When Cliff Sims cleared out his desk in the White House press office earlier this month, his colleagues immediately thought of the football incident – an odd and ultimately trivial episode that nonetheless attracted the attention and frustration of the chief of staff.
In April, when President Donald Trump invited members of the University of Alabama football team to the White House to celebrate their national championship win, Sims—an Alabama grad—surprised his colleagues by popping unannounced into the Oval Office, pigskin in hand, as Trump was posing for pictures with head coach Nick Saban and others.
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Sims, whose title was special assistant to the president and director of White House message strategy, explained that he needed to get the ball signed as a gift for Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, at the request of the university. Sims dropped the ball off with another White House staffer and left the room.
Trump signed the ball.
But that’s where things seem to have gotten off track.
Sims told colleagues he had received sign-off from the White House counsel’s office to have the ball signed and gifted to the Alabama state house, and never handled the ball again after dropping it off. Other staffers said they saw it in Sims’ office after the team left the White House campus.
Either way, the ball eventually ended up on John Kelly’s desk, and the frustrated chief of staff summoned Sims into his office to ask him what the heck was going on with his unexpected presence in the Oval Office, and a signed football floating around the White House. Sims declined to comment.
But the football incident illustrates how “Veep”-levels of clumsiness in the Trump White House reach all the way up to the top of the chain of command – and underscores how almost a year into his tenure as White House chief of staff, John Kelly is still struggling to maintain order, acting at times more like a middle school principal than a Cabinet-level executive.
In an interview with National Public Radio last week, Kelly criticized the White House press corps for covering rumors and innuendo he claimed they received from low-level sources and spun into misleading narratives about the Trump administration. But the curious case of Sims and the football demonstrates that Kelly, himself, is also sometimes spending his day mediating trivial disputes that are unimaginable in any other administration.
“Kelly should have much more important things on his plate than chasing footballs around the West Wing,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House chiefs of staff define every presidency.” Whipple said that he sees shades of President Ronald Reagan’s second chief of staff, Don Regan, in Kelly’s performance on the job. “Regan micromanaged and thought he was the CEO and the president was the retired chairman of the board,” said Whipple. “I think Kelly has a lot in common with Regan.”
John Podesta, who served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said he would not have involved himself in signed memorabilia when he was in the hot seat job. “Given the thousands of items that Bill Clinton tried to sign in a rope line, I wouldn’t wonder whether he was signing tchotchkes in the Oval,” Podesta said. “I didn’t feel like I needed to approve all of it. You would think Kelly would be spending more time on making sure Trump is prepped for his bilateral meeting with Kim Jong-Un than he was on football-gate.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
But Norm Eisen, who served as the ethics czar under President Barack Obama, said there is a formal protocol for any piece of memorabilia entering the Oval Office to be signed – at least there used to be.
“People are restricted from what they can bring into the Oval,” he said. “In previous administrations, you would have had to go through the director of Oval Office operations to make arrangements for memorabilia to be signed. The office of most powerful man in the world is not supposed to look like the memorabilia line at the baseball trading card show.”
One of Kelly’s first orders of business in the West Wing was to limit “walk-in” privileges in the Oval Office. But Sims – a staffer who predated Kelly and still felt comfortable walking into the Oval without the proper sign-offs – is a disappearing breed in Trump world: a White House aide who has rubbed many of his colleagues the wrong way but managed to survive and thrive in the administration nonetheless because of his status as a former campaign staffer. Founder of the conservative Alabama political blog Yellowhammer News, he clashed repeatedly with staffers pulled from the Republican National Committee, who viewed him as a troublemaker and suspected him of leaking information about them to the press.
He benefited from closer relationships with campaign-era aides who are no longer there: people like Trump’s body man Johnny McEntee and former White House communications director Hope Hicks, who staffers said was sympathetic to Sims because of his longtime loyalty to the president. But after Hicks left the administration in February, and McEntee was pushed out in March, Sims was left more marooned than ever among staffers who resented him.
But just a month after the football incident, Sims is now gone from the West Wing. POLITICO reported last week that he had accepted a position as an adviser to Mike Pompeo, who he bonded with when he helped with his recent confirmation as secretary of state. A White House spokesperson would not confirm Sims’ new position.
The Alabama governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment as to whether they had ever received the signed football that was accidentally – or not – left behind after the ceremony. Ivey is an Auburn University graduate and is listed as the president of the Auburn Board of Trustees.
One other mystery endures: what became of the football. The piece of Crimson Tide memorabilia, according to two people familiar with the episode, may still be floating around somewhere in the White House.
Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.