What I Learned from Reading a Whole Bunch of Trump Tell-Alls
It's not really selling out unless you cash in.
Photo illustration by Nico Teitel from a photo by the author.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
When the Trump era ends, whenever that day arrives, the people who helped Donald Trump acquire and use power will have a simple question to answer: Was it worth it? It’s well-documented that many Trump aides don’t agree with his often illogical and mercurial views, which means they’ve been toiling for months or years working for someone they don’t agree with, or in some cases can’t stand. They’ll be left having to weigh, publicly or privately, whether they actually helped the nation—if they really did try to temper the commander in chief’s worst tendencies, if they really had made sure his nastiest policies were never enacted, if they really had acted selflessly for the country rather than out of a desire for power and titles. In the wake of Robert Mueller’s report, which documented cases where the president tried to interfere with the investigation into Russian election interference and related matters, some of those officials may wonder again what they’re really helping to prop up. The ever-increasing number of Trump aides and executive branch officials who have been fired or quit have had to wrestle with that question already, and the response seems to be mostly, yes, it was worth it—at least if you look at their book advances.
The former FBI director James Comey sold his memoir, A Higher Loyalty, for $2 million. Cliff Sims, a low-level communications adviser, reportedly received a seven-figure advance from his publisher and propelled himself into moderate fame with Team of Vipers. Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former Apprentice contestant who became a controversial White House staffer, got a similar amount for Unhinged. And the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who described Trump, whose transition team he ran, as “myself but on jet fuel,” reaped the riches with Let Me Finish.
Reading these accounts back-to-back, as I recently did, a predictable pattern reveals itself. All four authors claim to have misgivings about Trump that were eventually realized, to disastrous effect. Comey famously jotted down memos after his one-on-one conversations with Trump as he began to suspect his boss was trying to goad him into an unethical patronage relationship. Christie goes on Trump’s request to Mar-a-Lago for his 30th wedding anniversary, on what was assured to be a vacation, and even though he “assumed that [he] would live to regret this,” had by the second morning joined the then-candidate for debate preparations. (He also has Valentine’s Day lunch with his wife, Trump, and a grudging Jared Kushner, whose father he once helped put in prison.) Newman, who knew Trump the longest of the four writers, spends the book gradually coming to terms with the idea that her boss might very well be racist. (She receives the first flutterings of this realization when he pardons the former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt of court after his deputies refused to stop racially profiling.)
Sims had no political background and was brought onto the Trump campaign after growing his personal blog into a media brand in Alabama. More of an outsider than the others, he might be the most forgiving of the bunch; Sims appears to remain grateful for the opportunity to be involved in the administration even as he presents the “team of vipers” as a band of petty, squabbling imbeciles. (He is now suing the Trump campaign after the campaign claimed he violated a nondisclosure agreement.)
Sims, inexperienced as he was, at least has the excuse that he may not have known what he was getting into. But in Christie and Newman’s accounts, the governor of New Jersey and a famously manipulative reality TV star were naifs who wandered somewhat by accident into Trump’s orbit, like moths attracted to a raging inferno. It’s as if they were put under a spell that they had to slowly shake off.
At the same time, Christie describes himself as being a voice of reason who speaks in explanatory monologues. For instance, at one point Trump asks him if he’d be willing to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, one of many jobs the then president-elect dangled in front of the departing governor’s face that he’d never actually give him. Here’s Christie’s reply: “Sir, I’m willing to do it, if you can change the rules that allow me to accept outside income. I’ve got to be able to accept my gubernatorial salary. I’m happy to be chair of the RNC if that’s what you want me to do. It will allow me to help run your political operation, and that will be fine.”
It’s as if Christie is directly addressing the reader, showcasing his reasonableness and propriety. That’s what these books are explicitly about—their authors’ innocence and incorruptibility. They want to persuade you that they were the good guys all along.
All of these authors are telling their stories as a way to reassure the DC and New York establishments that, even though they worked for Trump, they didn’t really like him.
The DC tell-all is an old genre, and political careers are routinely recapped by memoirs. Look at Robert McNamara, the secretary of Defense for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who spent much of his life post-politics apologizing in writing for the Vietnam War. But a uniquely chaotic White House has led to an epidemic of rapid exits, and the publishing cadence to go with it. The literary agency Javelin has turned this reputation-laundering process into something of an assembly line—its clients include Sims and Comey, and it only stopped working with Newman after she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother and badmouthed Trump without telling her agents. (Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer met a similar fate, after he assured the agents he’d stay off cable news, and then promptly appeared on cable news.)
There’s a familiar arc to how these four books came to be: Someone leaves or is fired from the Trump administration, they disappear for a bit from the public eye, and then they reemerge as a fierce Trump critic, armed with an angry screed. The juiciest details of each book are culled by the media, and no detail is too small to fixate on: Sims’s book included an accusation that Spicer lied when the former White House spokesperson claimed he hadn’t taken a minifridge from his underlings, which had been the subject of a Wall Street Journal report. There are surely more of these tales set in store for us, too. Kirstjen Nielsen, the freshly departed secretary of Homeland Security, will surely get a book deal of her own if she wants one, for instance.
All of these authors are telling their stories as a way to reassure the DC and New York establishments that even though they worked for Trump, they didn’t really like him or the other people who worked for him. Comey stands out among these authors, not only because he writes the cleanest prose, but because he had never been aligned with Trump, instead being forced to serve as his FBI director after the 2016 election. He quite literally attempted to slink into the shadows, as when he was infamously captured blending in with the curtains in the White House during a ceremony early in the administration.
Sims affects the same kind of distance. He writes that he joined the Trump campaign as a “weary traveler,” “a fly on the wall as history unfolded before [his] eyes.” When he arrives in New York, he is a doe-eyed political operative. Sims boards the “Trump train” as if he’s a voyager careening into an unknown land, and he can’t seem to describe his experience without the aid of pop-culture allusions—The West Wing, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mad Men—as if he’s a character in a piece of fiction rather than an active participant in the real world.
As they step farther away from Trumpland, these writers want the reader to share in their triumphs, however minor they are. Christie revels in his unique ability to see Trump exhibiting what might be described as moments of humanity: “The people in the room sat there slack-jawed” during a phone call he and others were overhearing, he writes. “I think a lot of them were surprised to hear Donald Trump talk like that. So human.” Then, when he and Trump go for a spin on a golf cart: “Here he was, on the verge of nailing down the Republican nomination for president, facing another grilling from the media and his increasingly desperate opponents. He had a personal debate tutor in the golf cart beside him. And all he wanted to talk about was fatherhood.”
When Comey offhandedly critiques Trump during one of their meetings, about his soft approach to Putin, he praises himself for his fortitude, which he admits he might not have displayed when was younger: “With a small comment,” he writes, “I had just poured a cold dose of criticism and reality on his shameful moral equivalence between Putin’s thugs and the men and women of our government.” Got ‘em.
Like Greek tragedies, these tell-alls each end the same way, with the author being exiled.
Chris Christie, then still the governor of New Jersey, had been pushed aside, according to him, by Kushner and Steve Bannon, his opponents in the cutthroat early rivalries of the Trump administration. Newman got fired once Trump’s new chief of staff John Kelly took over and tried to professionalize the White House. Kelly sacked Sims for a minor transgression, prompting the aide to reflect that he “had let [his] personal relationship with the president blind [him] to the one unfailing truth that applied to anyone with whom he didn’t share a last name,” that everyone was “disposable.” (Kelly is now himself out of the administration and reportedly being offered millions for his own tell-all.)
Even after explaining themselves, none of Trump’s former top aides have seemed to fully regain the status they once had. For an unknown like Sims, it’s certainly propelled his career and launched him into the spotlight. But Newman is now just a reality TV star again, Comey has become an enigmatic figure who’s busy posting ominous photos on Instagram like a moody teen, and Christie can’t secure a permanent spot on sports talk radio.
What the authors of these do get, beyond the millions of dollars and cable news appearances, is the chance to have the last word, to pen their own redemption narratives. Christie definitely believes he still should have been president. Comey wants you to know he stood up against Trump the best he could. Newman wants you to know she now sees Trump for who he truly is. Sims wants you to know he tried, and he has no hard feelings. What they have in common is a need to justify their time at Trump’s side, to make excuses. And the public has largely rewarded them through attention if not admiration, as if each of these books are another episode in a long-running cable drama.
The deluge of Trump-related memoirs shows no signs of abating—loyalist Roger Stone came out with The Myth of Russian Collusion two months ago—and the last figure to cash in on the genre will be Donald Trump himself. He’ll board a helicopter, wave goodbye, and probably land directly in a TV studio. He already apparently has plans to write his tell-all as well—in which, according to the Daily Beast, he’ll “settle scores with his foes in the media, the Democratic Party, non-loyal Republicans, law enforcement, and even individuals in his own administration.”
It doesn’t, however, sound like he’ll be asking the question of whether it was all worth it.
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