Over the years, Donald Trump honed what seemed like a foolproof method for bad behavior with few consequences: Bully and buy your way out of trouble. A favorite Trump tactic, whether you were a Trump Organization employee, Trump campaign aide or Trump wife, involved the nondisclosure agreement, with the accompanying threat of litigation for daring to spill his secrets.
But this approach doesn’t work for presidents. Alas for Trump, presidents can’t impose such agreements on their aides or, increasingly in the case of this administration, former aides. And the gusher of departures increasingly and exponentially raises the risk for Trump. Some of them are going to start to talk – yes, even more than they did, anonymously, when they still worked for him.
So you might have thought that Trump, who has been wary throughout his career about the damage that exes (ex- employees, ex-wives) could do, would be more careful about how he has gone about axing senior officials – most recently and ignominiously Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, dumped in a manner calculated to impose maximum humiliation.
Note to the president, if you fire the guy by tweet before you deign to pick up the phone to tell him yourself, don’t be surprised if he turns around and spills the beans on you and your administration.
And here’s the thing: Rex Tillerson is no Stormy Daniels. Nor are former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer, former staff secretary Rob Porter, former who-knows-what-she-did-there Omarosa Manigault-Newman – or any others on the growing list of formers canned with a minimum of presidential grace and a potential goody bag overflowing with problematic stories. Some of them deserved the kick to the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue, but that’s not the point. The point is that they can’t be stopped from talking.
In the end, I predict, Trump isn’t going to be able to stop the porn actress from telling her story, either. Indeed, Trump’s heavy-handed effort to keep Daniels from talking about an affair in which he denies engaging only serves to heighten attention to her account and underscore his desperation to muzzle her.
But whatever Trump’s litigation prospects with Daniels, he has little to no leverage to silence the administration officials he has treated so badly – and he knows it. “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 told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Bob Woodward back in April 2016, when they asked about his penchant for nondisclosure agreements.
How useful have they been for Trump? Well, when he was flirting with a presidential bid in 1999 and ex-wife No. 2, Marla Maples, threatened “to tell the people what he is really like,” Trump countered by withholding a $1.5 million alimony payment, although he eventually backed down.
Cabinet officials don’t sign prenups.
The blabbing – not that this administration has exactly been buttoned-down so far – might not happen right away. Some ex-officials want to maintain the patina of loyalty, at least until they’ve got the big book deal in hand. Some may stay quiet because it serves their financial interests to maintain good relations with – and easy access to – the White House as they build law or lobbying practices. But make no mistake: The storytelling about what is really going on inside the Trump White House – “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus told Vanity Fair – has scarcely commenced.
And Trump’s preferred tactic for compelling silence is proving of limited utility. When Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” was published in January, Trump deployed his lawyer to fire off a cease-and-desist letter to Bannon. Lawyer Charles Harder asserted that Bannon, blabbing to Wolff, had violated the terms of a campaign-era nondisclosure agreement in which he agreed “not to demean or disparage publicly” the Trump organization, Trump himself or “any family member.” Legal action, Harder huffed and puffed, “is imminent.”
[Sound of fingers tapping.]
Every president dreads the kiss-and-tell memoir and its assorted relatives, the killer 60 Minutes interview, the spill-the-bean magazine piece. The traditional ways to avoid these are two-fold. Don’t do anything you’d be embarrassed to read about and treat the people who work for you in a way that inspires loyalty, not back-stabbing.
If I were Trump, I’d be worried about a lot more than what Stormy Daniels has to say.
Washington Post Writers Group