When the Trump White House welcomed its newest batch of interns earlier this year, the director of the internship program, Zoe Jackman, did what administration officials normally do when fresh blood arrives: She warned them against being “leakers.”
Soon enough, according to three sources familiar with the process, a representative from the White House counsel’s office materialized to greet the newcomers, and to demand what the Trump White House has required of so many other interns and senior officials.
Upon orientation, the interns signed their very own non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), with the envoy of the counsel’s office warning them that a breach of the NDA—blabbing to the media, for instance—could result in legal, and thus financial, consequences for them. Interns were also told that they would not receive their own copies, these sources said.
This was all a standard facet of the Trump intern orientation process, billed as an “ethics training”—underscored by implicit legal threats from President Donald Trump’s in-house lawyers.
White House spokespeople and Jackman did not provide comment on the record for this story.
To veterans of other administrations, the act of compelling interns to sign these types of NDAs would seem odd, if not downright unenforceable or legally dubious. To this White House, it’s standard operating procedure.
“All White House employees—from senior officials to interns—understand the necessity of discretion based on the fact that they hold positions of public trust, with an emphasis on public,” said Ned Price, who served as a spokesman for the Obama National Security Council. “But this White House’s approach to non-disclosure agreements, even for interns, seems to suggest that guarding against criticism of the president and his family—what most of us would consider to be protected speech—is just as important as safeguarding the sensitive information the American public entrusts to the government.”
One Trump NDA, reviewed by the Associated Press shortly before he stepped into office, barred Trump employees from dishing on any behind-the-scenes details and stressed that those in breach could be sued for going against members of the Trump clan. This NDA covered not only Trump Organization staffers, but also 2016 campaign volunteers. Not even the person who made the hallmark “Make America Great Again” hat was exempt.
In late 2016, when The Daily Beast interviewed dozens of veterans and staffers of Trump’s NBC reality TV series The Apprentice for a series of investigations, sources always insisted on speaking anonymously due to their strict non-disclosure agreements.
Still, that hasn’t stopped one-time Trump loyalists or staffers from breaking them, or even taking the president or his team to court to challenge the legality of one of Trump’s preferred methods of shutting people up. On Wednesday, Jessica Denson, a former Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Trump campaign, filed a class action in an attempt to invalidate the NDAs the campaign had ordered its employees to sign. Denson and her legal team argue that the campaign NDAs were “unlawful” and didn’t permit staffers to make claims for workplace discrimination, for instance.
Earlier this year, former Trump aide and friend Cliff Sims came out with the latest tell-all book about life, backstabbing, and tumult in Trumpworld. The tell-all infuriated the president, and led to the Trump campaign filing an arbitration claim against Sims, claiming he violated an NDA.
This resulted in the former White House official instead suing Trump, alleging that the president had attempted to “silence” former staffers and had trampled on his First Amendment rights.
But any staffer who was surprised by the attempt to keep them quiet, wasn’t paying attention.
“I don’t know, there could be some kind of a law that you can’t do this,” Trump told The Washington Post during the presidential election, when asked if he would force “employees of the federal government” to sign NDAs. “But 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.”
According to a story in the Post published last year, President Trump had ordered that senior White House staffers sign NDAs, which came with scary-sounding penalties for ever violating them, at the dawn of the Trump era. The then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the White House counsel’s office leaned on reluctant officials to ultimately sign them, according to the report, in the “early months of the administration.” The NDA, obtained by the Post in its draft form, featured a whopping $10 million violation fee.
In the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations, NDAs were sometimes handed out to those dealing specifically with classified, or sensitive, information. However, ones resembling the far-reaching NDAs of the Trump Organization, campaign team, and White House—agreements that have essentially nothing to do with national security, but instead mere fealty to the president and his family members—were unheard of.
Furthermore, many legal experts have argued that these Trump-era NDAs are, quite simply, legally unenforceable and merely an intimidation tactic. In fact, some maintain that even trying to enforce these with White House interns could result in financial blowback—for the White House officials.
“Gagging interns is playing with legal fire. There is no White House exemption in the longstanding appropriations rider that employees who try to obstruct communications with Congress are subject to salary cutoff,” Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast. “Nor is the White House exempt from criminal liability since 1980 for obstructing witnesses in any federal investigation.”
And in the case of former aides, the threat of a Trumpian NDA has consistently turned out to be all but completely empty. If anything, the NDAs are part of a White House culture infected by aggressive, omnipresent leaking, and the agreements have done virtually nothing to staunch it.
After publication of his scorched-earth comments about the Trump family in Michael Wolff’s book Fire & Fury, the president’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon was sent a letter by Trump’s infamous, Gawker-killing attorney Charles Harder threatening a lawsuit.
The scary Harder letter aside, nothing happened.
During the media rollout last year of UNHINGED, the book by former Apprentice star and ex-senior Trump administration official Omarosa Manigault Newman, Harder sent the publisher Simon & Schuster a letter threatening them “should you proceed with publishing and selling the Book.”
“Such claims would include, among others, tortious interference with the Agreement, and inducement of Ms. Manigault-Newman to breach the Agreement,” it read.
Again, for all that legal bluster: Crickets.