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Omarosa, and Trump White House’s new hush-money problem

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Omarosa Manigault (R) attend a church service, in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., September 3 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Skepticism abounds, for good reason, about Omarosa Manigault Newman’s White House tell-all. Like Michael Wolff, Manigault Newman has a long, demonstrated history of suspicious claims, and just because the things she writes confirm what lots of people on the left badly want to believe doesn’t mean they should be swallowed whole. Some of what she’s written has already been directly disputed, including by Kellyanne Conway’s husband, George Conway, who has been quite critical of the White House. We should all be very, very careful.

All of that said, this new revelation looks bad, in large part because it is substantiated -- and because it has to do, yet again, with hush money.

The Post’s Josh Dawsey has a document verifying Manigault Newman’s claim that she was offered what amounted to $15,000 per month in hush money to keep quiet about the White House. It was technically for a job with the Trump campaign, but it was premised on her signing a nondisclosure agreement that dealt with her time in the West Wing. That, notably, isn’t generally how NDAs work; they usually involve the job you are getting, not the one you previously had.

Former reality star turned White House aide turned reality star Omarosa Manigault is spilling the tea on her days at the White House. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Here’s how Manigault Newman described it:

After she was fired, Manigault Newman wrote, she received a call from Trump campaign adviser Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, offering her a job and the monthly contract in exchange for her silence.
A nondisclosure agreement attached to the offer, which was reviewed by The Post, said Manigault Newman could not make any comments about President Trump, Vice President Pence or their families or any comments that could damage the president. It said she would do “diversity outreach,” among other things, for the campaign. “The NDA attached to the email was as harsh and restrictive as any I’d seen in all my years of television,” Manigault Newman writes in the book.
Manigault Newman said the call from Trump was followed by a call from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Ivanka Trump, his daughter, who said she “really loves” her and would do anything for her.
“Call us anytime,” Kushner says on the call, according to the book. 
Then, Lara Trump called and reiterated how much the president and the family loved Manigault Newman, offering her the job and wanting to make sure “everything is positive.” 
“If you come on board, we can’t have you mention that stuff,” she added, referring to interviews Manigault Newman gave immediately after her firing.

The situation isn’t exactly analogous to the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal hush-money payments, in large part because there isn’t such an obvious potential campaign finance violation involved. In the Daniels case, the question was whether the payment should have been disclosed as a contribution, given it happened so late in the 2016 election. In the McDougal case, questions remain about how involved Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, was when the National Enquirer’s parent company purchased the story and then never ran it. (We recently found out Cohen and Trump later discussed buying the rights from the parent company on a tape that Cohen recorded.)

In this case, about the only campaign finance question would be whether this would be considered a legitimate campaign expense, said election-law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen a campaign try to claim hush money as a legitimate expense, but of course the whole point of the Stormy Daniels payments controversy is that they were not made from the campaign account and reported when they were campaign related,” Hasen said.

Larry Noble, a campaign-finance lawyer and former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said the fact that Manigault Newman ostensibly would have had a job with the campaign might make it less problematic.

“If, however, the offer of the campaign job was just a cover to pay her for the NDA, it raises a more difficult issue,” Noble said. “There is a difference between using campaign funds to deal with personal matters that may be embarrassing (e.g. the legal defense of a drunk-driving charge), which is not allowed, and matters more directly connected to your campaign or your job as an officeholder.”

The Trump campaign would probably argue that this would have been campaign money well-spent and that it was clearly for campaign purposes — that regardless of the veracity of Manigault Newman’s claims, she posed a real threat to Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign (as we’re perhaps now finding out). But given that’s still more than two years away, it raises the question of whether the Trump campaign is being used as slush funds to keep disgruntled former employees from sharing their stories of discord behind the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And this isn’t the only instance in which that question might be raised.

One aide, John McEntee, was fired by the White House and then quickly hired by the Trump campaign back in March. Some reports pointed to an issue with his security clearance, but other reporting disputed that. And it’s not clear why such a thing would have necessitated him being fired and reportedly escorted from the White House rather than simply resigning.

Longtime Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, who has been with Trump for decades (and who has figured in the Russia investigation), was also given a consulting contract with the Republican National Committee after leaving the White House, and it was for a very familiar dollar amount: $15,000 per month. It’s now completely fair to ask whether they or anybody else signed NDAs that prevented them from talking about their time in the White House.

“As a policy and ethics matter, this is very disturbing,” Noble said. “If the White House is using NDAs to prohibit government employees from talking about their experiences, it potentially deprives the public from access to otherwise nonsecret, non-privileged, information about the operation of the government. Such a practice would also raises serious questions about whether it was intended to prevent the disclosure of potentially illegal activity.”

And that’s really the problem here. Regardless of whether any of this is illegal, it seems apparent that money was used to try and silence a potential Trump critic.