Even if you strongly oppose President Donald Trump and want to see him defeated in 2020 or impeached before then, you should hope his presidential campaign succeeds with its legal action against Omarosa Manigault Newman alleging she violated a nondisclosure agreement. And if she broke any laws, you should want her prosecuted.
Manigault Newman—a fired presidential aide and earlier a member of the Trump campaign staff—has set a dangerous precedent by her secret recording of conversations with Trump and White House and campaign aides. The New York Times reported Thursday that Manigault Newman “is believed to have as many as 200” recordings of such conversations.
If Manigault Newman suffers no penalty for making her secret recordings—and instead uses the recordings to boost sales of her virulently anti-Trump book “Unhinged,” as she is clearly doing now for maximum media exposure—future White House employees will be tempted to follow in her footsteps.
While it is common for White House staffers to write books about the president they served after he has left office, it is far less common to see books coming out while a president is still serving. Whether the disclosures and allegations in “Unhinged” violate the nondisclosure agreement Manigault Newman signed while working on the Trump campaign is a matter still to be determined.
And I know of no previous White House aides who secretly recorded conversations and then released them to the media. Further investigation is needed to determine if any of these recordings violated the law—and if they did, Manigault Newman deserves to be prosecuted.
There’s no question that Manigault Newman’s disclosures will hinder the ability of the current president, future presidents, and their aides to candidly communicate.
The issue at stake here is good governance—not politics. If Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016 and her aide Huma Abedin secretly recorded conversations in the White House and released them, the action would be just as objectionable as what Manigault Newman did. However, you can bet that Democrats and the media would be far angrier at someone betraying a Democratic president.
So far, Manigault Newman has released recordings of her conservations with Trump, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump, and staffers on the Trump campaign. Politico reports that “Manigault Newman has told friends and associates that she has tapes of private phone calls from first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, according to two sources with whom she has discussed the recording.”
Manigault Newman recorded Kelly in the White House Situation Room when he fired her. Located in the White House basement, the Situation Room is run by the National Security Council. It is equipped with a secure communications system and used primarily for managing domestic and foreign crises.
Cellphones and other recording devices are not allowed in the Situation Room—a prohibition Manigault Newman ignored, by her own admission. Even if a staff member does not knowingly use a cellphone as a recording device, hostile forces can hack into the phone and turn on its microphone to transmit conversations that spies can record. This can pose a grave national security risk.
Now that White House officials know they’ve been secretly recorded, they—and staffers for future presidents—know they can be taped again, and that could have a very harmful chilling effect on their internal discussions.
Effective management of the White House—or any government office or business—requires frank discussions among all parties. Presidential advisers must feel free to share all information that can help a president assess the nature and severity of a problem, all possible options for dealing with it, and the political, social, and public relations ramifications of every possible action or nonaction.
The president, in turn, must have confidence that these candid discussions will remain confidential. This is particularly true when it comes to national security and foreign policy threats, where leaks could endanger lives or severely damage our interests abroad.
No president—Democrat or Republican—should have to worry about secret recordings being made inside the White House. How important is it to preserve the confidentiality of presidential communications? Important enough that it is enshrined in the constitutional doctrine of executive privilege.
George Washington didn’t have to worry about recording devices. But he first asserted executive privilege in 1792 when Congress demanded internal White House documents about a failed military expedition. Most recently, executive privilege was reasserted by the Obama administration to deny Congress access to Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a failed investigation of illegal gun trafficking.
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court discussed “the valid need for protection of communications between high Government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their manifold duties” in U.S. v. Nixon, the seminal case on executive privilege. This was the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that President Richard Nixon had to turn over tapes he secretly recorded of his Oval Office conversation.
While that ruling went against Nixon, the high court said in its decision the importance of preserving confidentiality between the president and those he speaks with “is too plain to require further discussion. Human experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decision-making process.”
The Supreme Court ruling went on to say:
The expectation of a President to the confidentiality of his conversations and correspondence … is the necessity for protection of the public interest in candid, objective, and even blunt or harsh opinions in Presidential decision-making. A President and those who assist him must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions and to do so in a way many would be unwilling to express except privately. These are the considerations justifying a presumptive privilege for Presidential communications. The privilege is fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.
Manigault Newman acted dishonorably and dishonestly in secretly recording confidential White House conversations. But the far bigger problem with this kind of behavior is that it threatens the ability of any president to get the unfiltered information and robust debate among his advisers needed to reach the best possible decisions.
This violation of protocol and betrayal of trust is on par with the leaks from White House insiders that have come to plague all modern presidents. Future presidential candidates would be well-advised to require nondisclosure agreements from the individuals who assist them as part of their transition teams and who end up working in the White House.
The perils of modern technology—such as button and pen cameras—combined with Washington’s pervasive “leak culture,” leave would-be presidents little choice. Otherwise, the odds of them getting their advisers’ “candid, objective, and even blunt or harsh opinions” are close to nil. And it’s precisely that kind of input presidents need when making decisions about vital issues that affect the health, safety, and prosperity of our nation and the American people.