If anyone in America still needed an explanation of how rich people use their money to silence others, President Donald Trump has you covered.
In a series of tweets Thursday morning, he laid out the process by which “celebrities and people of wealth” like himself use nondisclosure agreements to keep people from talking about them in public. Trump specifically explained that he reimbursed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for paying porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 for her silence.
Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. These agreements are.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
...very common among celebrities and people of wealth. In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels). The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair,......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
...despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair. Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
On the surface, the most shocking thing about these tweets seems to be Trump’s apparent admission that he reimbursed Cohen, who had paid Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump. Cohen had claimed that he paid the money out of his own pocket, and Trump had previously said he knew nothing about the payment.
But even more shocking than that admission is the fact that Thursday’s tweets are a totally straightforward explanation of how powerful people like Trump can use their wealth to manipulate others and cover up any information they want hidden. It’s essentially the same process by which producer Harvey Weinstein and other wealthy men have been able to hide allegations of harassment and other misconduct for years. The result: Men with money can abuse ordinary people and face no repercussions for their actions, beyond a few payouts here and there.
Both Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who also says she had an affair with Trump, have helped expose this system by suing to break their nondisclosure agreements. But Trump himself just gave everyone a firsthand look at the way the system works — and made clear he believes that money and celebrity entitle him to do whatever he wants without facing consequences.
Trump just gave America an explainer on how rich people use NDAs
Trump admits in his tweets that, through Cohen, he entered into a nondisclosure agreement with Daniels (whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford) to keep her from saying things about him that he didn’t want her to say. These agreements, he explained, are quite common among wealthy people.
Trump also maintained that Daniels’s claims of an affair are false, and as Vox’s Matt Yglesias points out, Trump is basically saying he’s pretty easy to blackmail since he’s apparently willing to pay large sums of money to keep people from saying things that aren’t even true.
But leaving aside the question of whether Daniels is telling the truth, Trump is completely correct that NDAs and other similar legal settlements have become a popular way for rich people (and powerful companies) to keep normal people quiet. Both Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly used legal settlements to keep allegations of sexual misconduct from becoming public, according to the New York Times. As Daniel Hemel wrote at Vox in October, Fox News also tried to use confidentiality clauses in contracts to keep harassment claims against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes out of the public eye.
Trump is also a reportedly a big fan of the NDA, and not just for women who accuse him of affairs. He has allegedly required White House staff to sign agreements that forever prohibit them from revealing confidential information about their work for him.
Such agreements, as Trump makes clear in his tweets, allow rich people to pay a fee to control what other people say about them. That fee might be a pittance for a very wealthy person — regardless of what Trump’s net worth actually is, $130,000 probably didn’t make much of a dent in it. And these agreements can allow rich people to act essentially with impunity. If anybody steps up to complain about sexual harassment or any other behavior, you can just whip out your checkbook and make it all go away.
This ability sets up an enormous power imbalance between the wealthy and everybody else. Just look at Daniels, who got $130,000 for signing an NDA but was told she owed $20 million for violating it — and who, at least until recently, could probably never afford the legal muscle to go toe to toe with Trump.
What’s more, by protecting rich people who harass or abuse others, NDAs can put countless ordinary people at risk — you’ll never find out your new boss is a harasser if all his victims are prohibited from talking about it.
Daniels, McDougal, and numerous women who have spoken up as part of the #MeToo movement have helped shine a light on the system by which the wealthy can pay to shut other people up. But everyone in America just got a master class on that system from one of the experts: Trump himself.