And thus did Team Trump confer both credibility and victimhood unto Cliff Sims, a low-level staffer whose tell-all book might otherwise have headed quickly into obscurity. Sims’ narrative offered a by-now familiar look inside the Trump White House, aptly summarized by its title Team of Vipers. Sims had started making the rounds on talk shows but had mostly been overshadowed by Chris Christie and his similarly themed tome, which more or less echoes the memoirs of other departed Trump officials and Bob Woodward’s reporting.
At least for a while, the Daily Beast noted in a feature published overnight, the White House had refrained from taking the bait. Sims’ top two targets, Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway, had urged restraint from Donald Trump rather than a public battle that would only lift Sims’ stature:
The president has not tweeted about either book and the White House has steadfastly declined to comment on the record. For the first time in recent memory, there is a sense of optimism about how the comms shop is handling a news cycle. “If Trump can go the next 24 hours without tweeting about it, the book will be out of the news cycle by this Wednesday,” a former White House official observed. …
According to two Trump administration officials and another source familiar with the situation, the president was furious last week—when he was otherwise supposed to be focused on the government shutdown fight—after he caught wind of pre-release excerpts from Sims’ memoir, which he viewed as confirming media narratives about him and his team being engulfed in tumult, backbiting, and rank pettiness. Two people familiar with the situation said the president stopped using Sims’ name in private conversation over the past week and instead dubbed him a “video kid” whom he hardly even knew. (Politico reported on Monday that Trump had also started dismissively referring to Sims as “the videographer.”)
Trump, the sources added, expressed multiple times last week a strong desire to rage-tweet against Sims, even soliciting advice on what language and put-downs he should use.
Those sources said that senior Trump aides including Jared Kushner (portrayed as a key villain in Christie’s Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics) and Kellyanne Conway (portrayed as a key villain in Team of Vipers) successfully counseled the president not to do so, arguing that it would give the situation more attention.
Or … not so successfully, as it turns out. Within hours of the Daily Beast’s publication, Trump lashed out on Twitter anyway, noting that Sims had violated a non-disclosure agreement:
A low level staffer that I hardly knew named Cliff Sims wrote yet another boring book based on made up stories and fiction. He pretended to be an insider when in fact he was nothing more than a gofer. He signed a non-disclosure agreement. He is a mess!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2019
Sims and CNN’s Alisyn Camerota both appeared delighted with this development. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Camerota quips, “for watching our segment and our show today!” Sims said “there it is!” before offering the easy I-gotta-be-me refrain:
Former WH aide @Cliff_Sims responds after President Trump tweets about him while being interviewed on @NewDay: "Don't matter to me what Donald Trump or anyone else says that I am." https://t.co/TBcAJdJJZP pic.twitter.com/RjDdYLrhwS
— New Day (@NewDay) January 29, 2019
Not long after CNN sent this clip out, the CEO of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign responded. Michael Glassner announced that the campaign would file a lawsuit over an NDA Sims signed, presumably prior to Trump’s election in November 2016:
The Trump campaign is preparing to file suit against Cliff Sims for violating our NDA. https://t.co/Xl1N95fPkH
— Michael Glassner (@michaelglassner) January 29, 2019
It won’t be the first such action for Team Trump. They filed an arbitration claim against Omarosa Manigault Newman over her tell-all memoir for an NDA violation, too. The legal action far outstripped any impact that Omarosa’s book had on the news cycle; many might be hard pressed to remember it at all. Nevertheless, it didn’t teach Sims a lesson, nor will it have any impact on others who might be inclined to write their own tell-all books as they exit the White House. An NDA doesn’t put food on the table or get you a chair across the table from Alisyn Camerota.
Just how enforceable is an NDA anyway, outside of issues such as classified material? Almost certainly not at all when it’s applied to White House staff, where the public interest in transparency would easily outweigh whatever privacy concerns public officials might argue. Sims and others like him can’t give away the codes to the nuclear football, but they almost certainly can talk about how senior officials treat others like footballs, if so inclined. Courts would take a very dim view of an NDA that prevented that kind of personal testimony from being offered to the public.
But would that apply to the campaign, which is a private entity, at least technically? That question may be why Glassner’s pursuing the lawsuit rather than Trump or his aides personally within the White House. One would expect courts to treat this with some skepticism in the context of a political campaign too. An NDA is primarily used within the private sector to protect truly proprietary information such as business secrets and client lists, but even then public-policy exceptions can be made — for instance, when the “business secrets” impact public health. (The tobacco industry found that one out the hard way, eventually.) Campaigns may be private entities but they have a real impact on public policy.
Also, if these are all “made up stories,” then … did Sims actually violate an NDA? Wouldn’t the success of any NDA action hinge on how much truth Sims told? Hmmm.
An NDA’s real value is in intimidation — the threat of expensive legal action which will disincentivize violations. That didn’t stop Omarosa or Sims, as the incentives clearly outweighed the disincentives. Making a federal case out of Sims and raising his profile from an obscure staffer to a Principled and Victimized Whistleblower only tilts those incentives toward more violations, not fewer. Trump and Glassner should have listened to Kushner and Conway more carefully.