Bullying them into silence
Thursday, August 16, 2018
The Washington Post.
When White House counsel Donald McGahn asked White House staff to sign nondisclosure agreements, he reportedly assured them that, though President Donald Trump insisted on them, they were unenforceable. Yet on Tuesday, Trump's campaign filed an arbitration action against former senior White House official Omarosa Manigault Newman, who has written a book alleging that the president is a bigot in mental decline.
Trump's insistence that his staff sign these agreements was an effort to preemptively bully and silence people who work for the office of the president. His move to punish Manigault Newman for writing an unflattering book is intended to further intimidate others from speaking truthfully. This is not how previous White Houses behaved, and it runs counter to the public interest.
Lawyers maintain it would be unconstitutional to bar federal employees from discussing their work after they leave their official positions, so long as they do not reveal classified information. It also would be detrimental to the public, which would lose valuable insight into the workings of its government. Yet Trump not only demands secrecy; he won't even release the text of the secrecy agreements his staff members were forced to sign.
Ex-staffers also have been pressed to sign secrecy agreements in exchange for jobs with Trump-oriented outside groups, such as the one Manigault Newman says she was offered after White House Chief of Staff John Kelly fired her. That nondisclosure agreement would have forbidden her from spreading negative information about the president, his family, Vice President Pence and others.Readers and viewers should keep this in mind when they hear a former staffer praising the administration: Is the admiration sincere or purchased? Donors to GOP-aligned organizations should wonder if their money is going to silence former Trump staffers.
The results of Trump's move to punish Manigault Newman may eventually provide some clarity. But Manigault Newman did not sign the nondisclosure agreement other White House staffers were obliged to accept; she signed an earlier version for Trump campaign staffers. And if Manigault Newman ends up in a costly legal fight, others will think twice about breaching even unenforceable agreements.
Nondisclosure agreements are not the only way Trump has sought to bully former federal officials into silence. Last month, the president threatened to revoke the security clearances of former intelligence officials who criticized his embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When people lament that the government should be run more like a business, they should stop to consider that it might end up being run like Trump's business.