WASHINGTON — Cliff Sims had a hunch working for Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as the president, could be a trial of conscience and faith.
Like many conservative Christians — who supported Trump in 2016 in numbers unprecedented even for a Republican— Sims looked past the Manhattan real estate mogul's character flaws and lack of religious faith and saw a charismatic candidate who grasped the potency of issues important to the religious right and would deliver on them if elected.
And on both counts, Sims was right. Trump has kept many of the promises he made to evangelical voters who played a big part in putting him in office, and just last week the president told them, "I will never let you down." And at the same time, Sims' nearly two years in the Trump Tower election war room and West Wing "was a constant struggle between my conscience, my principles, and a culture that often asked you to compromise both," he wrote in the introduction of his new book "Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House."
Sims' first-person account of working with Trump and the president's closest advisers includes a self-reflection on the subtle, corrosive effect that proximity to power can have on one's character — including his own.
The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, Sims was raised in a religious home in Alabama. He and his wife, Megan served a mission for their church among refugees in Syria — a defining experience that would later conflict with the administration's treatment of refugees.
He left a political news media company he founded — Yellowhammer Multimedia — to join the Trump campaign in August 2016. Two years later, he resigned as a special assistant to the president and director of White House message strategy in the summer of 2018, the victim of the infighting, leaks and sabotage that Sims admits he used against others before his own demise.
Still a supporter of Trump and his policies, Sims sued the president this week, alleging Trump is trying to "illegally penalize him" for publishing his book. Trump’s campaign has accused Sims of violating a nondisclosure agreement, while Sims argues he learned the information only through his time as a federal employee. His lawsuit alleges the president is using his campaign to illegally "seek retribution that would not otherwise be available to him through the federal government," The New York Times reported.
Now a communications consultant, Sims, 34, spoke with the Deseret News about his experiences in the White House and what lessons he learned from them. These questions and answers are edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: You mention in the book that you and your wife discussed and prayed about whether to work for the Trump campaign. What did you discuss?
Cliff Sims: Ultimately, the decision came down to the fact that so few people get this opportunity, and if we have this opportunity but don't take it, we could never say, "Well, I wish there was somebody in Washington who represented our values." We would be like, wait a second, you had a chance to be that person and you didn't do it.
But you know, it's not fun to be in the center of controversy all the time, and I think Megan probably doesn't enjoy that a lot. That's certainly been part of it with this book, to suddenly be in a very public facing and getting criticized from all sides.
DN: Throughout the book, you write about trying to reconcile your faith and values with what is going on around you. How have people responded to that?
CS: I think one of the things I've learned is, it's very difficult in the current media environment to have a nuanced conversation about anything political. And so people on the far left have a similar reaction of, "How could you be a good person and work in that place?" And then you have people on the far right who say, "How could you work in that place and not understand that Donald Trump is the Savior of the universe?"
It's tough to be in the middle of that. But I'm glad that this has become such a big part of the conversation because it opens up opportunities to have conversations about the deeper issues.
What people are really asking is how could you hate some of the things that a person does, but still love them, or disagree with some of the things that a person does, but still support them? And I think that C.S. Lewis actually had this right long before I thought about it. But you know why I can do that with somebody else? Because I've been doing that with myself my whole life.
There are plenty of things that I do wrong, that I disagree with, that I wish I'd done differently. I write a lot about them in my book, but just because I hate some of the things I did doesn't mean that I don't love myself. So if I can extend that grace to myself, why would I not be able to extend that to someone else, including, and perhaps especially, the president of the United States?
DN: You express regret for not exemplifying your faith more while working in the White House. Is there an instance where you could have said something or done something that would have reflected your faith, but you didn't?
CS: One example that comes to mind is the scene in the book where the president is very frustrated with leaks — anonymous White House officials saying negative things about him in the press. And he asked me who I think these people are and I went straight to naming names. And it was one of those moments, in retrospect, where I was so caught up in the team of vipers, so to speak, and that was an honorable thing to do.
There were other Christians who worked in the White House. And there was never a time where I was able to put aside the cutthroat dynamic and say, "Hey, let's sit down for a Bible study in here for a half hour to start our day." It's a lot more difficult to want to rip somebody's face off when you just spent a half hour praying with them.
As Christians in any environment that we're in, we always have an opportunity to be that one person who there's just something different about them. And that opens up opportunities to have conversations about our faith. I wasn't able to have those conversations, because I wasn't being the one who had something different about them. I was in the middle of the fight, just like everybody else in there, so I just think that was a missed opportunity.
DN: You mentioned that the president wasn't served well by his Faith Advisory Council. What do you think they should do for the president that they're not doing?
CS: I think the impulse for them — and I would say that I share this impulse as well — is to spend all their time saying thank you, because he's attacked so often for some of these issues (appointing conservative justices, pro-life stances, tax exempt status for faith groups) that he's been willing to stand up on.
I think that's important, he deserves thanks for that. But I never really saw anyone say, "Mr. President, thank you for these things, but here is another issue that we are deeply troubled by and are asking you to change your position or step up and lead on." I just never saw anyone really press him in any real significant way on those issues because they all seemed to be trying to outdo each other in giving Trump the best compliments that they possibly could either behind the scenes or on television.
DN: Is there a certain issue you can tell me about that (the council) could have brought up but didn't?
CS: He wasn't delivering on his promise to take care of persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East. If you just look at the number of Syrian Christian refugees that we have taken in, it's miniscule.
The refugee issue in general is one where I think the administration's stated goals are actually good: to relocate them as close to their homes as possible with the goal of them being able to return … and to prioritize persecuted religious minorities. He really wants to keep whatever his promises were. So I thought that was some low-hanging fruit that could have been snatched pretty quickly by the Faith Advisory Council.
Maybe there is an argument to be made that "he's been good on certain issues, so let's not risk those issues by trying to get more." But some of what I saw led me to believe that the greater concern was, "If I'm the one who stands up and pushes him on this issue, whatever it may be, I'm going to be the one who doesn't get invited to the next White House dinner or the next Oval Office meeting." They were just as concerned with their proximity to power as a lot of the staff was.
DN: Do you think the president understands the issues important to conservative Christians on a personal level, or is it just political?
CS: I can't get inside of his head or his heart. And I certainly don't want to say that there is no personal stake in these issues. But he does have a deep understanding of the political ramifications of (evangelicals) being an important part of his base.30 comments on this story
I think the Supreme Court was probably the most important issue on which a lot of evangelical Christians were voting, and he did gain an understanding of why and why it was important to a lot of Christians to no longer have this threat by the Department of Justice that our faith-based organizations will lose their tax exempt status if they said anything political.
But this is not the world that Donald Trump came from. This is the Manhattan billionaire real estate mogul who did not grow up in middle America Bible Belt like I did, and like the others have, or in Utah, obviously a state where faith is such a huge part of the culture there. So I think to some extent, he is kind of learning and has learned over the last few years more about that perspective and why these things are so important to us.
Contributing: Associated Press