Last weekend, early in the morning Washington time, I had a fascinating phone conversation with the gentleman who cleans up after Donald Trump. He’s a bit embarrassed about the whole thing, so he asks that I just call him Smithers.
What’s to be embarrassed about? I envision someone like Winston Wolfe.
Wolfe, a character in Pulp Fiction, is a quick thinker and no-nonsense talker.
He’s known throughout the LA underworld as someone who solves problems.
He gets hit men Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield out of a jam early one morning. Vincent’s gun accidentally goes off in Jules’s car. They’re in the middle of a busy street, with Marvin the Snitch in the back seat, and the interior of the white Chevy Nova is suddenly and very noisily splattered with the contents of Marvin’s head.
Still elegantly turned out in a tuxedo after a night on the town, Winston tells Jules and Vincent how to clean up the Nova – and themselves – and quickly get it to an automotive scrapyard where, along with what’s left of Marvin, it will be compressed into a neat block. We last see him as he roars away in his powerful Acura NSX for a little breakfast with the scrapyard owner’s comely daughter.
NICE IMAGE. Smithers, though, says he feels more like the guy with the broom behind the elephants at the circus.
“It’s not blood, skull fragments or brain curds,” he says, “but do you know what I have to clean up?” I do. We all do. What’s it like, though? Where does Smithers spend his days? What are the hours? They must be long.
“I used to work from home,” he says, “but I have so much to do, they found me space in the West Wing basement and gave me a staff of 10. I’ve got a direct line to Priebus. He calls a lot.”
Smithers once worked for a large PR firm that specialized in political damage control. His first case, fresh out of school, was Earl Butz, Gerald Ford’s agriculture secretary, who was caught telling a joke that not only was excruciatingly vulgar, it was about black people.
“It taught me a lot,” Smithers says.
You mean, lose the uncouth racism when you’re climbing to the top? “Nah,” he replies. “There are uncouth racists at the top everywhere. Plenty of misogynists and homophobes, too. And lots of people with strange habits and dark secrets. But they know when to shut up. And they don’t have an early- morning Twitter habit.”
Why don’t you just take away Trump’s smartphone? “We do, almost every afternoon,” he says. “But he gets a new one right away.
I hear talk in the mail room that he receives cellphone-sized packages all the time, and that they come from an address in Moscow. But Bannon insists they’re all necktie prototypes from a designer in Moscow, North Dakota. Go know. At least when he gives speeches nowadays, he mostly sticks to the teleprompter.”
Smithers talks a bit about his work “They say Trump’s outrageous comments are just a way to divert attention from other things, like the Russian connection, gutting the EPA, loosening background checks on gun buyers and those bomb threats on the Jewish centers.
If so, he’s doing a great job. But the tweets? ‘Enemy of the people’? ‘Inherited a MESS’? The Schwarzenegger stuff? There’s a lot to clean up. So I prep Sean and Kellyanne and Stephen Miller and Boris Epshteyn, except they go out and make their own mess. I’m not kidding about the broom guy at the circus.”
I tell him he must put in long hours.
To give me an idea, he says they moved a cot into his office.
Do they make it worth his while? You know, salary-wise? “I’m on a modest retainer,” he explains, “but I get a big premium every time I work more than an 18-hour day, so I can tell you that while I’m not getting much sleep, the money’s rolling in.”
I SAY I picture a sartorially astute, hotwheeled Winston Wolfe.
“Oh no, not at all,” Smithers demurs politely. “I wear off-the-rack suits from Men’s Wearhouse and drive a Buick. But I suppose I could start dressing in Brooks Brothers and buy a nicer car if this keeps...”
I hear a chirp in the background. He tells me to hold on, there’s a new tweet.
He reads it aloud: “‘How low has president Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/ Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!’” There’s a moment of silence and then: “Hey! ‘Tap’ with two p’s? Doesn’t Twitter have spell-check?” There’s a long sigh at the other end.
“Gotta go to work,” he says with an audible shrug. “But before I go, tell me – do you know the sticker price for a new NSX?” “I heard they start at close to $160,000 and go well north of $200K,” I tell him.
“Let’s see,” he replies. Another moment of silence, like he’s doing a calculation, and then: “If he can avoid impeachment till the end of April, I might just be able to swing it.”