Yesterday we decided to dig deeper into this matter of Trump White House NDAs. Kellyanne Conway said they all sign them in the Trump White House. Then President Trump confirmed the existence of NDAs for White House employees in one of his broadsides against renegade ex-employee Omarosa Manigault-Newman. I want to first discuss the NDAs and then some broader lessons we can draw about Trumpism from this latest turmoil. In this storm of back-biting, intrigue and betrayal we see in microcosm the world system on which Trump wants to build US relations with the rest of the world. But first, let’s discuss the NDAs.
As Allegra Kirkland explains here, there appears to be a two-tiered system of Trump White House NDAs. Some ex-staffers are put on what amount to retainers for their silence. Longtime Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller apparently signed one of these for $15,000 a month. Omarosa says she was asked to sign one and then declined. Those are what we’ll call the post-White House NDAs. It appears that a handful of ex-White House employees are covered by them. To the degree these retrospectively cover the ex-employee’s time working for the government, it seems highly dubious that these are enforceable. But that’s not really the point. As the Cohen/Stormy Daniels saga has demonstrated, enforceability has never counted terribly high in Trump NDA thinking. The point isn’t to win cases but to get a license to terrorize or bankrupt signee with predatory litigation.
Then there are the NDAs that most White House staffers have signed. On its face, this is an oxymoron. You can’t make government employees sign NDAs. They would be unenforceable. Early in the administration Trump started pushing for them. White House Counsel Don McGahn initially refused to create them for the reasons I note. But he eventually relented to calm Trump down, even though he made clear they were unenforceable and thus essentially meaningless. There were apparently early drafts that included massive cash penalties payable to the US government if staffers divulged things they had learned in the Trump White House. Those provisions, though, were apparently stripped out. The final NDAs had all the vast and encompassing demands for silence you would expect from a Trump NDA. There just weren’t any penalties.
The upshot was that McGahn relented and drew up the un-teethed NDA to calm Trump down – a sad commentary on all involved. Legally, those can’t mean anything. McGahn appears to have said as much and used that reality that mollify staffers who resisted signing. But contracts often have an intimidation value beyond their legal power. That’s a core strategy of the Trump world. Today we learned that the Trump Campaign, the only entity here with a possibly legitimate NDA in hand, is taking Omarosa to binding, secret arbitration over the NDA she had with the campaign – more or less the tactic that Trump and Michael Cohen tried at first with Stormy Daniels to such great effect. This latest move fits in with the general model. Trump NDAs aren’t necessarily meant to be binding or legally actionable. They’re licenses to force the target party into ruinous litigation.
But there’s another dimension to Trump’s NDA obsession. An article published yesterday in The Washington Post said this …
The rampant use of such nondisclosure agreements underscores a culture — fostered by Trump himself — of paranoia, leaks, audio recordings and infighting that has pervaded his dealings for decades and continues into his presidency, according to current and former aides.
If there’s nothing else we’ve learned in recent months it is that if Trump is paranoid about being betrayed by his top operatives, he apparently has good reason. Michael Cohen taped his calls with Trump. Omarosa taped numerous conversations in the White House. It’s widely suspected that others in the White House have too. The Trump White House also leaks more than any White House in memory. The clear implication is not simply that Trump hires bad or untrustworthy people. It is far more organic. Trump creates and operates in a world in which anyone can be tossed overboard, fired or denigrated more or less at the drop of a hat. Having the dignity crushed out of you amounts to the most reliable and universal aspect of Trump service. Trump also notoriously sets lieutenants against each other, both for kicks and as a method of control. Trump is himself impulsive and erratic by nature. He uses this culture of disruption and unpredictability as a method of managing himself and others.
All of this breeds a climate of mistrust and suspicion both in the ‘bilateral’ relationships between Trump and individual staffers and within the whole subculture – vertical and horizontal mistrust, we might say. It’s a low trust, high fear climate which breeds backstabbing, betrayal, paranoia which only deepens in a self-validating, self-perpetuating way. It is a system of maximal public obsequiousness and maximal private subterfuge. Everything is a lie. It breeds all these negative behaviors because it is an unsafe environment in which they become rational.
We all know this from watching Trump and his White House. What is worth noting is how this pattern is rooted in the zero-sum mentality which informs every aspect of Trump’s world. That applies to everything from ‘deals’ and how he treats people to the extreme preference for bullying bilateral trade agreements over the more rules-based treaty systems which have been the focus of US foreign policy for three-quarters of century.
People who study negotiation call this the difference between “distributive negotiation” and “integrative negotiation”, one of which is about seeking maximum advantage and the other about building sustainable relationships. Each can be appropriate in a particular context. If you’re buying a car, you simply want to pay as little as possible. But that’s seldom the basis of a productive on-going relationship. Donald Trump only thinks about the former approach. It’s worked well for him. It’s also why, before he became President, every major US bank had blackballed him, refused to loan him money. Because he can’t be trusted. He’s a cheat.
One of the most illuminating concepts I ever learned about international relations came from my friend Steve Clemons who spoke about “high trust” versus “high fear” international environments. Broadly agreed rules, norms, transparency, frameworks for arbitration, conciliation over aggression each build environments of relative trust in contrast to high fear environments in which force, duplicity and advantage play decisive roles.
The key is that these environments build on themselves and perpetuate themselves. In a high fear environment, secrecy, force and seeking maximum advantage in every case become rational choices. They become critical to self-preservation. Trump tends to approach trade agreements more like buying a used car where gimmicks, huffing and puffing or threats to walk away may actually help you get the lowest price possible. In buying a used car that’s really all that matters. It’s not the basis of relationships or agreements that are sustainable over time. Trump’s vision of the world is one built on a series of one-off exchanges and bargains in which in each case the US will seek maximum advantage, often with threats, bullying, threats to walk away and more. In other words, it is a high fear environment, one built on predation and plays for maximum advantage, in which the US will do best because it is the strongest.
Trump’s White House is simply a microcosm of this dark and self-defeating worldview: a system of aggression, betrayal, unpredictable behavior and dishonesty, all of which foster and encourage similar behavior from everyone who enters it. Trump clearly attracts people who are either like him or aspire to be like him. But even for relatively normal people, he creates an environment in which his values and behaviors become rational. It a classic Hobbesian world, the war against all against all – a comic dystopia Trump is building in the White House and aspires to create worldwide.