A few weeks after he was elected president of the United States, Donald Trump had an idea. In between meetings with future Cabinet secretaries and well-wishers in his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York, the President-elect decided he would require his White House staff to sign non-disclosure agreements – just like he had done for years with employees at the Trump Organization.
Trump was immediately advised that the idea wasn’t feasible for federal government employees and couldn’t be enforced, a source familiar with how things unfolded told CNN. However, as leaks spilled out of the West Wing in the early days of the administration, Trump continued to push the idea. But he wasn’t alone. Both Ivanka Trump, who became a federal employee in late March, and Jason Greenblatt, the former lawyer for the Trump Organization, supported having employees sign nondisclosure agreements, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
Finally, by spring, White House counsel Don McGahn relented. He drafted what has been described to CNN as a watered-down, unenforceable version of a nondisclosure agreement.
The general premise of this agreement, CNN is told, is that employees should use their best efforts to not profit off confidential West Wing information, such as writing a tell-all book once they left the White House.
The Washington Post first published a report about nondisclosure agreements with financial penalties on Sunday, which White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said it was “completely false.”
On Wednesday, The New York Times published a much more detailed report on the agreements.
Some of the details of the agreement have been confirmed to CNN by several people familiar with the matter, including several who signed them.
The White House did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
But in the wake of the Post report, Gidley said: “While non-disclosure agreements are commonplace and common practice for previous administrations, I can say that the report that staff were required or asked to sign $10 million in nondisclosure agreements is not true. But past that, I can’t get into the security and, obviously, I can’t get into that any further.”
A former Obama administration official said nondisclosure agreements were not used under President Barack Obama.
“We did not use nondisclosure agreements in the Obama White House because we worked for a president who believed in transparency and the First Amendment,” said Chris Lu, who served as Obama’s White House Cabinet secretary.
There were no financial penalties specifically outlined in the agreement White House staffers signed last spring, a source familiar with the document told CNN.
Norm Eisen, who served as the chief ethics lawyer in the Obama administration, told CNN in a statement that such agreements are “deeply unethical” and possibly illegal.
“I think it is deeply unethical and quite likely illegal,” Eisen said. “The courts have long recognized that apart from classified information, government employees have a First Amendment right to speak. No president has attempted before to secure the kind of sweeping hush agreements that are alleged here because they are contrary to that principle and morally repugnant. The NDA’s as described in the press also appear to run afoul of many other laws ranging from those protecting whistleblowers to ones forbidding officials from demanding anything of value in exchange for government jobs.”
CNN’s Allie Malloy and Dan Merica contributed to this report.