Book excerpt: Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers'

This is an excerpt of former White House staffer Cliff Sims' new book.

January 28, 2019, 7:30 AM

This is an excerpt from "Team of Vipers" by Cliff Sims. Copyright (c) 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.


“The peso is plummeting!” Trump exclaimed at 10:16 p.m. on Election Night, a broad smile creasing his ever-tanned face. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

As we stood in the campaign war room on Trump Tower’s fourteenth floor, the global markets were reacting to a reality that the top reporters in the country and political figures on both sides of the aisle could not yet absorb: Donald J. Trump was going to be President of the United States. All the prognosticators and bloviators who’d predicted his doom were being humiliated, and he was loving every minute of it.

Going into Election Day, The New York Times had given Trump a 15 percent chance of winning. If he was honest about it, Trump probably had a similar view as the night began. We all did. Those of us working on the campaign knew the momentum was with us, but it was hard to tell if the surge of support came too late.

The war room, typically the campaign’s central hub of activity, was sparsely populated for most of the early evening. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Mr. Trump walked in, flanked by campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. His first comments, predictably, were about his favorite medium. “Nowhere else on earth has this many TVs where I can watch it all at once,” he smiled, pointing to the wall full of televisions with both hands like a conductor overseeing a symphony. And it was a symphony—a symphony of Trump. His face was on every screen.

Election Night was one of the rare moments when I was cognizant in real time of the fact that I was witnessing a significant historical moment firsthand. With that realization, I planted myself beside Mr. Trump and refused to move the entire night, even as dozens of people crammed into the room in the coming hours, trying to get in his orbit—campaign staff, volunteers, various surrogates, the mega-rich Mercer family, Mike Pence, Ben Carson, and, of course, Omarosa, beaming with pride.

Ever the TV critic, the candidate was engaged throughout the night in a running commentary on the quality of the programming. He addressed no one in particular, and he didn’t care who was listening. Trump talked like other people breathed. It was like a form of exercise for him—an endless exertion of words, phrases, asides, and observations. Sometimes he’d start a sentence and figure out the point he wanted to make along the way. Lacking any filter, he’d make the same observation to the Queen of England that he’d make to a construction worker at one of his hotels. To those open to him, this can be one of his most endearing qualities—he just is who he is.

“The graphics on Fox are the absolute worst—are you looking at this?” he said at one point. “CNN and MSNBC are both so much better. I hate to say it—honestly, I really hate to say it—but MSNBC has the best graphics. Fox is the best—they have the best talent. I mean, look at the rest of these people. They can’t believe what’s happening right now. But Fox’s graphics are terrible. They’ve got to do something about it.”

CNN’s John King was working the interactive map—or “Magic Wall”—throughout the night, turning states red and blue as results came in and playing out different electoral scenarios. “They’ve got John King on the maps again,” Trump quipped. “I used to hate him on the maps, then the maps started turning red and I started liking him. But he wants the map to be blue. And everyone knows he should be an anchor by now. But [CNN president Jeff] Zucker has him on the maps, and we all know what that means.” I actually wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but no matter. I nodded knowingly just the same.

At one point, with Fox News back on the main screen, frequent Trump critic Karl Rove came on to lambaste both Clinton and Trump. “Rove is a dope,” Trump said, turning away from the screens for the first time. “How many times has he been wrong about everything but they still put him out there? This guy spent a half-billion dollars and didn’t win a single race. But they don’t say anything about that. He wants people to forget. I don’t forget, that I can tell you.”

But it wasn’t all hot takes and criticism. “There’s my Jeffrey,” he said as CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord came on screen as a panelist. “Someone turn up CNN, Jeffrey is on. They’re always beating the hell out of him and he just keeps on fighting.” Then he said to no one in particular, “Tell Jeffrey he’s doing a good job—somebody call Jeffrey and let him know he’s doing a good job.” I’m not sure anyone did. When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson complimented Trump’s ability to articulate an antiwar vision to Republican voters, Trump said, admiringly, “He totally gets it.”

Eventually, Melania Trump and their ten-year- old son, Barron, came into the war room to join the crowd. Melania was wearing a white designer dress with flowing fabric draped over her left shoulder and falling diagonally across her neckline, leaving her right shoulder exposed. An enormous diamond ring on her left hand glistened under the fluorescent lighting. Barron was wearing a black suit without a belt, with a white tie draped over his shoulder.

“Hey, baby,” Trump said, giving his wife a kiss. “We’re looking a lot better than they said we would.” Then he added his usual “Let’s see what happens.”

All eyes were on Florida, which the campaign viewed as a must-win state. In the last ten days of the race, our internal polling numbers had improved in every single battleground state. But for some unknown reason, the momentum in Florida seemed to have stalled about forty-eight hours before Election Day. Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital director, was optimistic. There was no question that the race was tightening and, in most states, we had the wind at our back. But in Florida, he felt like it was a toss-up, at best. “Have you seen the numbers in Florida?” became a running joke inside the comms team.

Between 7:52 p.m. and 8:05 p.m., the vote deficit we were facing in the Sunshine State had shrunk from 193,000 to 87,000. Vote tallies from the reliably Republican Florida Panhandle—which resides in the Central Time Zone, while the rest of the state is in the Eastern—were yet to come in. Though the rest of us were almost manic with tension, Trump was casually rolling through calls on his beloved Android cell phone.

Very few of the incoming calls had a name attached to them in his phone, but Trump answered them all anyway.

Almost every caller was a household name—from media, entertainment, politics, corporate America. Matt Drudge, the reclusive conservative media giant, updated Trump on what he was hearing from around the country. He was bullish on Trump’s chances. He predicted states that had been out of the GOP’s reach for decades would swing Republican as a result of Trump’s hard-line immigration and trade positions.

POLITICAL MAP COULD BE RESHAPED, the headline blared atop Drudge’s site. I showed it to Mr. Trump on my cell phone and he smiled. “We’re about to find out how smart he really is,” he said.

He didn’t look nervous, but resigned to whatever fate had in store. And why not? He was going to be rich and famous, no matter what. The only question was whether he’d also be the most powerful person on the planet.

Drudge was also raising the alarm about illegal voting, an issue that had long been of concern to Trump, who fixated on the idea that someone, somewhere, might “steal” his victory. LEAKED DOCUMENTS REVEAL SOROS FUNDING TO MANIPULATE ELECTION, read one Drudge link. PA VOTERS REPORT SEEING TRUMP VOTES SWITCH TO CLINTON BEFORE THEIR EYES, added another.

At 9:35 p.m. the New York Times updated its projections and, for the first time, gave Trump a better-than- even shot at winning. Florida was looking good, with the Panhandle poised to deliver a stunning victory.

But while things were on a positive trajectory down south, Trump was coming unglued about reports streaming in from Virginia. This wasn’t a state we were counting on, but the race was tight enough that Trump launched into a tirade about Virginia’s Democratic Governor, Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of the Clinton family. McAuliffe had restored voting rights to tens of thousands of felons in a controversial move that sparked outrage among law-and-order conservatives, and Trump was now convinced that might be enough to swing the election. To Trump, the fix was in.

“He pardoned sixty thousand criminals—a bunch of hardened felons; they probably killed their neighbors—just in time for the election so they could go vote for Crooked Hillary,” the candidate grumbled as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came into the room for the first time. Once the GOP’s brash, straight-talking golden boy, Christie had passed on a presidential run in 2012, only to see Trump, his longtime friend, swoop in and fill that lane in 2016. He had still given it a shot, but dropped out of the race in February 2016 and endorsed Trump. Since then, he had been leading a quixotic effort to organize a presidential transition, just in case Trump pulled off an improbable victory. Christie’s typically bombastic personality seemed more subdued than usual. He was smiling and wearing an American flag lapel pin in the shape of his home state, but he seemed to be just soaking in his surroundings.

At 10:20 p.m., Secretary Clinton was up by forty-five thousand votes in Virginia and Trump got spun up further. For the first time that night, I saw his paranoia threaten to get the best of him. He pulled out his phone to tweet that he was prepared to protest the results if he didn’t win—an impulsive act of pique that could have sparked a major political disaster.

Standing near Trump, campaign strategist Steve Bannon found himself in an unfamiliar role—the voice of reason. “Don’t tweet about it,” Bannon pleaded. “We’ve got to be patient tonight—we’ve really got to be patient.”

Trump was not easily calmed in such moments. “Well, it’ll just look like sour grapes if I do it after,” Trump retorted. Finally he came up with a compromise. Referring to the Fox News chairman, he yelled, “Somebody get Rupert on the phone and tell him to get ready to make this a big deal if we need to.”

Fortunately, at that moment Ohio was called for Trump, sending the room into an uproar and putting Virginia out of the candidate’s mind.

David Bossie, the deputy campaign manager, walked over between Mr. Trump and the wall of TVs and said out loud what no one else had yet had the courage to voice. “Sir,” he said, looking the candidate right in theeyes, “you’re going to win this thing.”

I watched the soon-to-be President digest this new reality. Trump nodded, but didn’t speak. His hands were clutching his belt buckle, like a cowboy who’d just slain a legendary gunfighter. In the midst of the euphoria around him, it was as if everything had gone silent for him. And then he returned to the moment. There was a telling gleam in his eye. On the verge of his ultimatevictory, a historic repudiation of all of his critics, a moment when he could have taken the high road as his place in history was assured, his first thought was retribution.

“When I get to Washington I’m gonna shove it up Kasich’s a—!” he declared of Ohio’s vehemently anti-Trump Governor and Trump’s former presidential rival, John Kasich. It was the first time that night that I had heard him say “when” rather than “if.”

Kasich, who had snubbed the Republican National Convention nominating Trump even though it was held in his home state, was now all but completely out of the news. But he was not out of Trump’s memory. Trump wantedhim relegated to a life of obscurity—which, to him, would be the ultimate degradation.

Governor Christie by now had nudged his way through the crowd and ordered several interns sitting just to Mr. Trump’s left to move out of the way so he could take a seat next to the candidate. Trump took a seat as well, placing his Android phone on his left leg and leaning back in the black office chair long used by the campaign’s war room director, Andy Surabian. Christie occasionally leaned over to whisper something to Trump, who was polite but didn’t seem particularly interested.

Mike Pence sat down immediately to Trump’s right, phone pressed to his ear, covering his mouth and the phone’s microphone so that whoever he was speaking with could hear him through the clamor.

At 10:34 p.m. the Times finally called Florida for Trump, and three minutes later, famed political statistician Nate Silver updated his projections to give Trump an 86 percent chance of winning. I pulled up the projection on my phone and showed it to Eric Trump, who was standing directly to my right, and Jared Kushner, whose eyes grew larger as a grin engulfed his face. “What’s it say?” asked Donald Trump Jr. Kushner showed him the screen, then turned to show it to the soon-to-be President-Elect.

The atmosphere in the room was euphoric. In the span of about ninety minutes, most people there had gone from thinking there was very little chance we would win to daydreaming about what it was going to be like to work inside the fabled West Wing. Each time positive vote tallies from various states were splashed across the wall full of television screens, the assembled crowd of Trump and Pence family members and campaign staff would erupt in applause.

In the midst of the chaos, Trump bent down to talk to his son Barron, tied his necktie for him, and kissed him on the forehead.

At 10:45 p.m., Fox News called North Carolina for Trump, and the entire family simultaneously cheered and looked toward Eric Trump’s wife. Lara, a native North Carolinian, had spearheaded campaign operations in her home state. Trump garnered over ninety-two thousand more votes in the state than Republican nominee Mitt Romney had four years earlier. Mr. Trump leaned back as far as his chair would go to look at her sitting behindhim and held out his hand to take hers. “So proud,” he said.

At 10:55 p.m., Stephen Miller placed “Speech Number 2”—a draft victory speech—in front of Trump. I wondered to myself if Speech Number 1 had been a concession speech, or just an earlier draft of the victory speech. But Trump didn’t even finish reading the first paragraph before he turned the paper facedown, right next to a copy of his campaign platform book, Crippled America, one of the many copies that were strewn about the campaign offices.

Jared watched the scene carefully—as he always did. “That’s right,” he said, “don’t jinx it.”

Trump, who has always been extraordinarily superstitious, echoed that sentiment at 11:13 p.m. when Rupert Murdoch called his phone to congratulate him. “Not yet, Rupy,” he said. “We have a three-stroke lead with one hole left. We can’t celebrate until we’re in the clubhouse.”

For the next several hours, battleground states continued to be called in Trump’s favor, culminating after 2 a.m. when Wisconsin officially put him over the 270 Electoral College vote threshold.

Throughout the night, at least in public, Trump stayed true to his persona: boastful, friendly, talkative, and confident. Always confident. There was never a moment when he seemed awed by what was about to happen to him, about the responsibility he would soon undertake. He’s the most self-assured person I’ve ever been around. He’s the alpha dog in every conversation I’ve ever seen him engage in, and he owns every room. Except for one moment that night, in private.

As Trump and the next First Lady of the United States entered the Trump Tower elevators, and the doors closed in front of them, he let his guard down. Just for a split second, at least, as a friend who was in the elevator told me soon after. In that instant—the first time on Election Night when they weren’t around hordes of aides and friends—the bravado and bragging were gone. For the briefest of moments, the gravity of what was happening hit him. President of the United States of America. Leader of the Free World. Extraordinary power. Mind-boggling responsibility. Heavy, heavy stuff.

The man who is never at a loss for words was rendered speechless by the verdict of history. And he looked, just for the briefest of moments, vulnerable. Sensing this was Melania Trump. Melania was never the person outside observers seemed convinced that she was—a reluctant and put-upon spouse who just wanted to escape him. For good or ill, she was in it with him all the way. In that moment, she reached for her husband’s hand and squeezed it.

“We’re going to do this together,” she reassured him, “and you’re going to be a great president.”

He stood silently in the elevator as the floor numbers scrolled down.

For the next eighteen months, I was a part of this unusual and extraordinary journey. I would be around Trump nearly everyday— serving at various times as a communications adviser, a producer, a confidant, an errand boy, and a punching bag. Sometimes all on the same day. Sometimes all in the same conversation. In an ordinary White House, a young communications staffer wouldn’t have such access. But because Trump liked and trusted me, I found myself sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders, private conversations with his family, and discussions with the top leaders of Congress. I was a fly on the wall as history unfolded before my eyes. And I took notes, as part of my job. Lots and lots of notes. A first draft of history written in real time.

This is what I saw. It is the story of an unlikely—and unusual—President, whose extraordinary talents were in constant competition with glaring flaws that sometimes bordered on self-sabotage. I saw that battle firsthand. This is the story of a ragtag band of political outsiders who stormed the White House, and of staffers who couldn’t seem to decide whether serving their country meant serving their President or undermining him. And this is also a very personal story of a Southerner who came to Washington with high expectations, only to leave the White House uncertain of whether anything I did really mattered, or whether I lost myself along the way.

In some ways I found Washington to be exactly what most voters seem to think it is: a cesspool of preening and weak politicians, moralizing and selectively outraged journalists, and staffers more worried about the trajectory of their careers than that of the country. Sometimes I was one of them. It was a constant struggle between my conscience, my principles, and a culture that often asked you to compromise both. And sometimes I did. I experienced the intoxicating effects of power and the astonishing lengths to which people, myself included, will go to hold on to it. But I also found public servants, toiling away outside of the spotlight, devoting their lives to the continuation and success of the American experiment. Sometimes I was one of them, too.

I want to show readers how it really was as I saw it firsthand—the highs and lows, the triumphs, struggles, outrages, and embarrassing failures. I experienced them all. And now you can, too.