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Faith and fury

Politics | In the latest White House tell-all, a former aide says his Christian beliefs conflicted with administration policies
by Harvest Prude
Posted 1/31/19, 05:10 pm

WASHINGTON—Cliff Sims’ Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House is the latest installment in a new subgenre of literature, the West Wing tell-all. Unlike Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury or Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, Sims’ book, released Tuesday, does not primarily target President Donald Trump.

Team of Vipers largely takes aim at what Sims, who says he was proud to work for the president, describes as an unscrupulous, power-hungry culture inside the White House, evidenced by clashes between Trump campaign loyalists and formerly anti-Trump Republican National Committee aides. He characterizes the dynamic as “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.”

An Alabama native with a journalism background, Sims joined Trump’s campaign in August 2016. He then transitioned to the White House as a special assistant to the president, videographer, and communications aide.

Sims does not let himself off the hook for contributing to the toxic environment. He lists successes such as helping write what was communicated about the 2017 Republican tax cut bill and failures such as helping Trump draw up an “enemies list” of possibly disloyal aides. Sims describes some of his actions as “nakedly ambitious” and says he was at times selfish and cowardly. But he writes that his biggest regret was: “I wasn’t a better picture of my faith.”

Sims’ father and grandfather were evangelical ministers, and during a mission trip to Egypt, Sims developed a concern for persecuted Christians overseas. His faith was why he joined the Trump administration, in large part because “the Supreme Court was on the line” and would make decisions about issues with Biblical significance such as abortion and marriage.

While serving in the Trump administration, Sims attended McLean Bible Church in McLean, Va., where author David Platt serves as a pastor. But at times Sims struggled to reconcile his faith with the Trump administration’s policies, particularly when it came to refugees. He writes that the 2017 ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries—where Christian minorities were often oppressed—revealed a pattern that showed “we were not keeping our commitment to persecuted Christians.”

Macmillan Publishers Macmillan Publishers

Sims notes that the number of Christian refugees coming to the United States fell under the Trump administration. At one point, he took his concerns to White House adviser Stephen Miller, who reportedly said, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.”

The United States took in 16,015 Christian refugees in 2018 and 15,659 in 2017, compared to 38,919 in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, according to the U.S. State Department. Reports of those numbers vary depending on which refugees are counted, what countries they came from, and whether comparing fiscal or calendar years. But most agree the amount of Christian refugees admitted to the United States dropped by more than 50 percent since Trump took office. (Sims said the drop was 40 percent. WORLD looked at a wide group of refugees, including Catholics and Protestants, from around the world by calendar year and calculated a decrease of 59 percent.)

In light of that drop, Sims criticizes Trump’s evangelical advisory board, comprised of well-known Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. He “never heard any of the faith leaders who actually had access” to the Oval Office bring up the plight of persecuted Christians to the president. “What is the point of having moral authority, as all these advisers claimed to, if you don’t stand up for morality?” Sims asked in the book.

Johnnie Moore, a spokesman for the evangelical advisory board, pushed back on the criticism, saying there were many meetings on the topic of refugees, “and I have [been] in several of them and I was privy to others.” He also told me that the administration prioritized deploying resources to Christians in places like Iraq and Syria because “most refugees don’t want to immigrate unless they have to.” That is why, Moore said, the administration has deployed $300 million in aid to persecuted communities in Iraq. Sims’ publisher said the author was not available to comment on Moore’s statements for this report.

A number of anonymous White House officials have talked to Politico and other media outlets and have either denied Sims’ credibility or confirmed that he had a “close relationship” with the president, but most have not spoken on the record. The White House has not yet challenged specific details in the book, but the Trump reelection campaign is considering bringing legal action against Sims for violating a nondisclosure agreement he signed, campaign COO Michael Glassner tweeted.

Sims writes that he left the White House job in May 2018 when tensions between him and then–chief of staff John Kelly peaked over meeting attendance and protocols. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the Alabama Daily News website after Sims’ resignation that he was a “valuable member of President Trump’s team on the campaign and for 15 months in the White House. I worked with him on both and he is talented, smart, and worked hard for the President. We hated to see him resign from the White House, but I know he will continue to be a loyal supporter for the President.”

Trump, meanwhile, dismissed the book entirely. In a tweet, he called Sims a “low level staffer that I barely knew,” who wrote “yet another boring book based on made up stories and fiction.”

Sims responded by tweeting photos of him walking with the president, sitting in meetings with top White House officials in the Oval Office and elsewhere, and of an autographed copy of a New York Times front page with a story about the Republican Party’s 2017 tax act that reads, “Cliff, great job! Thanks,” and signed by Trump.

Associated Press/Photo by Kathy Willens Associated Press/Photo by Kathy Willens Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at a book tour in New York on Monday

The outsiders are in

Four years ago, a billionaire businessman crashed the Republican Party, riding a self-funded campaign and “drain-the-swamp” appeal all the way to the White House. This week, another wealthy outsider worried Democrats by declaring his interest in a shot at the presidency—but as an independent.

Howard Schultz, billionaire and former Starbucks CEO, announced his exploration of a 2020 presidential run on Sunday.

“I will spend the next few months deciding by … listening to my fellow Americans,” he wrote in an op-ed Tuesday for USA Today. “I already believe that the idea of a third choice will resonate. Our two parties are not working for most Americans.”

This move has concerned Democrats, who are watching the formation of a mob of candidates seeking to run against President Donald Trump. They’re worried that a third-party option who aligns more with liberal values will split the Democratic vote.

“It would be difficult for a former Democrat who holds some liberal positions on issues like climate change and same-sex marriage to attract Republican voters,” Princeton University history professors Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer wrote for CNN. “Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, would be untroubled by these social stances.”

Some Democrats have compared Schultz to Ralph Nader, whose Green Party campaign in 2000 drew enough votes from Vice President Al Gore, especially in Florida, to tip that election for eventual President George W. Bush.

Another newcomer, California author and activist Marianne Williamson, started her campaign for the Democratic nomination on Monday, adding to an already crowded primary race. She has a loyal following, selling more than 3 million books in the past 30 years. Between Schultz and Williamson, mainstream Democratic candidates will have to face the same question that Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas couldn’t answer in 2016: How do you outrun the outsider? —Kyle Ziemnick

Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber (file) Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber (file) First lady Melania Trump

Tabloid takeaways

A British newspaper said this week it was paying Melania Trump “substantial damages” in the latest showdown between the U.S. first lady and media outlets over what she claims are unfair and inaccurate portrayals.

“We have been asked to make clear that the article contained a number of false statements which we accept should not have been published,” The Daily Telegraph said in a statement detailing a series of errors that included facts such as the year she met Donald Trump and when her parents moved to the United States. The publication also said it had made mistakes in references to her modeling career and why she left college, among other errors.

The paper is not the first to face legal challenges from the first lady and likely won’t be the last. She has also sued and received settlements from a U.S. blogger and the British newspaper Daily Mail for libel.

“Mrs. Trump will not let people & media outlets make up lies & false assertions in a race for ratings or to sell tabloid headlines,” her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, tweeted after the newspaper’s apology.

In a Fox News interview last month, Melania Trump called out “opportunists” in the media and elsewhere who are using her to advance themselves.

The president called the issue a “very big deal in Europe,” citing it as another example of “fake news.”

Grisham last month pointed to what she said was ongoing negative coverage of the first lady that ignored her charitable works, her White House hostess duties, and other positive news, instead mocking Trump over trivial matters such as her clothes or the Christmas decorations at the White House. —Anne K. Walters

Associated Press/Photo by Bebeto Matthews (file) Associated Press/Photo by Bebeto Matthews (file) Former U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage at a tribute honoring U.S. veterans in New York in November 2014

DIY border wall?

With the federal government making little headway on a compromise on border security, one man decided to take building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border into his own hands.

Brian Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and triple amputee who was wounded in Iraq, announced he and his team could build such a wall for half the cost the U.S. government estimated. In December, he started a crowdfunding account called “We the People Will Build the Wall” and asked supporters of President Donald Trump to contribute. Kolfage raised $20 million but fell short of his $1 billion goal, triggering automatic refunds to donors. So he came up with a Plan B: starting a nonprofit organization in Florida called We Build the Wall Inc. and asking donors to transfer their gifts to it.

Kolfage’s lawyer says the nonprofit organization’s bylaws prevent Kolfage from personally receiving any money from the donations. So far, the group has not released its bylaws to the public. —Charissa Crotts

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a reporter for WORLD.

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  • James C Williams
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 12:25 pm

    Grammar nit-pick: 

    "Sims writes that he left the White House job in May 2018 when tensions between he and then–chief of staff John Kelly peaked over meeting attendance and protocols."

    Between him and Kelly.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 01:45 pm

    Thank you. We have corrected the error.

  • Greg Mangrum's picture
    Greg Mangrum
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 11:47 pm

    Sims says that the Trump White House was (is) made up of “a ragtag band of political outsiders...who couldn’t seem to decide whether serving their country meant serving their President or undermining him.” A tell-all titled "Team of Vipers" doesn't serve his former boss very well. His concerns about Christian refugess are legitamite but it seems he ignorantly attritubes an uncaring attitude to evangelical leaders. That's not very ethical or Christian of him. Sims doesn't seem to understand (or he does but cares more about the potential windfall and 15 minutes of fame) that writing a book--which would not sell a wit if not for his former position, by the way--poking the president in the eye doesn't exactly portray the "better picture" of his "faith" that he says he wanted to uphold while he worked in the West Wing. For me, his book smacks of a son who loaned his dad's car--until he put it in a ditch 500 days later--and wished that while he’d had the car he'd been a better driver.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 08:25 pm

    I have never, and will never, read "tell-alls" about any topic, regardless of who writes them.  Good history grows from time and perspective.