Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
President Trump was frustrated about leaks — specifically leaks attributed to "White House officials" — that were critical of him.
Behind the scenes: Cliff Sims, a young White House communications aide who had bonded with Trump during the campaign, slipped through the private dining room and was ushered into the private study, just off the Oval Office.
As recounted in Sims' memoir — "Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House," out Jan. 29 from Thomas Dunne Books — the minister's son from Alabama was soon sitting face-to-face with the man he still referred to as "DJT," in leftover campaign lingo.
- This was in 2017, when West Wing chaos was a constant storyline in the media.
- Trump and Sims, then 33, had talked on the phone the night before.
- Trump wanted to know who Sims thought was leaking, and said to come see him — but to come through the back, so the senior staff wouldn't know.
As recounted in a passage from "Team of Vipers" that you're seeing first on Axios:
“Give me their names,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “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.”
Only in retrospect did I see how remarkable this was. I was sitting there with the President of the United States basically compiling an enemies list — but these enemies were within his own administration. If it had been a horror movie, this would have been the moment when everyone suddenly realizes the call is coming from inside the house.
The President proceeded to name White House staffer after White House staffer. Almost no one was deemed beyond reproach—not his chief of staff, not senior aides, almost no one other than those with whom he shared a last name. He wanted me to help him judge their loyalty. How, I wondered, had it come to this?
Trump took out one of the black Sharpies that he usually carries in his coat pocket.
- As Sims dished, Trump scrawled two lists on a stiff card with the White House seal at the top.
- One list was people he could trust. The other was people he couldn’t, and wanted to let go.
- The combined lists included about 15 people — 10 of them naughty, and five of them (all campaign alumni) nice.
The leakers formed Trump's unofficial Enemies List — all on his own staff. Most of the targets survived, at least for a while. But Trump seemed to revel in his new inside knowledge:
- The card was later spotted in the president's breast pocket — a reminder of what he perceived as the enemies within.
Sims portrays what he describes in his author's note as "the unvarnished Donald Trump, a man whose gifts and flaws are both larger than life, written by someone with an appreciation of both."
- "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."
- "This is what I saw. And, unlike the many leakers in the White House, I have put my name on it."