A former aide has recounted gobsmacking scenes from Donald Trump’s “absolutely out of control” White House in a fascinating new book.
The chaos began on inauguration day during the PR nightmare of the President’s relatively small crowd, Cliff Sims recalls in Team Of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days In The Trump White House.
The ex-communications adviser writes how former White House press secretary Sean Spicer worked the team “into a frenzy” over the issue as the President fumed and they rushed to respond.
Mr Spicer dictated a statement for Sims to type up — “a torrent of expletives with a few salient points scattered in between,” he writes, in passages of the book published by the Washington Post.
No one checked the detail. Mr Spicer was “walking into his own execution,” Sims says.
“It’s impossible to deny how absolutely out of control the White House staff — again, myself included — was at times,” adds the former director of White House message strategy.
The statement became infamous after Mr Spicer wrongly claimed the crowd was of record size, and Kellyanne Conway explained it away as “alternative facts”.
Sims describes White House counsellor Ms Conway as “the American Sniper of West Wing marksmen”, whose agenda was “survival over all others, including the President”.
Sims says he was a Trump believer and writes at time fondly of the President, although he criticises the President’s morality — as well as his own ambition and cowardice.
At one point, the young aide says he was ushered into the West Wing through a back entrance to help the President make an “enemies list” of disloyal White House staff.
“‘Give me their names,’ Mr Trump said, his eyes narrowing,” reads another excerpt published by Axios this week. “‘I want these people out of here. I’m going to take care of this. We’re going to get rid of all the snakes, even the bottom-feeders.’”
Sims said the scene was “remarkable”, with the President noting down 10 names on a stiff piece of card in black marker pen. “If it had been a horror movie, this would have been the moment when everyone suddenly realises the call is coming from inside the house.”
But Mr Trump did not fire all his targets straight away.
Sims says he was suspicious of John Kelly after he said the White House chief of staff said he served the “country first, POTUS second”.
Mr Kelly — who was eventually fired on December 8 — reportedly once told him: “This is the worst (expletive) job I’ve ever had. People apparently think that I care when they write that I might be fired. If that ever happened, it would be the best day I’ve had since I walked into this place.”
Sims also recalls former attorney-general Jeff Sessions suggesting a polygraph test of national security officials to root out “leakers” after transcripts of Mr Trump’s phone calls with Malcolm Turnbull and the Mexican president were revealed in the press.
He paints a picture of Mr Trump’s erratic moods, remembering how the former reality star held the remote “like a pistol” as he watched former house speaker Paul Ryan criticise his handling of the Charlottesville rally.
“Paul, do you know why Democrats have been kicking your ass for decades? Because they know a little word called ‘loyalty’,” Mr Trump told Mr Ryan. “Why do you think Nancy (Pelosi) has held on this long? Have you seen her? She’s a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected. But they stick with her … Why can’t you be loyal to your President, Paul?”
The President recalled Mr Ryan distancing himself after the Access Hollywood tapes were released. “I remember being in Wisconsin and your own people were booing you,” Mr Trump told him. “You were out there dying like a dog, Paul. Like a dog! And what’d I do? I saved your ass.”
At other times, Sims says, he was more childlike than angry. During one Oval Office strategy session, Mr Trump looked deeply bored by Mr Ryan’s talk on the Republican healthcare bill. He sipped on a glass of Diet Coke, gazed around the room and out at the Rose Garden, and eventually walked off to his private dining room and turned on a large flat-screen TV. Vice President Mike Pence had to go after him and persuade him to return.
Sims often met Mr Trump at the residence’s private lift to take him to video tapings, bringing a can of Tresemme Tres Two hairspray, extra hold.
He says at one taping, he met Mr Trump shortly after he had tweeted that he had seen MSNBC’s Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a facelift”.
The President complained: “They’re going to say it’s not presidential (referring to the media). But you know what? It’s modern-day presidential.”
He warned Mr Spicer. “Don’t you dare say I watch that show.”
Out on January 29, Team Of Vipers paints a picture of “power and palace intrigue, backstabbing and bold victories, as well as painful moral compromises.”
Sims attended many high-level meetings, and took copious notes that inform the bulk of his book.
“I suspect that posterity will look back on this bizarre time in history like we were living on the pages of a Dickens novel,” he writes in his author’s note.
“Lincoln famously had his Team of Rivals. Trump had his Team of Vipers. We served. We fought. We brought our egos. We brought our personal agendas and vendettas. We were ruthless.
“And some of us, I assume, were good people.”