Sometimes this White House just comes out and says it.
Months after initial reports of the Trump administration requiring West Wing staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements, the President and his senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, confirmed Monday that they did.
This practice represents a radical break from prior administrations, rife with ethical concerns, according to legal experts.
Though the administration’s NDAs are likely unenforceable, they represent an intimidation tactic to silence government employees even after they have left the White House.
“It’s an outrage,” Andy Wright, an associate legal counsel in the Obama White House, told TPM. “The people that work in the White House work on behalf of the American people and not on behalf of Donald Trump.”
Wright noted that the agreements would be “void” on whistleblowing obligations or matters involving potential criminal wrongdoing.
The administration’s remarkable admission was prompted by the book tour of former White House adviser and reality TV villain Omarosa Manigault Newman. In “Unhinged,” Manigault Newman writes that the Trump 2020 campaign offered her a $15,000-per-month contract after she was fired last December, with a stringent non-disclosure agreement attached. It prohibited signees from disparaging Trump, his family members, or any of his businesses.
Manigault Newman said she turned it down.
Conway appeared unfazed when asked about the former White House aide’s claims during a Sunday ABC News interview.
“It is typical, and you know it, to sign an NDA in any place of work,” Conway said. “We’ve all signed them in the West Wing.”
Trump confirmed the requirement in one of several Monday tweets about his former protégé: “Wacky Omarosa already has a fully signed Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
Exactly which other staffers agreed to sign the agreements is not yet known. Neither the White House nor campaign immediately replied to TPM’s requests for comment.
Trump is known for making even low-level workers at the Trump Organization, his 2016 campaign, and his presidential transition agree to sweeping NDAs.
The first indication that he’d continued this practice in the White House came in a March Washington Post report. The Post’s Ruth Marcus reviewed a draft agreement that would impose a $10 million penalty for each unauthorized revelation of “nonpublic information” and ensured staffers’ silence even after they left the administration.
A source who signed a final version of the NDA told the Post that Trump required all senior White House staffers to agree to them in spring 2017 in order to curb the flood of leaks to the press.
“There was lots of leaking, things that just weren’t true, and a lot of things that were true and should have remained confidential. The president’s point was that they [staff] would think twice about that if they were on the hook for some serious damages,” the source said.
Former White House legal advisers and transparency advocates reacted with disbelief. The American Civil Liberties Union called the private agreements for public employees “unconstitutional and unenforceable.” Richard Painter, White House ethics czar for George W. Bush, said the NDAs “aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.”
West Wing employees are prohibited from sharing classified information, experts said, but they have the First Amendment right to complain about their boss or their workplace. They may get fired for doing so, as they work at the pleasure of the president, but they can’t be penalized for talking about their public service, according to the experts.
The New York Times reported that the broad document drawn up by White House Counsel Don McGahn did not specify any financial or other penalties for breaking the NDA. Several signees said McGahn made it clear that the agreement was not ultimately enforceable, and was meant only to placate Trump.
At the time, the White House declined to elaborate on the agreements, saying only that White House staffers “were never asked or required to sign NDAs with $10 million clauses,” as stipulated in the draft agreement viewed by the Post.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders had referred vaguely to an “ethics agreement” when asked about the NDAs earlier this year.
That doublespeak went out the window with the Manigault Newman disclosures. Trump and Conway both chose to use the more legally loaded term of “non-disclosure agreement” when publicly chastising her for sharing scandalous gossip about her White House tenure.
More chilling is the prospect that Trump’s 2020 campaign is offering former White House employees cushy $15,000 monthly salaries that suggest an elaborate if only implicit hush money arrangement.
Manigault Newman is an unlikely candidate for a campaign job, given that she was let go for unprofessional conduct like hosting a bridal party photo shoot at the White House. But she provided a copy of her draft contract to the Washington Post.
In a Sunday NBC interview, Manigault Newman said that other former staffers are being similarly “bought off” through these agreements, she said.
Wright, the former Obama counsel, had one word for such contracts: “gross.”