Team of Vipers is the best book written about the Trump White House. That doesn't mean it's any good.
The best book written so far about the Trump administration was released this week. I realize that offering this superlative to Cliff Sims' memoir of his time as a White House aide is a bit like calling 2018 the best Cleveland Browns season in more than a decade or awarding a prize to the top Alaskan merlot.
Team of Vipers is not actually a good book. In fact, it's an almost unreadable mess. Like all White House tell-alls, what it actually tells us are things that are either obvious or unimportant. Does the average American, who Sims — rightly — claims is more interested in sports than politics, really care whether Jeffrey Lord received a congratulatory phone call from someone on the Trump campaign on election night in 2016? (Spoiler alert: Sims thinks he probably didn't.) Or that Steve Bannon used a standing desk in the West Wing and read books — which ones Sims doesn't say, unfortunately — during the workday? What about the fact that President Trump uses TRESemmé Tres Two hair spray with extra hold or the order in which he reads his newspapers in the morning, i.e., The New York Times, then The Wall Street Journal, then The Washington Post? Can you guess his nickname for Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director? That's right: "Hopey." This is strictly Nerd Prom stuff.
Sims is, oddly enough, much better at drawing grand conclusions about this presidency than at deciding what bits of gossip to share with us. He is almost certainly right when he says that the @realdonaldtrump Twitter account is "one of the most powerful communication instruments in modern political history." He is good, too, and reasonably fair on the subject of the press, "obsessed over the process, rather than the substance" and churning out endless "palace-intrigue stories [that] were justified by reporters analyzing what it all 'meant.'" Here he is describing the result of a nasty televised exchange between Stephen Miller and CNN's Jim Acosta:
We got what we wanted — a confrontation that allowed the White House to take a hard line on immigration. Acosta got what he wanted — a confrontation that CNN could air on a loop for the rest of the day, and sound bites their panelists could dissect with righteous indignation. The American people got — what, exactly? I have no idea. And that's how I felt most days after the press briefings. [Team of Vipers]
This is impossible to disagree with. It is also painfully clear to anyone who has ever watched even 30 seconds of a White House press briefing.
One of the best things about Team of Vipers is the dialogue. As Sims observes here, the problem with both Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward's Fear is that everyone in them talks like cartoon versions of themselves. It is obvious that Sims was not only present for all of the conversations reported here but taking precise notes — indeed, he admits as much. (It would be interesting to know at one point he decided that he would be writing a book.) Someone who comes off well thanks to this approach is Anthony Scaramucci, who, believe it or not, does not always come off like a coked-out David Mamet character. Months after his firing, he tells Sims at a lunch meeting, "I'm like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. I woke up. I realized that I'd almost lost my wife, I'd almost lost my family, and I'd almost lost my business, and the good Lord gave me a second chance. I got visited by the three ghosts and I'll never be the same." Good for Mooch!
The biggest problem Sims has is his anti-talent for detail. This is especially true when it comes to telling us what people look like. His idea of describing Melania Trump is to say that she was wearing a "designer" dress, which is about as useful visually as observing that someone lives in a "non-modular" home. Elsewhere we are informed that Sims entered Trump Tower on his first day with "a blue backpack slung over my shoulder." As opposed to a brown one? His editors should have followed the advice Sims and the White House Communications staff gave to Republican legislators during the negotiations over the 2017 tax legislation: "Cut, cut, cut."
But my guess is that Sims should be less worried about his prose style than about the curious impression of himself he leaves readers with. He tells us that after the leak of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, he shot baskets in Trump Tower while trying to decide whether he should stay with the campaign. A few pages later he is back at work, having treated us to an anecdote in which Trump asks a campaign staffer who is also an Instagram model whether she found his comments offensive — but without telling us much of anything about his own thought process. "I was totally not offended — not offended at all, Mr. Trump," she responds. Was this as persuasive for Sims as it apparently was for Trump? Later, he attempts to defend his support for Trump's candidacy by comparing him to the "Muslim authoritarian" General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. That is one way of explaining his appeal, certainly. "I'm proud to have worked for the president of the United States," he tells us in one of this book's closing paragraphs. "And in spite of the frustrations and misgivings laid out in this book, I'm proud that the president I served was Donald Trump." Why, though?
Like every Trump tell-all, this is a book that did not need to exist. The interesting tidbits contained here could all have been contained in a 2,500-word newspaper article. With a bit of padding, they might even add up to enough for a Vanity Fair cover story. Instead, they were tweeted about for a week or so prior to publication and already almost forgotten by the time this reviewer trudged through 0 degree weather to purchase a copy on Tuesday.
My boots are still wet.