White House Watch: Have Senior Trump Aides Signed Non-Disclosure Agreements?

Over at the Washington Post, opinion columnist Ruth Marcus reports something remarkable: Early in the Trump administration “senior White House staff members were asked to, and did, sign nondisclosure agreements vowing not to reveal confidential information and exposing them to damages for any violation.” Marcus, , obtained a draft copy of the supposed NDA. “It would expose violators to penalties of $10 million, payable to the federal government, for each and any unauthorized revelation of ‘confidential’ information,” she writes. “As outlined in the document, this restriction would cover Trump aides not only during their White House service but also ‘at all times thereafter.’”

Marcus’s source says the agreements came about around February or March last year, after several leaks exposed embarrassing infighting and incompetence during the early weeks of the Trump administration.

But there are reasons to be skeptical of the NDAs—either of their existence entirely or that many in the Trump White House who signed them believed in their enforceability. Marcus herself considers some of these reasons, including the First Amendment violations of White House aides held to any such contracts. And who was party to the NDAs? Trump himself? The office of the president? The federal government? Any answer would be problematic to enforcing the contracts if and when a dispute ended up in court.

There’s also the fact that unauthorized leaks have more or less continued at the same pace over the last year. People in the White House talk to reporters frequently and without apparent fear of reprisal. The very idea of an NDA in the White House is, as one lawyer interviewed by Marcus said, “crazy.”

And yet, the White House seems unwilling to deny staff were asked to sign NDAs. When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders , in January, she made an odd dodge. “There‘s an ethics agreement,” she said. “Beyond that, I can‘t get into any additional details.” If there’s a reason this question about NDAs, which Trump used frequently in his private dealings before becoming president, persists, it’s in large part because the White House won’t (or can’t?) come out and say it’s not true.

On the President’s Schedule—Trump and the First Lady will travel to New Hampshire on Monday, where the president will give remarks on combating the opioid crisis.

As special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation continues its work, President Trump on Sunday attacked the probe in his strongest language yet, tweeting that it “should never have been started” and asking how it was “fair” that Mueller’s team is comprised largely of Democrats.

Both of Trump’s main claims are misleading: while legitimate questions remain about the FBI’s use of the Steele dossier to obtain a warrant to surveil former Trump associate Carter Page, it was reportedly that sparked the inquiry that would become the Russia investigation. And while many members of Mueller’s team have indeed donated to Democrats, both Mueller himself and his immediate overseer, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, are Republicans. And Rosenstein was appointed to his job by President Trump.

On Sunday evening, the White House issued a statement, ostensibly a response to media coverage of the president’s tweets, from lawyer Ty Cobb: “In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the Administration, the White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller,” Cobb said.

One More Thing—Trump’s attacks, the first in which he has mentioned Mueller by name on Twitter, met strong resistance from some congressional Republicans who insisted that any attempt by Trump to head off the probe by firing the special counsel would prove disastrous. Senator Lindsey Graham said it would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency” and Senator Jeff Flake called a potential Mueller firing “a massive red line that can’t be crossed.”

Other Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have not responded publicly to the president’s remarks. A spokeswoman for House speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement Sunday that “Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.”

Feature of the Day—The cover story for this week’s issue of the magazine comes from Sonny Bunch. into this moment in scripted television—where there’s so much creative output it can be hard to digest even a fraction of it all. Here’s an excerpt:

If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of television out there—by the increasing number of shows being praised by your peers, by the cascade of critically acclaimed programming on the ever-enlarging expanse of channels and pay tiers and streaming services—you’re not alone. At the Television Critics Association’s winter meeting in January, John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, highlighted the ongoing explosion in scripted programming. According to a report on Landgraf’s speech in Variety, 2017 saw 487 scripted series air on networks, cable, pay cable, and streaming services—up from 455 in 2016, which was up from 422 in 2015. Only 153 of the 2017 series aired on network TV—ABC, NBC, etc.—while 175 were on basic cable. Streaming services are the biggest driver in the latest TV boom; outlets like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu accounted for another 117 series. HBO and the other premium cable channels made up the final 42.

Friday News Dump Recap—Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe Friday afternoon after an internal review accused him of misconduct related to media leaks. “Both the [Office of the Attorney General] and FBI [Office of Professional Responsibility] reports concluded that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor—including under oath—on multiple occasions,” Sessions said in a statement. “The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and accountability. As the OPR proposal stated, ‘all FBI employees know that lacking candor under oath results in dismissal and that our integrity is our brand.’”

Sessions’s decision came just days before McCabe, who has been one of President Trump’s favorite Washington targets for his supposed Democratic bias, was set to officially retire, imperiling his FBI pension and sparking protests that he had been fired for political reasons. President Trump did little to extinguish these complaints, that it was “a great day for Democracy” and noting that “sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy.”

McCabe himself dismissed the reports that recommended his firing, saying that they should be read “in the context of the attacks on my credibility.”

“I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey,” McCabe said. “The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the president. The OIG’s focus on me and this report became part of an unprecedented effort by the administration, driven by the president himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn.”

Must-Read of the Day—This points out that there’s plenty of reason to think McCabe’s firing was justified. At the same time, authors Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes urge a healthy amount of skepticism about the timing of the decision—and that President Trump’s public statements against McCabe call into question that justification.

Song of the Day—

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