The action opens another front in the battle between President Trump, his campaign and his aggrieved former staff members. Trump — as businessman, candidate and president — has long favored these agreements as a defense against leakers and would-be critics.
Current and former aides told The Washington Post in August that Trump’s widespread use of NDAs exemplifies the paranoid culture of leaks, audio recordings and infighting that has been a part of Trump’s dealings for decades.
Denson’s lawyers, David Bowles and Maury Josephson, estimated that in the Trump campaign alone, there were thousands of employees, contractors and volunteers who were forced to sign agreements that bound them to secrecy and prevented them from making any disparaging statements about Trump, his campaign or his family.
This action is the most sweeping challenge to Trump’s use of NDAs to date, Bowles and Josephson said in an interview with The Post, and it could have implications for other campaign workers and administration officials who signed the same or similar agreements.
“My client believes that the campaign has been using these NDAs as a bludgeon against workers who want to speak out and anybody who wants to make a comment that could be construed as critical of the president of the United States,” Bowles said.
BuzzFeed News first reported the class-action claim. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Denson’s case, which has been in state court, federal court and arbitration, began when she filed a workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the Trump campaign in 2017.
She was hired by the campaign in August 2016 as a phone bank administrator and was promoted to Hispanic engagement director, the court filing said. Bowles said she then faced bullying, harassment and sexual discrimination.
After Denson sued, the Trump campaign responded with an arbitration action asserting Denson had “breached confidentiality and non-disparagement obligations” by “publishing certain confidential information and disparaging statements in connection with a lawsuit she filed against claimant,” according to court filings.
The campaign’s lawyer demanded Denson pay $1.5 million in damages and legal fees, and an arbitrator ruled that Denson had violated her NDA and ordered her to pay nearly $50,000.
Denson’s lawyers said the action was retaliatory and called it a “sham arbitration,” and Denson is challenging the arbitrator’s ruling in state and federal court.
In the meantime, this class action seeks to invalidate the basis for the Trump campaign’s complaint: the NDA itself.
Denson’s NDA, submitted as part of her court filing, presents a litany of actions that are off-limits and seemingly bans them forever. An example:
“During the term of your service and at all times thereafter you hereby promise and agree not to demean or disparage publicly the Company, Mr. Trump, any Trump Company, any Family Member, or any Family Member Company or any asset any of the foregoing own, or product or service any of the foregoing offer, in each case by or in any of the Restricted Means and Contexts and to prevent your employees from doing so.”
The agreement also defines “confidential information” as anything that “Mr. Trump insists remain private or confidential, including, but not limited to, any information with respect to the personal life, political affairs, and/or business affairs of Mr. Trump or of any Family Member.”
“There may be appropriate circumstance for an NDA, but this one is just way over the top,” Josephson said.
Denson’s NDA is similar to others from the Trump orbit that have been made public — especially the one the campaign reportedly gave to Omarosa Manigault Newman as part of a job offer after she left the White House. She declined the job and didn’t sign the agreement. But, as Manigault Newman publicized her book “Unhinged,” a tell-all from inside the Trump administration, Trump filed an arbitration action against her, alleging she had violated an earlier NDA.
Trump’s lawyers also filed an arbitration claim against former White House communications aide Cliff Sims, who wrote another insider account, “Team of Vipers.” Sims responded with legal action of his own, accusing the president of using an NDA to violate his First Amendment rights.
The Trump White House has also reportedly demanded that senior White House staffers sign the agreements — an action that legal observers have called unprecedented for public employees who aren’t dealing with highly classified information. The ACLU called such agreements “unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
In a 2016 interview with The Post, Trump — then still a presidential candidate — expressed his affinity for NDAs and his confidence in the ones he’s doled out to his campaign staffers.
“I think they’re extremely airtight,” Trump said. “And anybody that violated it — let’s put it this way: it’s so airtight that I’ve never had . . . you know, I’ve never had a problem with this sort of thing.”
Correction: A previous version of this report misnamed a book by ex-White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman. It is called “Unhinged.”