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The Sore Loser and the Puppet: On Omarosa’s and Sean Spicer’s New Trump Memoirs

Two new books from former White House staffers reveal the ways in which those close to Donald Trump protect or destroy their relationships—and what they lose in the process

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

President Donald Trump called his latest disgruntled lieutenant, Omarosa Manigault Newman, “that dog.” Reportedly, Trump has asked his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to have her arrested. In fairness, Omarosa called Trump a potentially incestuous sex pest who will soon be heard spouting “nigger,” among other epithets, perhaps, in a mysterious recording. In the meantime, Omarosa has spent the week leaking other unflattering recordings of Trump and his aides to TV news outlets. These recordings, and so much more, are all accounted for in her new memoir, Unhinged, out this week. Omarosa’s book is as extensively scandalous and vindictive as she’s sworn it would be since the week White House chief of staff John Kelly fired her. But TV is Omarosa’s native medium, and her promotional interviews for Unhinged really will give you the jaw-dropping gist.

With the release of Unhinged, Omarosa has upstaged Trump’s former press secretary, Sean Spicer, who released his own memoir, The Briefing, three weeks before Omarosa released hers. Unhinged puts The Briefing to shame by sheer force of personality and candor, which Spicer spares for hundreds of pages. Granted, “shame” is a term applied loosely here, since both of these accounts are shameless. There’s complicity gone wrong. There are reputations in need of repair. There’s the temptation to turn against Trump measured against the fear of calamitous reprisal. But there’s no shame. In their respective memoirs, Omarosa and Spicer demonstrate two divergent models for post-Trump infamy. There’s the author who turns on Trump, seeking acclaim and asylum among the resistance, and the author who flatters Trump, ensuring, at the very least, that the angry, illiberal president — who has spent the past week ordering arrests and revoking top security clearances — won’t throw the book at them.

The market is already flooded with Trump administration leaks and gossip, and Spicer is several months late to the Fire and Fury buffet, so let’s set the selective recollections and gossip aside for just a moment. Spicer dedicates most of the thinking in his memoir to the White House press corps. In The Briefing, Spicer recounts his many infamous clashes with journalists in the White House briefing room. His contentious inauguration weekend debut. His shouting matches. His greatest hits. Spicer relitigates his tenure calmly, but with hints of bitterness and delusion. He accuses the CNN correspondent Jim Acosta of “becoming dramatic and hyperbolic on the air” in order to transform himself into a news media celebrity. For the millionth time in just the past year and a half, Spicer rehashes a formative spat with then-Time reporter Zeke Miller, who mistakenly reported Trump’s removing an MLK bust from his Oval Office on the evening of his inauguration. For Spicer, this one, stupid news cycle goes a long way to justify the Trump administration’s general contempt for a free press. “Zeke Miller had just missed seeing [the bust] and leapt to an unwarranted conclusion. This seemingly small detail ignited a social media firestorm that insinuated the president was repudiating civil rights,” Spicer writes. “The tweet generated hurt feelings, even fear. This was not the start we were planning.” Spicer is hardly the Trump administration’s most thoughtful strategist. Here, Spicer’s politics amount to a groan about how much the news media bothers him.

In The Briefing, Spicer isn’t settling scores so much as he’s generally flattering the average conservative’s outlook on U.S. news media. He’s flattering Trump, too. He refers to him as “the billionaire president” as if Trump’s wealth is some unambiguously positive quality. In Spicer’s account, Trump’s politics are incidental. They may as well not exist. Spicer’s highest priority is his own rehabilitation and his own grievances about the liberal media, so-called. Still, Spicer is a Beltway creature — one of the president’s more conventional aides, a former RNC flack and by no means a “Washington outsider” — and so Spicer cuts his belligerence with pretensions of tough, familial love. “I’ve known Zeke for a few years, and he’s a good, decent person,” Spicer finally adds. “The problem isn’t him, it’s the mindset of the press corps, the competition to get the first tweet or a viral clip, and an extreme ideological bias. It’s not good for journalism, and it’s not good for democracy.”

Indeed, Spicer spends much of The Briefing rebranding his antagonism as a doomed but righteous effort toward some grand diversification. Spicer doesn’t tout conservative media, such as Breitbart, so much as he champions web-based media, regional media, minority media, and niche publications with substantial policy concerns. In his first week on the job, Spicer started fielding questions submitted via Skype. A couple weeks later, he granted an exclusive on-camera interview to Breitbart, a right-wing website with a “black crime” story tag (active when Spicer spoke to the website) and editorial ties to neo-Nazi activists. Meanwhile, he proposed taking the daily press briefings off camera and out of the White House all together. “The mainstream media hyperventilated about censorship and dangers to the First Amendment, which was ludicrous, as we were expanding access to the White House press briefing,” Spicer writes. “What the major media outlets were really upset about was our recognition of reality—that the American media landscape extended far beyond three TV networks, a wire service, and a couple of major newspapers.” For an entire chapter, Spicer belabors the MLK episode. “I noted that Miller had tweeted out an apology to ‘my colleagues,’” Spicer writes. “Where was his apology to the president? Or to the White House staff who had to respond to his false report? Or to the American people who had been misled by it? I thought the fact that he had only apologized to his colleagues showed just how clubby and insular the White House press had become and how so much of what they did was to impress each other rather than to accurately inform the American people.”

His complaints can seem sensible enough until the reader cross-references them against the “alternative” media in question. Here’s a question from the conservative talk radio host, Lars Larson, sending his regards from Portland: “The federal government is the biggest landlord in America. It owns two-thirds of a billion acres of America. I don’t think the founders ever envisioned it that way. Does President Trump want to start returning the people’s land to the people?” Spicer cites Larson’s land management query as “a very important question” — the sort of substantial, policy-oriented question that White House correspondents not only avoid, but deride. Strangely, Spicer goes out of his way to mock a question that Zeleny, then working for the NYT, once asked Barack Obama at a White House press conference, only to posit Larson’s question — I don’t think the founders ever envisioned it that way — as a great and substantial counterexample. “I was soon fielding questions from Skype reporters who actually asked about things that millions of overlooked Americans cared about,” he writes. Notably, Spicer answers Larson’s question with bland, inconsequential fed-speak. Spicer’s answer does not specifically appear in the book, but it does unquestionably resemble its cold, encyclopedic style.

Omarosa’s memoir is far “messier,” in the dramatic sense, but also far more competently and powerfully composed. Unhinged suits Omarosa, the consummate saboteur. If Spicer is the villain who must insist that he’s really just some dutiful bureaucrat, his heart made of bread, if not gold, then Omarosa is the ultimate ham who must insist that she is the hero and the villain at once. She’s the transcendent actor. She’s Trump’s one, true peer. (Steve Bannon might claim as much about himself, but Omarosa would insist that she’s known Trump longer and survived his company far more gracefully, and successfully, than Bannon has.) Functionally, Unhinged is a great betrayal. Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury revealed all sorts of backstabbing and dissent among Trump’s inner circle, but Unhinged is the first time a disgruntled Trump lieutenant has written their political dissent onto the record with their own hands. In her classically antagonistic fashion, Omarosa has promoted Unhinged by promising to release, at long last, a mythical recording of Trump saying “nigger,” supposedly a death knell for his presidency. Conveniently, Omarosa’s hunt for this tape is the mission that opens her book in medias res.

Before she can explain why she’d be stumping for a politician for whom such a tape might exist, Omarosa must first relitigate the first season of The Apprentice — a show that, Omarosa insists, telegraphed Trump’s approach to the Republican primaries (a serialized firing) and the presidency (a shameless, family-branded heist). “The Apprentice was a branding opportunity for Trump, and nearly every task was self-promotional,” Omarosa recalls. She writes “for Trump,” but she then goes on to stress her own promotional synergies. “You can win without winning just by making sure no one forgets your name,” one friend, a reality TV producer, advised Omarosa at the TV season’s outset. Omarosa has spent the past 14 years honoring this advice in the extreme, from her sabotaging the show’s Season 1 finale to her sabotaging the president of the United States. Given her TV history, and her good standing with Trump, it was tempting to expect that Omarosa might aggressively upstage the rest of Trump’s campaign team or his White House staff — a Scaramucci before Scaramucci. Unfortunately, Omarosa served no discernible purpose. She didn’t even leverage her pitiful tokenization to accomplish much in the way of politics. She wasted her proximity. In fact, Washington politics does require some pretense of authority and expertise, however thin and ridiculous the pretense. The competition affords few points for name recognition alone. So Omarosa lost. She didn’t even receive the dignity of hearing “you’re fired” from Trump himself — she was fired by the new guy, John Kelly, and dropped as a footnote to Kelly’s purge of Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon.

A sore loser, Omarosa has gone rogue. Her memoir doesn’t contradict Spicer’s various accounts so much as it displaces them with blunt force. In The Briefing, Spicer rehashes a spat with Atlantic writer Julia Ioffe, who worked for Politico when she tweeted a vulgar insight about the president’s daughter, Ivanka, in response to a report that she might occupy a White House office space otherwise reserved for the first lady. “Either Trump is fucking his daughter or he’s shirking nepotism laws,” Ioffe tweeted. “Which is worse?” Politico fired Ioffe for the tweet, which Spicer recalls with quasipatriotic disgust. “What [Ioffe] said, in the crudest terms, about the president and his daughter was, regardless of your politics, disgusting and despicable, and it raised serious questions about Ioffe’s judgment,” Spicer writes. Alternatively, Omarosa legitimizes Ioffe’s observation, and she offers greater detail. “For as long as I’d known Trump, I’d observed the way he hugs, touches, and kisses Ivanka,” she writes. “In my opinion, based on my observations, their relationship goes up to the line of appropriate father/daughter behavior and jumps right over it. I believe he covets his daughter. It’s uncomfortable to watch them carry on.” The passage isn’t a revelation so much as a dare. Trump has mastered a politics of saying the unsayable, and Omarosa now arrives, as a plot twist, to turn the master’s dark art against him.

The heel turn was inevitable. Omarosa isn’t even a Republican. She’s spent her TV career impressing upon everyone who would listen that she used to work (for Al Gore) in Bill Clinton’s White House. In accounting for her shifting political loyalties from the Clinton family to Trump, Omarosa offers no political reasoning, no intellectual shift. Instead, she cites a perceived slight from the nascent Clinton campaign. “When Hillary announced her candidacy on April 12, 2015, the Ready for Hillary PAC closed down, and all the resources shifted to the official presidential Ready PAC. We were all excited to make that transition and join what would surely be a historic campaign. I remember feeling a sense of belonging to something meaningful,” Omarosa recalls. “But we didn’t hear from them.”

So, of course, Omarosa defected to Trump’s administration despite her many reservations about his political outlook and racial grievances, summarized in his birther campaign against Barack Obama. Omarosa chalks it all up to her personal loyalty to Trump, and so, gradually, she rationalizes her ingratiation to Trumpworld (which she describes as a “cult”) as a civil rights mission. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile — a friend of the Clintons — encourages Omarosa in her awkward partisan transition during the 2016 primary season when she joined the Trump campaign. “We need you there,” Brazile tells her. “We are comforted that you’ll be in the room and at the table, as long as you are there we’re going to be OK.” With this advice in mind, Omarosa resolves to support Trump despite everything she knows about him, including her first learning about the rumored “nigger” tape during the presidential campaign.

Omarosa knows how naive she must sound. In Unhinged, she cites Charlottesville as her “final straw,” even though she remained for another four months before Kelly fired her and she’s already admitted that she wasn’t ready to leave. She dispels rumors that the Secret Service dragged her, kicking and screaming, from the premises. Indeed, she’s reserved all her rebellious energy for the memoir and its promotional tour.

Spicer spends so much of his book whining about “palace intrigue,” a decidedly hackneyed term for describing a hackneyed interest in the daily scurrying of hacks. Omarosa doesn’t burden herself with these conventions. She writes like a woman who’s gone through life trying to get herself fired in only the most spectacular fashion. It’s why she failed as a senior political adviser but survives, somewhat glamorously, as a snitch.

In the popular imagination, Omarosa is an elite scammer. So it’s tempting to receive her tell-all, however enthusiastically, with an eye roll. There’s some suspension of disbelief required to sit through her recollection of whatever she had for lunch yesterday, much less her ill-fated political career. Still, she’s no more dishonest than Spicer, who, admittedly, isn’t getting the friendliest reception from any readers other than Trump, the flattered president who doesn’t even read. The great difference, then, is their personal standing — Spicer hoping to salvage his esteem among all possible audiences, Omarosa seeking political asylum back among her original tribe. Inevitably, Spicer and Omarosa will follow the same promotional circuit, hitting the same talk shows and answering roughly the same questions about their so-called integrity. In the professional sense, they will launch new chapters. Spicer will lobby and advise. Omarosa will perform. Inevitably, they fail upward.

Repeatedly, Spicer characterizes Trump’s most egregious statements and actions as options he, personally, objected to or would have advised against. Omarosa cites one, definitive instance when the president’s staff all balked in unison — Trump’s firing of James Comey. “No one—and I do mean not a single person in the White House—agreed with his decision,” Omarosa recalls. “But they didn’t dare tell him that.” In their submission, these people reveal their uselessness, despite whatever civic pretensions and qualifications might have initially brought them into Trump’s orbit. In The Briefing, Spicer seemingly becomes numb to how obsolete Trump repeatedly renders him and his fellow advisers. Omarosa has known Trump long enough to recognize this sort of submission as Trumpworld’s fixed price of admission. She cites an NPR interview with Bill Pruitt, an Apprentice producer who, regretfully, corroborates Omarosa’s account of Trump’s saying “nigger,” among other racist and misogynistic comments on set. “You go back to your hotel room or your apartment that they put you up in. And you know, you do some soul-searching,” Pruitt tells Kelly McEvers. The Briefing and Unhinged are more so job-searching than soul-searching. If any of these authors had committed themselves to the latter course, there’d be no books, no royalties, and no further self-promotion — only shame and then, mercifully, obscurity.