Long before Omarosa Manigault Newman lodged explosive claims against her former boss, President Donald Trump’s White House foresaw the potential problems with ex-staffers’ tell-all books.
Embedded in the White House’s two-page non-disclosure agreement was a seemingly innocuous clause that prohibited top aides from disclosing confidential information in any form including books, without the express permission of the president, according to a former administration official and an official familiar with the document.
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And if aides violated those terms, the non-disclosure agreement stipulated they would have to forfeit to the U.S. government any royalties, advances or book earnings. It’s not unusual for former administration officials to negotiate with the White House over the anecdotes and insider details of their books. But the terms of the White House’s NDA — and even the decision to compel government officials sign an NDA at all — are unprecedented.
NDAs are not typically used for federal government workers including White House officials because presumably they are supposed to serve the public and the institution of the president, not any one particular person.
The White House required all of its political appointees to sign this broad-ranging agreement as a condition of employment, a move mostly championed by the president who has leaned on these agreements dating back to his days running the Trump Organization, according to interviews with eight current and former administration officials and people close to the White House.
But Manigault Newman says she refused to sign it.
In senior staff meetings, the White House’s top attorney, Don McGahn, also left aides with the impression that the agreement was legally murky and not enforceable as a nudge to push them to sign it, according to two of the people familiar with the agreement.
One former administration official cast the effort as an attempt to “pacify” a president who was used to relying on NDAs as a businessman. Another former administration official – who showed the White House document to a lawyer friend – said it resembled the type of agreements typically given to reality show contestants. “It’s meant to scare and intimidate but not easily enforceable,” the official said.
And in the chaos of the first 100 days of the Trump White House and the ongoing turnover among White House staff, not everyone got around to signing the document for the White House counsel’s office, multiple people said.
The White House press office declined to comment on whether Manigault Newman had signed a specific White House non-disclosure agreement that included the clause regarding books. She has also claimed that after she was fired last December, she refused a $15,000-a-month offer to work for Trump’s campaign that also came with a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement.
A representative for Manigault Newman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The revelation that Trump’s White House tried to minimize the risk of sensational tell-alls adds a new dimension to the furor around Manigault Newman, who claims in her book “Unhinged” – due to be released on Tuesday – that Trump is a “racist, misogynist and bigot.”
On Monday morning, President Trump tweeted out that Manigault Newman — who he called “Wacky Omarosa” — had signed a non-disclosure agreement, though former administration officials cautioned he could have been referring to the ones Manigault Newman likely signed as a high-level campaign or transition official.
Indeed, Manigault Newman said during an interview Monday on PBS’ NewsHour that she refused to sign the White House’s NDA, though she acknowledged she signed an NDA in 2003 when she appeared on “The Apprentice” and during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“I never signed that draconian NDA that they presented to me when I walked into the White House,” she said, adding that she knew it “was not something that was acceptable.”
The White House’s agreement, however, is the most lenient of the suite of Trump political non-disclosure forms.
It instructed aides to keep all information confidential, even long after they’d left their jobs, and indicated anyone who violated it could be sued for “damages” – though it did not specify any financial amount, according to three former administration officials who described the broad outlines of the document. Other than that, the White House NDA largely referenced existing law and criminal statutes about classified information, which would have applied with or without the NDA.
A copy of the Trump campaign non-disclosure agreement, obtained by POLITICO, went much further and included a non-disparagement clause to ensure staffers did not release information, confidential or detrimental, about Trump, his business, his family members including grandchildren, and even family members’ companies.
One of the former administration officials said Manigault Newman would face more legal exposure from any non-disclosure agreements she likely signed during the campaign, or during her appearances on Trump’s reality shows like “The Apprentice” because those carried more legal heft.
The campaign NDA was written by Jason Greenblatt, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, and others, said one administration official, while the White House NDA was run through the White House counsel’s office including its top ethics lawyer, Stefan Passantino.
A Trump transition non-disclosure agreement, obtained by POLITICO in December 2016, demanded that if anyone on the team suspected a colleague of leaking material, he or she must tell transition leadership or risk being fired.
Former and current administration officials have tried to characterize non-disclosure agreements as standard practice. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway called them “typical…in any place of work” during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“I think if you have been in the headlines for that many years, that is part of the Trump mindset. It is kind of like how some people are into prenuptial agreements,” said a fourth former administration official.
It’s unclear how other top former aides — such as former press secretary Sean Spicer — handled the clause restricting former officials’ ability to write books. Spicer and others could have simply been granted permission from the president — or ignored the clause altogether.
But to lawyers and ethics experts, the Trump White House’s use of non-disclosure agreements is unprecedented — and another sign of the way Trump is tweaking the norms of the presidency. For one, experts worry that the agreements violate the First Amendment by attempting to restrict the speech of key political appointees. It also seems like an attempt to import the practices of the corporate world, like the Trump Organization, onto the public-facing White House.
“You want to have people inside the government who feel empowered to reveal wrongdoing,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan group devoted to government transparency. “The White House NDA is probably not enforceable, but it is also not harmless because it does create a chilling effect, and it is yet another example of trying to get public employees to have a loyalty oath to a person rather than to the integrity of the government.”
The White House’s use of non-disclosure agreements busted back into public view during the multi-day news cycle surrounding Manigault Newman’s salacious new book in which she admits to secretly taping White House conversations.
Trump has long used NDAs on his reality shows and throughout his businesses, and during the campaign in the spring of 2016, he previewed to a few reporters that he intended to use them if elected president.
“When people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that,” Trump told the Washington Post in April 2016.