interview with candidate Trump during one of the latter's trips to Alabama. It went well, and Sims established some rapport within Trump's campaign, including with Steve Bannon, another Southerner and another outsider at war with the national Republican establishment. When Bannon became chairman of Trump's presidential campaign, Sims came to work in Trump Tower.
Dazzled at first by Manhattan and the rush of the campaign, Sims moves on to Washington to be awed by the aura of history amid the marble halls of power.
Having been part of the campaign team in 2016, he enjoys some rapport with the president and a few in his inner circle — especially those who share the president's last name. So, when the factional fighting gets intense and he is called on to render judgment, he goes along and dishes on those he least respects. To his credit, he calls himself on it. He realizes he has become one more contestant in the game, a baby viper in the pit.
He generally divides the White House between those who came from the campaign and the country — such as chief strategist Steve Bannon, domestic adviser Stephen Miller, and himself — and those who, like former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer, are veterans of the Republican National Committee and, therefore, denizens of the "swamp" that is Washington D.C. Some of those outsiders with whom he identifies prove to be overnight disasters, like Anthony Scaramucci, who lasts less than two weeks.
Sims is terribly unimpressed by Spicer, as well as by their mutual boss, Priebus. He also tattles on another key communications player, Kellyanne Conway, saying she sends sympathetic text messages to the same news reporters the president is criticizing.
But in the long run, Sims comes to recognize that even his rather sporadic access to the president is alienating others in the power structure, others who will hasten his own departure from Trump World.
Eventually, former Marine Gen. John Kelly arrives to straighten everyone out. Sims is initially impressed with the new chief of staff, but also wonders "how long this will last." In time, he realizes Kelly does not regard him as part of his team. Various jobs and promotions arise as prospective landings for Sims, but each is mysteriously shot down. A sympathetic tandem of Hope Hicks and Sarah Sanders take Sims aside to warn that "they" are coming after him.
Not long after, Sims finds himself barred from the Oval Office on the day the Alabama football team is being honored as national champions (in a ceremony for which Sims had written the president's remarks). Within days, he is out the door entirely.
Sadder but finally wiser, Sims observes that the president "hadn't lifted a finger for countless loyal aides before me and ...wouldn't for countless aides to come." Concluding the book's final page, Sims notes that he had "let my personal relationship to 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 the wordsmith can be charming, and he works at winning us over the way he once served Trump and his minions needing speeches and media statements. Sims seems always to be in a chair by the wall in important meetings, always with his laptop at the ready.
In Team of Vipers, Sims also tells us his father and grandfather were evangelical ministers. We have glimpses of his nurturing relationship with Megan, his wife, and we hear about their church work, including a trip to Syria to help Arab Christians caught up in that country's civil war.
It is this side of Cliff Sims that is troubled by the secular circus around him, including some of the behavior and attitudes of the worldly man he serves. He struggles to represent what he calls "the faith community" in the midst of Trump World, but he also manages to rationalize episodes such as the Access Hollywood tapes without losing faith in Donald Trump.
In this sense, Sims's "tell-all" book tells us more about Sims than about the famous people around him. And it offers a metaphor for the larger conundrum affecting all those who want to take their moral code seriously, while also lionizing the person who is Donald Trump.
Sims suggests one way to understand the loyalty of Trump's evangelical backers. They are thankful for his defeat of Hillary Clinton (a nemesis for many religious conservatives) and for his subsequent recasting of the Supreme Court and the broader federal judiciary. Beyond that, Sims and his cohort seem to appreciate Trump as a flawed vessel who is nonetheless serving what they regard as a godly cause.
At times, Sims seems highly perceptive, as when he writes the following:
"Trump believes he alone, often through sheer force of will, can solve certain problems... Layered on top of that is his belief that all of life is a negotiation, and that every negotiation is a zero-sum game. There's no such thing as a 'win–win;' someone will win and someone will lose. Layered on top of that is his belief that personal relationships are paramount... And layered on top of that is his belief that creating chaos gives him an advantage because he's more comfortable in the mayhem than anyone else."
But Sims also maintains that, despite everything, "it's dang near impossible to spend one-on-one time with Donald Trump and not end up liking him."
In the movies, Mr. Smith stands by his principles and prevails. In Sims's story, the hero descends into disillusionment, but not before enjoying the ride and some of its thrills.
Sims could be around for some time as a consultant or TV pundit. He could also go back to Alabama or disappear into missionary work somewhere in the world. For the moment, however, he stands as a both a model and a cautionary case for all those assuming a stint at the White House is the making of a career.