From Cliff Sims’ Facebook post:
Today is the one-year anniversary of the #ParklandSchoolShooting. Here’s what happened behind-the-scenes at The White House in the wake of the tragedy, from “Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House.”
Unbeknownst to us, at the exact moment we were standing in the Oval that day, a nineteen-year-old gunman had just opened fire on students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When the carnage finally came to an end, seventeen people had lost their lives in the deadliest high school massacre in U.S. history. When I returned to my desk after the Oval Office event, horrifying images of children frantically running out of the school had just started to hit our television screens.
I never considered this until I worked in the West Wing, but staff in the White House experience such events much the same as the general public. Lines of communication are opened up between the administration and law enforcement officials on the ground, and the President is briefed with whatever information is available at the time, but it’s not like we have real-time visibility on every crisis situation as it happens. During such events, the Situation Room circulates regular email updates, but most of them include information from “open source intelligence” (OSINT), like news reports.
Staffers in the Homeland Security offices downstairs hustle to quickly gather whatever information they can, but most of us stand speechless in front of our TVs, watching in horror like millions of other Americans in homes and offices around the country. We would come to find out that a former student, who had previously threatened to carry out such an attack, had finally decided to do it.
The following morning, the President addressed the nation from the Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor of the White House. I stood in the back of the room, just behind a line of press and television cameras, dozens of cables snaking around my feet, and watched him deliver lines that would overwhelm the emotions of most parents if they tried to say them out loud.
“Our entire nation, with one heavy heart, is praying for the victims and their families,” he said. “To every parent, teacher, and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you—whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain. We are all joined together as one American family, and your suffering is our burden also. No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning. . . . I want to speak now directly to America’s children, especially those who feel lost, alone, con fused, or even scared: I want you to know that you are never alone and you never will be. You have people who care about you, who love you, and who will do anything at all to protect you. If you need help, turn to a teacher, a family member, a local police officer, or a faith leader. Answer hate with love; answer cruelty with kindness.”
There’s a certain amount of detachment that any speaker has to take on to keep from breaking down while delivering remarks that are that emotionally charged. That was hard even for an unsentimental man like the President. But as he spoke, I could feel his deep sympathy for the victims and their families.
After he was done speaking, he walked out of the Diplomatic Reception Room and back into the Center Hall that runs the length of the residence’s ground floor. Turning left, he passed the Map Room and saw a small group of senior aides watching his remarks on a small television in the White House doctor’s office. There’s a slight delay in even “live” broadcasts, so he’d often stop in there to see the end of his remarks being aired. The entire team then walked with the President through the Palm Room and down the West Colonnade, parting ways as he and the Vice President turned left to go to the Oval, and everyone else continued straight into the West Wing.
I lagged behind the rest of the group and was the last staffer still outside when the President suddenly realized he had something he needed to say. Turning around, he saw me about twenty yards away.
“I’m going to Florida tomorrow,” he said emphatically. “I don’t care what they have to do. I’m going to Florida, okay? I want you to go right now, find Tony, and you tell him that I’m going to Florida. I’m sick of them telling me no. I want to go to Parkland. I want to see these people. And you go tell them right now that they better figure it out. Okay? That’s it.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He turned around without saying another word and walked toward the Oval with the Vice President.
I knew immediately that the “Tony” he was referring to was Tony Ornato, the head Secret Service agent on the President’s protective detail. As I would come to find out, the Secret Service was trying to pump the brakes on the President visiting Parkland. They were hoping to give themselves a little more time to iron out the logistical and security details. It’s a herculean task to move the President and his team safely and smoothly. The Secret Service are total pros, and the President treated them all with the utmost respect. But he would occasionally grow frustrated when he couldn’t do what he wanted on short notice. In this case, he was itching to show the people of Parkland that their President cared about them in their darkest hour.
I walked over to the Secret Service office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and delivered the message.
“He’s adamant about going tomorrow,” I told the agents on duty. “He said he doesn’t care what has to be done, he just wants to be on a plane to Parkland tomorrow afternoon.”
“Roger that,” one of them replied. “We’re on it.” They delivered, as they always did.
Sims recently left the White House and released a book, Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House.