Among the dark arts practiced by the president is the use of non-disclosure agreements to keep people who may sour on him from revealing what they saw. You can see the need: all the messy lawsuits and bankruptcies; vendors stiffed and customers fleeced; wives left in favor of other wives. And there’s The Women He Has Known.
But non-disclosures in the White House? Trump is not a king, and his aides are not croupiers at one of his casinos, subject to his whims. They work for us. We pay them and count on them to do the country’s work. Unless it’s removing troops from Syria—or not removing them—those who work for the president are free to tell us what they know if they feel so moved.
There were rumors that former counsel Donald McGahn had pushed NDAs on incoming employees. He denied it, and you can see why. It looks bad to import omertà, which translated means manhood, and requires the keeping of what goes on inside from anyone on the outside, including law enforcement, under penalty of swimming with the fishes.
Things aren’t that extreme, but an NDA that works in Trump Tower doesn’t work in the Oval Office. The subject came front and center this week when Trump tried to bat down revelations in a blistering tell-all, Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House, by Cliff Sims, a top communications aide who worked by Trump’s side since the campaign, two cans of double strength TREsemmé hair spray and up-to-the moment talking points in his blue backpack.
Sims has written a ready-for-HBO documentary, filled with you-are-there details: visiting televangelists talking to Trump about everything but morals; leak-hunter Kellyanne Conway caught red-handed leaking when she forgot that her computer and Sims’ were linked; John Kelly confiding that Trump could take his job and shove it.
Some of Sims’ colleagues admit he was not a “gofer” as Trump says, but an important player; others believe he was a jerk taking too many notes. Those notes mean you hear Trump’s voice on every page.
You may know former Speaker Paul Ryan was Trump’s lapdog but Sims takes you there. “Why can’t you be loyal to your president, Paul?” Trump asks after comparing Ryan unfavorably to Nancy Pelosi. “Your own people were booing you,” Trump says of a trip home to Wisconsin. “You were out there dying like a dog, Paul. Like a dog! And what’d I do? I saved your ass.”
Trump sued over one NDA. He was livid over Omarosa Maginault Newman’s Unhinged, published last August claiming Trump was “physically and mentally impaired,” a racist, and had John Kelly lock her in the situation room, absent her inhaler, to fire her. When it was denied, she played the tape. To slow her down, Trump tweeted that “Wacky Omarosa already has a fully signed Non-Disclosure Agreement!”
With that tweet, Trump confirmed, inadvertently, what had been denied. The White House felt the rare need to come clean. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted there were NDAs without saying who else had signed one and insisting there was nothing wrong with requiring them: “Despite contrary opinion, it’s actually very normal and every administration prior to the Trump administration has had NDAs, particularly specific for anyone that had a security clearance.”
The Federalist Papers don’t tell us about what the Founding Fathers had, but if what she means by “prior” is any recent president, she’s wrong. Ronald Reagan briefly considered an NDA to protect classified info but it died in part because anyone who gets a security clearance guards classified information as part of it.
Legal experts say NDAs are not only monarchical, they violate whistleblower protections and the First Amendment. If Omarosa revealed Trump’s plans for removing troops from Syria, she would have a problem. Given that she claimed Trump used the N-word and other personal shortcomings, she does not.
Once the unconstitutional practice was out in the open, the White House filed an arbitration case against Manigault over breaching the NDA, which has little chance of winning even in a one-sided arbitration proceeding. To point out how pointless NDAs are, First Amendment lawyer Mark Zaid wrote on Twitter that NDAs are so unenforceable he would “represent pro bono any Trump official who was made to sign one.”
Not every Trump associate needs an NDA to give Trump a pass. This week Roger Stone swore after his indictment that “no matter what anyone says, I will not bear false witness against Donald Trump,” swapping out thy neighbor for Trump in an edited Eighth Commandment.
In another book out this week, Let Me Finish by Trump’s one-time transition chief Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor has juicy, inside-the-campaign tales to tell. But he leaves Trump mostly unscathed, a victim of the “amateurs, grifters, weaklings” who surround him. Much of what’s wrong is Jared Kushner’s fault.
He got Christie fired (Kushner holds a grudge over Christie’s prosecution of his father for “loathsome, despicable” crimes) and kept the vice presidency from him. How Trump left Christie twisting in the wind, even after Christie saw Trump’s plane offloading Mike Pence at Teterboro air field, is worth the chapter he gives it.
Trump may hold the record for the largest number of staffers fired or bailing in the first two years and friends and associates spilling their guts. Some want to sell books (Omarosa, Sims), others just want to get the grime off their consciences (Bannon, Anonymous, everyone who talked to Michael Wolff, the leakers-in-residence, and Michael Cohen who, once he got out, started unburdened himself so much that he earned the praise of Robert Mueller).
Sims and Omarosa have nothing to fear from violating their NDAs. But after reading about what they saw, the rest of us do. We might wish they’d disclosed less.