The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump’s demand for nondisclosure agreements at Walter Reed is so alarming

‎President Trumps walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday en route to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump is already the oldest person to become president in American history; should he win reelection, he will be 78 at the end of his second term. He has now contracted covid-19, a disease that can produce effects that linger for months and potentially years.

Yet despite the fact that his health status is of intense concern to the country, he and his administration are not only not being forthcoming with details about his condition; they are doing everything they can to cloak them in mystery.

And according to a surprising new NBC News report concerning a strange visit he made to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last year, Trump was so worried that personnel there might reveal information about his health that he even insisted on nondisclosure agreements:

During a surprise trip to Walter Reed on Nov. 16, 2019, Trump mandated signed NDAs from both physicians and nonmedical staff, most of whom are active-duty military service members, these people said. At least two doctors at Walter Reed who refused to sign the NDAs were subsequently not permitted to have any involvement in the president’s care, two of the people said.

It’s important to understand that under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), it’s already illegal to disclose anyone’s medical information without their consent. But Trump was apparently so concerned that someone might reveal something about his visit that he decided the law was not enough, and he needed to threaten everyone with being sued.

Even now, we have no idea what that November 2019 visit was about. The White House told different stories about it at different times.

The use of NDAs is nothing new for Trump. He lives in constant fear that people who work for him might reveal the things they saw while in his employ; given how many former aides and associates have written books and articles explaining how appalled and disgusted they were at his behavior, that fear is not unwarranted.

So it has been his standard practice to force everyone around him to sign NDAs in which they promise not to speak of the horrors they witnessed while working for him, under pain of financial penalty. He has forced these agreements on employees, business associates, campaign volunteers and even members of his own family.

But using NDAs on government employees and medical personnel is very different. Bradley Moss, a prominent attorney specializing in federal employment and national security law, told me that NDAs forced on government workers — including those at Walter Reed — are unenforceable.

“The government has no authority under the First Amendment to censor unclassified information, no matter how embarrassing it might be,” he said. You can read more about why that is here.

Moss said that neither President Barack Obama nor President George W. Bush, nor any other president he knows of, tried to silence government employees in the way Trump does with NDAs, because those presidents knew they would have no legal force. So why does Trump do it?

“This is legal puffery by a man with a mob boss mentality,” said Moss.

But even if those NDAs can’t be enforced, demanding that people sign them is an act of intimidation that can help Trump maintain a veil of secrecy around his presidency.

As we consider a second Trump term, that secrecy becomes even more problematic — as it relates to everything he does, but especially his health.

We know with nearly 100 percent certainty that if and when Trump encounters a genuine medical issue, he will lie about it. In 2016, even before he became president, he dictated to his doctor a letter claiming that all his test results from a recent physical were “astonishingly excellent."

“His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” the letter continued, adding that if elected, Trump would “be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

The doctor later told reporters that in 2017, Trump’s personal bodyguard showed up at the doctor’s office and seized all of the president’s medical records.

Or look at what has happened since he was diagnosed with covid-19. Had a reporter not broken the story that close Trump aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus, there’s no telling if the White House ever would have revealed Trump’s condition. Officials refuse to say when his last negative coronavirus test was, so we have no idea how many people he might have exposed.

The briefings on President Trump's health are a deliberate exercise in obfuscation, says physician and Post contributing columnist Leana S. Wen. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Micheal Reynolds/Bloomberg, Alex Edelman/Getty/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, White House physician Sean Conley has been evasive and contradictory in his public statements about Trump’s health, looking like nothing so much as someone who has been instructed to lie but is deeply uncomfortable about it.

At first Conley withheld key information — that Trump had been put on supplemental oxygen and given a powerful steroid — later explaining that he was trying to reflect Trump’s “upbeat” mood. Conley subsequently shared medical details that portrayed Trump as strong and healthy, but deflected other questions about Trump’s condition, citing privacy protections in HIPAA.

So we’re left with a situation that is analogous to that of Trump’s taxes. There has never been a president whose full financial details we needed to know more, yet Trump has tirelessly kept them hidden. Now we have a septuagenarian president who has forced people around him to sign secrecy agreements; now that he’s been stricken with covid-19, his aides continue to mislead the country about his condition.

On Wednesday, Trump released a positively deranged video about his condition. “It’s a cure,” Trump said of one of his treatments, telling others stricken with covid-19, “You’re gonna get better really fast,” and “I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it.”

That’s about as reliable as anything we can expect to hear about his health as long as he’s president. And if he has his way, we’ll all stay in the dark.

Read more:

Michael S. Saag: Trump says he feels great. My experience — as a doctor and patient — says that might not last.

Gary Abernathy: Americans are not going to agree on covid-19. But that doesn’t mean anyone deserves to get sick.

The Post’s View: A public health giant gives a scathing indictment of Trump’s pandemic response

Rick Bright: I couldn’t stomach Trump’s chaotic, politicized pandemic response, so I resigned

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