IT WAS one thing for Donald Trump, the businessman, to require employees, investors, ex-wives and adult-film stars to sign nondisclosure agreements. As distasteful as those agreements may have been, he was exercising the legal rights of a private citizen. It is an entirely different — and completely unacceptable — matter for Donald Trump, the president, to think he can similarly gag White House staff.
Federal employees, including those in the West Wing, work for the American people, not some corporate executive, and their loyalty is to the Constitution, not an individual. Attempts to bully them into giving up their First Amendment right to speak are yet another troubling example of Mr. Trump’s failure to understand the duties and sensibilities of his public office.
Mr. Trump’s demand for signed confidentiality agreements, The Post’s Ruth Marcus reported in revealing their existence, was prompted by his fury over embarrassing leaks early in his administration. The New York Times subsequently reported that White House Counsel Donald McGahn had cautioned that threatening penalties for those revealing secrets was illegal and unenforceable, but — mainly to placate the president — eventually drew up a broad document barring officials from revealing what they heard and saw at work.
The specific details of the agreements are unclear. The White House has refused to release a copy of the document or answer our questions. Among them: How many officials signed nondisclosure agreements? Over what period of time? Do they give Mr. Trump a personal right of action after the end of his presidency? Are there exceptions for congressional testimony?
No one denies the need to keep secret sensitive government information that could undermine the interests and security of the country. But there is already a system in place that classifies information at various levels and provides for appropriate clearance levels and access, as well as resulting penalties for those found in violation. It is routine to require federal employees and contractors who work with classified information to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The fact that this administration was, until recently, all too willing to let people without appropriate security clearance be privy to top-secret materials makes the push for these newly disclosed and unprecedented nondisclosure agreements all the more suspect. The main motivator appears to be the president’s ego and not the national interest.
Any appeal to Mr. Trump to disavow use of these confidentiality agreements based on historic norms, constitutional principles or the need for accountability in government would probably fall on deaf ears. After all, the country is still waiting for him to fulfill his promise to release his tax returns. So perhaps the government accountability committees in Congress could stir themselves and demand to see a copy of the agreement. Even for them, is not secrecy in the service of secrecy a bit too much?
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