On May 10, 2017, less than 24 hours after President Trump fired James Comey as F.B.I. director, Comey received an email from a man he had never met. The correspondent, Matt Latimer, began by praising Comey’s “decades of faithful service to the United States government and to the cause of law and order” and offering sympathy for the “tumultuous period” he was going through. Then Latimer got to the heart of the matter. As the head of a Washington literary agency called Javelin, he wanted Comey to know that if he ever had any interest in writing a book — “and we’d urge you to consider the possibility” — he wanted Comey as a client.
“Javelin is prepared to invest in you and your story,” Latimer wrote. “It’s the least we can do for someone who has given so much to our country.”
Comey did not want to write a book. He sent Latimer a polite response saying as much. But several months later, he began to warm to the idea, and he thought back on his correspondence with Latimer. “There was something about the tone of his email,” Comey recently told me. “I just liked the tone.”
Latimer and Keith Urbahn, Latimer’s partner at Javelin, went to lunch with Comey at his golf club. “Their pitch was, ‘We will be your partner in a way that’s unusual for the literary-agency business,’ ” Comey recalled. Before they were literary agents, Latimer and Urbahn were Republican operatives, and they viewed a book project as akin to a political campaign. They told Comey that they would not only work with him on a proposal and shop it to publishers; they would also help him with the writing, social media presence, publicity and what they called the “messaging” of the whole project. They promised to offer “brutal feedback” at all times. “One of the big challenges in any place, but especially in Washington, is getting people to tell you the unvarnished truth, especially if you stink,” Comey said. “I knew I could count on these guys to tell me when I sucked.”
Comey had come around to the idea of writing a book because he wanted, he said, “to be useful in the wake of something bad happening and to make something good come of it.” He envisioned not a memoir but a leadership book, reflecting on the lessons he had learned in the course of his long career. What he did not want to write was anything about his 109 tumultuous days as Trump’s F.B.I. director. “I was desperate not to be a ‘Trump book’ writer,” he told me.
Latimer and Urbahn gave him the brutal feedback that it was too late for that. “We convinced him that if you come out with a book that doesn’t deal with the thing that people most want to know about you — what the hell happened in the rooms where you were one on one with Trump — you’re going to be leaving major questions unanswered, and people will be unsatisfied,” Urbahn said. “And you’re going to be asked about them anyway.” They sold Comey on the idea of a “story-driven” book about his career, including his experiences with Trump — in other words, a memoir — that essentially tricked people into learning the leadership lessons he hoped to convey. “Their logic was strong,” Comey said.
Comey insisted on writing the book himself, forgoing a ghostwriter, but he leaned heavily on Latimer and Urbahn for editorial assistance. The drafts he sent them would come back “all slashed up,” Comey recalled. “They had a vision that I just didn’t have.” They also possessed an understanding of the political media landscape that Comey, and even his publisher, lacked. “We knew the minute the book came out there were going to be people criticizing him that he didn’t go far enough,” Latimer said. “He didn’t say Trump was a Russian agent. There’s no news here. Blah blah blah. So we wanted to set the book out on our terms — early.”
Last March, a month before the book’s publication date, Latimer and Urbahn had Comey tweet at Trump: “Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon.” They hosted get-to-know-you meetings between Comey and the news anchors vying for his first interview and negotiated with their networks for prime-time slots. They briefed reporters, on background, about the book’s newsiest bits.
When it finally arrived in bookstores, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership” did indeed tell of the lessons in “ethical leadership” that Comey learned while rolling up the Gambino crime family and prosecuting Martha Stewart. But it was the book’s final 90 pages that received all the attention. Comey offered dramatic, blow-by-blow accounts of the F.B.I. investigation into Russia’s efforts to help Trump in the 2016 campaign and his hair-raising interactions with Trump after the election. “Before we had even reached publication day,” Urbahn said, “we had sold about a half million copies.”
One morning in February, I went to see Latimer and Urbahn at their office, which sits on the second floor of a 19th-century rowhouse in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. A steady snowfall obscured the usual view of the Potomac River from the office window. Latimer, who is 48, and Urbahn, who is 35, were dressed for the weather, in khakis and duck boots, like a couple of prep-school English teachers. Their work space has the feel of a cozy reading room, with lots of exposed brick and shelves crammed with books (along with the occasional bottle of bourbon). Posters of their clients’ book jackets decorate the walls. Most of them are typical Washington fare: a campaign biography by Ted Cruz, a book about Nancy Reagan by her former press secretary, the reportage and essays of political journalists and pundits.
Since “A Higher Loyalty” was published, the townhouse had become a popular destination for Trump administration officials, especially those contemplating an exit — “and they all are, by the way,” Urbahn told me. “They’re all planning to get out.” Latimer chimed in. “We’ve met with or talked to probably every major official you would know who has departed or is thinking of departing the Trump White House,” he said.
[Read more: secretary of state Mike Pompeo, one of the last remaining memebers of Trump’s original White House team.]
The problem for these officials is that many of the White House exits have been nailed shut. The path from the executive branch into highly remunerative private-sector work — the standard post-administration trajectory, for better or worse, in recent decades — used to be smooth, as Barack Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney (now at Amazon) or George W. Bush’s communications director Dan Bartlett (Walmart) can attest. While veterans of Trump’s State and Treasury Departments have tended to navigate this path successfully enough, some people who have worked in other, more controversial precincts of Trump World have had a hard time even getting job interviews. “If it’s a publicly traded company, the C.E.O. doesn’t just have to worry about blowback from shareholders if they hire someone from this administration,” one former senior Trump administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the travails of some of his friends and colleagues, told me. “They have to be concerned about how their employees are going to react. If the company has offices in Silicon Valley or New York or Los Angeles or D.C., it’s a hard play.”
Latimer and Urbahn have turned this professional abyss into their market niche. Their central insight is that that hoary old fixture of Washington self-promotion, the tell-all, may be the ideal solution to the very new problem of post-Trump rehabilitation. A juicy memoir not only stands to earn a former Trump official a small fortune, thanks to an unprecedented interest in administration intrigue. It also gives officials an opportunity to reposition and redeem themselves. “A lot of them are trying to figure out: How do I make something out of this for my own well-being?” Latimer told me. “But also: How do I distance myself from this guy?”
After the two helped Comey land a book advance just shy of $3 million in 2017, Urbahn said, “people whose entire job has been basically to undermine Comey came to us asking us to think through what their next steps are.” Last year, he and Latimer secured the former White House aide Cliff Sims a seven-figure deal for his book about his Trump experience, “Team of Vipers,” which was published in January. Now rarely a week goes by that Latimer and Urbahn don’t hear from someone in the administration.
As a result, Latimer and Urbahn have ceased to be just agents; they’ve become career counselors and life coaches. “The challenge with Trump people is they’re looking for legitimacy and they’re looking for sort of an outlet to unburden themselves of the baggage that comes with the job,” Urbahn said. “Some of them are more honest about it than others.”
They each have their own dream Trump author. Latimer’s is the anonymous senior Trump official who wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times last September about efforts to thwart the president from within his own administration; Urbahn’s is Robert Mueller. But there is no Trump figure they would dismiss out of hand. I asked if they would be interested in representing Rudy Giuliani. “We are pretty much of the mind that we probably would meet with almost anyone, to at least see,” Latimer said. The question, Urbahn added, was “If there’s money to be made, are we going to feel good about helping someone on their redemption tour?”
Granted, consciences can always be salved. “One person came to us — whom you would know — and said: ‘If I turned on Trump or did a book, how much money could I get for it? Is it worth my while to do this?’ ” Latimer recalled. “And we were like, ‘It’s hard to know until you tell us everything you want to say.’ ” The potential client hesitated about just how many cards he or she was willing to reveal.
“So,” Latimer said, “we’re still talking with that person.”
In 1985, Michael Kinsley, then an editor at The New Republic, had a colleague visit several Washington bookstores and place notes deep inside copies of three of the most important, and supposedly well read, political books of the year, offering a $5 reward to anyone who found one of the notes. No one ever claimed the money.
The stunt illustrated a fundamental truth about Washington books: While they may sell, they’re rarely read. And why would they be? Washington books tend to be dull by design: the safe campaign memoir by a senator or governor, bloodlessly telling of his or her rise as he or she prepares to embark on a White House run, or the legacy-burnishing memoir by a retired cabinet official, recounting equally bloodless tales of challenges met, competitors bested and obstacles overcome.
But the Washington tell-all is often the exception to the rule. The modern trend of these books dates to 1986, when David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, wrote “The Triumph of Politics,” his devastating account of a Reagan White House fundamentally unwilling — and unable — to tame government spending, as Reagan promised to do when he ran for president. Stockman was the sort of administration official who previously would have been more or less anonymous to the public. But he had proximity to power — and, more important, was willing to dish about it.
Stockman professed to do so out of civic responsibility; he had grown concerned, he said, with the fiscal consequences of the Reagan administration’s supply-side economics. But it was a lucrative form of responsibility. He received a $2.4 million advance for the book, which went on to be a best seller and became a foundational text for Reagan critics.
[Some more ways to leave the Trump White House.]
Stockman’s deal was brokered by Robert Barnett, a lawyer at the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly. Barnett, a former top aide to Walter Mondale, did mostly white-collar defense work, but Stockman’s book led to an impressive side hustle. He would later handle book deals for Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, among others, and invariably came to be described in the press as a “superlawyer.” (Barnett, who bills his clients by the hour rather than taking the publishing industry’s standard 15 percent commission, bridles at being called an “agent.”)
Barnett has continued to represent political players, like Stockman, of lesser but sufficient Washington wattage, including the former Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulos, the Bush adviser Karl Rove and the Obama strategist David Axelrod. He also represented Bush’s first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, when he was selling his 2011 memoir, “Known and Unknown.”
But when Rumsfeld came back to Barnett with an idea for a book about leadership lessons, “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” Barnett was unenthusiastic about its prospects. This rankled Rumsfeld’s ghostwriters: Latimer and Urbahn, who had met years earlier as speechwriters in Rumsfeld’s office in the Pentagon. Latimer already knew something about the publishing industry, having written his own funny and incisive political memoir, “Speech-less,” about his time as a speechwriter for Rumsfeld and later George W. Bush. He and Urbahn took on Rumsfeld as their first client. Rumsfeld got a $1 million advance from HarperCollins, and Latimer and Urbahn founded Javelin, naming their agency after the handle the Secret Service had given Rumsfeld’s wife. They set their sights on displacing Barnett as the king of the Washington literary hill.
For years, Barnett has looked down his nose at Latimer and Urbahn, claiming that their clients were often people he had already rejected. But Comey’s decision to sign with Javelin suggested that Trump’s election disrupted the Washington literary scene along with everything else. In his initial email to Comey pitching Javelin’s services, Latimer wrote, “We are confident that we can beat any other advance you’d receive working with any other agent or so-called ‘superlawyer.’ ”
Barnett isn’t exactly hurting for business — last year, he had the No.1 (Michelle Obama) and No.5 (Bob Woodward) nonfiction best sellers, and he is representing the former Trump administration officials Gary Cohn and Nikki Haley on their forthcoming books. But the Trump era has spelled an end to his near-monopoly on brokering political blockbusters. “Bob Barnett was the establishment, and so the establishment went to him,” one book editor who specializes in political titles, and who has worked with both Barnett and Javelin, told me. “But if you look at the best-seller list these days, it’s not all establishment anymore.” In the new paradigm, you don’t need to be a former chief economic adviser or former United Nations ambassador (or former F.B.I. director, for that matter) to get a seven-figure advance for a tell-all.
You could, for instance, be Cliff Sims. As is typical in the Trump era, Sims’s path to prominence was random and circuitous. A former junior college basketball player and Christian-rock-band frontman, he wandered into politics by running a conservative website that became a megaphone for Mike Hubbard, a rapacious and corrupt speaker of the House of Representatives in Sims’s home state of Alabama. This, in turn, led to the Trump campaign, which led to the White House, where he worked from January 2017 to May 2018 as a communications aide.
Sims was an admirer of Trump and remains sympathetic to him, though he now fashions himself as more cleareyed about the president. But he butted heads with a number of his White House colleagues, including John Kelly, then the chief of staff, who ultimately blocked his advancement. (In one memorable dust-up, Kelly and Sims argued over whether Sims had permission to get Trump to sign a football, which had already been autographed by the University of Alabama’s national championship team and which Sims hoped to give to Alabama’s governor.) When Sims decided he wanted to write a book, he chose Latimer and Urbahn as his agents, in part, he told me, because while working in the White House, he “saw firsthand that whoever was doing press and comms for the Comey book was good.”
We were having coffee in Washington’s fancy new Wharf development, near where Sims recently moved into an apartment with his wife. After weeks of saturation-level appearances on cable news during the book rollout, he had attained a very Beltway-specific form of celebrity. Strangers approached him on the Acela for selfies. He was getting ready to hit the road for a number of corporate speaking gigs about his experiences with Trump. “Some people just want entertaining stories about what it’s like to work in there,” Sims said. Others wanted more substantive talk, about “how he negotiates, how he approaches these interactions with foreign countries to help give them a window into how he thinks and the people around him.”
Sims had initially hoped to write a self-help book for entrepreneurs along the lines of “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” by the pastor and motivational speaker John Maxwell. But Latimer and Urbahn prodded him toward a memoir. “They encouraged me to write what you would write if you weren’t afraid,” Sims said. “They encouraged me to be honest. And I think that’s why my book kind of stood out in the marketplace. The Spicer book, I guess, is an example of a book that people just didn’t find credible.”
Sims was referring to Sean Spicer, Sims’s old White House boss and a cautionary tale. Early in his short tenure as Trump’s press secretary, Spicer contacted Latimer and Urbahn — who knew Spicer from his days as the Republican National Committee spokesman — for help plotting his escape. “Matt’s and my advice to him was, ‘Look, you’ve got to leave on your own terms,’ ” Urbahn said. “ ‘If you think it’s time to go and you haven’t pulled the cord yet, it’s too late.’ ”
The agents laid out a careful exit strategy for Spicer that began with a resignation; then a media blackout; then eventually a memoir that, while not overly critical of Trump, acknowledged the president’s and Spicer’s own shortcomings; and finally, a new career as a pundit — “the Karl Rove model,” Urbahn explained. When Spicer announced his resignation on July 21, 2017, Latimer and Urbahn assumed the plan was in motion.
Then they saw news on Twitter that Spicer would be appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that night. Urbahn called Spicer immediately. “I said: ‘I saw that you’re going to go on “Hannity” tonight. You’re literally going to cost yourself seven figures if you do that. You’re going to telegraph to the world that everything is copacetic with Trump — that you’re going to be his biggest fan on the outside. It’s just not what you want to do if, as you have told us before, you have a game plan to go out and be a contributor on television.’ ”
Spicer went on “Hannity” anyway, and Latimer and Urbahn eventually gave up on him. He hired Barnett to get him a TV contract, but the superlawyer couldn’t deliver. Using a different agent, Spicer wound up getting a publishing deal for his Trump memoir, “The Briefing” — which no one would have mistaken for a tell-all — but it did not sell well. Last month, he became a “special correspondent” on the entertainment news show “Extra.” In his debut, he quizzed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on what music he listens to.
Things went similarly sideways with Omarosa Manigault Newman, the erstwhile “Apprentice” star and former White House aide. In early 2018, Latimer and Urbahn negotiated a substantial contract for her with Hachette for a book that would offer an extremely critical take on Trump. But several weeks after an agreement was in hand, Manigault Newman, without informing Hachette, appeared on the CBS reality TV show “Celebrity Big Brother,” where she offered disparaging remarks about Trump, thereby undercutting the surprise of her book. Hachette backed out of the deal.
Represented by different agents, Manigault Newman later signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster, a CBS subsidiary. (After Sims signed his book deal, Manigault Newman sent him a brief congratulatory text: “Juicy.”) She and Spicer had failed to understand that, as Latimer told me, “the key to getting out of Trump World, in my view, is mystery.”
Of course, what makes a successful tell-all book is not just mystery but also the revelations it contains: the more alarming, the better. The specter of a ballooning deficit that counted as alarming in Stockman’s day seems quaint compared with Comey’s fears that Trump colluded with a foreign adversary and obstructed justice. Indeed, the stakes attached to the charges made in the Trump tell-alls are so high that it’s fair to ask why those charges are being delivered in a book. In the past, insiders who perceived their secrets to have these sorts of stakes, whether straight-arrow administration officials like John Dean or canny bureaucratic operators like Mark Felt or rogue whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden, did not couch them (at least not at first) in bids for the best-seller lists. Would the dire warnings of Comey or his successor, Andrew McCabe — whose book, “The Threat: How the F.B.I. Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” was published in February — carry more weight if their authors weren’t receiving millions for them?
“That’s a reasonable question,” Comey conceded. “In my case, I would suggest that I offered it for free in public testimony on June 8, 2017.” That was when Comey appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and revealed, among other things, that Trump had directed him to stop investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. That was “the essence of my story,” Comey continued, “and the rest of it, I’m trying to offer broader — well beyond Trump — lessons of what we should be and can be as leaders.”
I posed the same question to Urbahn. “Books still have a cultural weight, and people treat them differently than they do op-eds and congressional testimony,” he said. “This is part of the American experience, and people have been doing them since Grant.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, wrote his memoirs because he was dying of throat cancer and desperate, after losing all his money in a Ponzi scheme, to leave an inheritance for his wife and children. In the process, he produced one of the great autobiographies of American letters, one that is still read more than a century later. Will the same be said of any of these Trump authors?
Guy Snodgrass would like to think so. One of Latimer and Urbahn’s newest clients, Snodgrass is a somewhat atypical Trump administration refugee. He was a Navy pilot for nearly two decades, at one time commanding an F/A-18 squadron in Japan, before he went to work as communications director for Defense Secretary James Mattis in April 2017. Last August, he left the Pentagon and retired from the Navy; not long after that, he reached out to Latimer and Urbahn.
Snodgrass told me that he wanted to meet with the two agents because he was interested in writing a book about his time in the Pentagon with Mattis in order to highlight the professionalism of his Defense Department colleagues and give future military officers “an understanding of what it’s really like to work at this level.” He envisioned a book that might one day be taught at the Naval Academy, his alma mater.
Latimer and Urbahn told me they were interested in meeting with Snodgrass because they wanted to hear what inside dope he might be able to share. “He had stories about what it’s like to be inside the inner circle, the crazy frenetic pace of traveling around the world with a hard-charging secretary of defense,” Urbahn recalled. “There were also a number of interactions with Donald Trump that were, uh” — Urbahn paused and began to chuckle — “interesting.” They agreed to take Snodgrass on as a client, helped him write a proposal and, in December, got him a six-figure book deal with a Penguin imprint. The book is scheduled to be published this fall.
On a recent morning, Snodgrass was sitting in Javelin’s conference room. He had finished a first draft and was ready for Latimer and Urbahn to give him notes. Wearing a windbreaker that bore the insignia of the Navy’s elite Top Gun pilot school, where he once served as an instructor, Snodgrass templed his fingers as he listened to his agents’ critique.
They told him that he needed to make some of his chapters less chronological and more thematic. They pressed him to draw a fuller portrait of Mattis and go into greater detail about what he had seen and experienced — especially when it came to Mattis’s interactions with Trump.
It was a memoir, they reminded him, not just a policy book. “I think the entire value proposition of the book, as we talked about from the beginning,” Urbahn explained, “is here’s sort of a cornfed, all-American guy who’s going to tell you what it was like inside the room with Trump and Mattis.”
Snodgrass seemed a bit uncomfortable with this. He worried that by going into such detail, by revealing everything his proximity to power had enabled him to witness, some of his old Navy colleagues might accuse him of selling out. “I’m coming at it from a slightly different angle,” Snodgrass told his agents. “My entire adult life has been serving in uniform, and it’s always ‘service before self,’ and you don’t self-aggrandize.”
A central argument of Snodgrass’s book will be that Mattis, during his first year at the Pentagon, was able to tame some of Trump’s more damaging instincts by convincing the president that the policies Mattis and the military brass preferred in areas like NATO and Afghanistan were in fact the ones that Trump himself wanted, too. Now, Latimer and Urbahn were trying to perform a similar move on Snodgrass.
“The other way to inoculate yourself from that” — the charge of self-aggrandizement — “is to have a really good argument for why you’re doing this book,” Latimer told Snodgrass. “And the purpose, as you said, is you had the opportunity to observe some very significant things that happened in our history, in a very turbulent time, a very unprecedented time for the Pentagon, and there’s lessons and a warning that you want to offer people about the dangers that are ahead and the risks ahead. That makes it important that people know what you saw.”
Snodgrass nodded in agreement. Their logic was strong.
Three potential book covers the publisher had designed were displayed on a TV screen. Latimer, Urbahn and Snodgrass all agreed that the title, “Holding the Line,” was perfect, but none of them liked the subtitle, “Inside the Pentagon With General Mattis.” “It’s got to be something with Trump in it,” Latimer said, “for commercial purposes.”
The cover that Latimer and Urbahn liked featured a photograph of Mattis sitting next to Trump at a cabinet meeting. Trump, somewhat blurry in the foreground, was speaking, while Mattis, in sharp focus, regarded the president with mute stoicism. “That photo is the entire book!” Latimer exclaimed. “It really is!” It was as if the agents could already envision the angry presidential tweets such a cover might provoke — and the book sales those tweets would drive.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” Latimer told Snodgrass. “In your case, a hundred thousand words.”
Jason Zengerle is a contributing writer for the magazine and a correspondent for GQ. He last wrote about congressional Democrats’ power to investigate the White House.
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