For Trump employees, keeping quiet is legally required
Washington — Just hours after his public firing, Donald Trump’s longtime campaign manager Corey Lewandowski spoke only glowingly of his former boss, deflecting any question about the dysfunction inside the Republican campaign.
That’s not surprising. Trump demands control over what his staff can say — even if they’re fired — and speaking out can mean getting sued.
In his businesses and presidential campaign, Trump requires nearly everyone to sign legally binding nondisclosure agreements prohibiting them from releasing any confidential or disparaging information about the real estate mogul, his family or his companies. Those subject to confidentiality agreements include senior advisers like Lewandowski, campaign volunteers and even a maker of his famous “Make America Great Again” hats.
The practice is also something the presumptive Republican nominee says he would consider requiring in the White House, raising concerns about government transparency and freedom of information laws.
According to a Trump nondisclosure agreement obtained by The Associated Press, the celebrity billionaire has broad discretion over what could constitute a breach of confidentiality.
Employees are restricted from publicly disclosing information “of a private, proprietary or confidential nature or that Mr. Trump insists remain private or confidential,” according to the document. It also requires them to return or destroy copies of any confidential information upon Trump’s request. The agreement is binding during employment and “and at all times thereafter.”
The document was provided to The AP by a former Trump employee, who did so on the condition that the AP would not identify this person by name or make public the multipage document. Campaign staff to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, also had to sign nondisclosure forms, according to a campaign aide. The Clinton campaign would not release a copy of the form when asked by the AP.
It’s not just Trump who is protected by his campaign’s confidentiality agreement. Making disparaging comments about “any member of Mr. Trump’s family, including but not limited to, Mr. Trump’s spouse, each of Mr. Trump’s children and grandchildren and their respective spouses” is grounds for legal action. All of Trump’s children are listed by name in the document, including his 10-year-old son, Barron.
Lewandowski was fired in part because Trump’s children questioned his leadership of the campaign. But in multiple post-firing interviews, Lewandowski repeatedly refused to criticize Trump or his children.
“I can say I’ve always had a great relationship with the family, and I think I continue to do so,” Lewandowski said on CNN before praising daughter Ivanka Trump and denying having any rift with her husband, Jared Kushner.
In an interview on MSNBC, Lewandowski also deflected a question about whether he had signed a nondisclosure agreement, but last month, Lewandowski responded to reports that he was writing a book by tweeting that he had a “strict confidentiality agreement with Mr. Trump.”
Trump has said he may try to similarly restrict what federal government employees can reveal about him if he were elected president. He told The Washington Post that one of his goals in doing so would be to keep advisers from writing tell-all books when they leave government, a frequent practice for senior officials. Trump’s agreement specifically bans employees from citing insider material in books, memoirs, speeches or movies.
“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 said in March.
It’s unclear how Trump would balance confidentiality agreements with federal laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, that require the preservation and public release of government information, including email communications, schedules and other information about high-level employees. The Presidential Records Act also makes private White House communications, including emails, publicly available within 12 years of a president leaving office.
Trump’s campaign would not make the candidate available for an interview to expand on his comments.
The real estate mogul did acknowledge to the Post that “it’s a different thing” to require federal government employees to sign nondisclosure forms. Still, he touted the success he has had using the tactic with his employees, saying the agreements are “so airtight” that “I’ve never had a problem” with unauthorized disclosures.
The full extent of Trump’s lawsuits involving non-disclosure breaches is unclear — and that’s also by Trump’s design.
Trump’s confidentiality agreements stipulate that disputes may be handled by the American Arbitration Association with the result that it keeps legal matters out of court, and information would be out of public view. That decision is the sole discretion of Trump and others protected by the agreement.
But public court documents show he’s been aggressive in targeting some of those who divulged information about him or his businesses.
In 2013, Trump’s Miss Universe pageant sought and won a $5 million judgment against a former contestant, accusing her of disparaging the event by claiming it was rigged. The judgment hung on the fine print of the contestant contract, which barred participants from doing or saying anything that would bring “public disrepute, ridicule, contempt or scandal or might otherwise reflect unfavorably” on Trump or a list of businesses associated with the pageant.
In 1996, Trump sued New York businesswoman Barbara Corcoran for comments she made to New York magazine that Trump said violated a confidentiality agreement. A New York appellate court later ruled against Trump in the case.
In 1992, Trump famously sued ex-wife Ivana for $25 million, claiming she violated the nondisclosure portion of the couple’s divorce decree. The lawsuit stemmed in part from a romance novel authored by Ivana Trump called “For Love Alone,” which Donald Trump claimed was based on the couple’s marriage. Ivana Trump countersued over other parts of the divorce agreement, and in 1993, the two settled their differences.