Omarosa faces media scrutiny, possible legal questions as book tour continues

Omarosa Manigault at the Coach Woodson Las Vegas Invitational Party held at 1Oak Nightclub inside the Mirage Hotel & Casino on Jul. 10, 2016. (DJDM/

Fourteen years after he first fired her on “The Apprentice,” Omarosa Manigault Newman’s career remains inextricably linked to Donald Trump, for better or worse, but her scathing new criticism of the president is unlikely to have much impact beyond jacking up her book sales and potentially subjecting herself to legal scrutiny.

Months after leaving the White House under dubious circumstances, the former reality TV star unleashes attacks on the president, his family, and his top aides in a book set for release Tuesday. In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, she painted a drastically different picture of Trump than she did as a high-level staffer on his campaign and in his administration.

Little of what Manigault Newman, who spent less than a year in the White House Office of Public Liaison before being fired in December, has said so far is new information. Mostly, she is just agreeing with critics’ assessment of conduct by the president that she previously defended, claiming she only concluded Trump is a racist after leaving the White House.

In the book, titled “Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House,” Manigault Newman recounts hearing rumors about a recording of Trump using the n-word while filming “The Apprentice.” On “Meet the Press,” the one-time Trump campaign director of African-American outreach told Chuck Todd she heard the recording personally after finishing the book, but she provided no evidence of this.

“It was confirmed what I feared the most,” she said. “That Donald Trump is a con and has been masquerading as someone who is actually open to engaging with diverse communities but when he talks that way, the way he did on this tape, it confirmed that he is truly a racist.”

Manigault Newman continued her publicity tour Monday morning, appearing on “Today” to discuss her allegations and some of the criticism she has already received. She also unveiled another recording, this one purportedly of President Trump claiming he had no idea she was being fired and insisting “I don’t love you leaving at all.”

“He doesn’t even know what’s happening in his White House,” she told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “He’s being puppeted and that’s very dangerous for this nation.”

Trump’s tweets Monday offered a vastly different assessment of “Wacky Omarosa.”

“She never made it, never will. She begged me for a job, tears in her eyes, I said Ok. People in the White House hated her. She was vicious, but not smart,” he wrote. He added that Kelly told him she was a “loser,” but he urged Kelly to keep her on staff “because she only said GREAT things about me.”

White House officials have also stepped up their attacks on Manigault Newman. Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley called her implication that Kelly is running the country “absolutely ludicrous and ridiculous” on “Fox & Friends” Monday, and he claimed more evidence would come out that conflicts her account of events.

“This is somebody who is disgruntled, who is so self-serving, who has decided to put out false accusations, lies, and has already been proven to be contradictory in her own book,” Gidley said. “So this is someone who has zero credibility in this town.”

For many observers, all of this raises an obvious question: why did President Trump hire an untrustworthy former reality show contestant with minimal relevant experience in the first place?

“This is why, even though it was interesting and intriguing TV, I don’t trust one word she says,” said Scott Talan, an assistant professor of public and strategic communication at American University and a former politician and journalist. “I didn’t when she was on ‘The Apprentice.’ I thought she was an attention getter villainess. Then I was surprised/not surprised Trump called on her to work in the White House.”

Combined with a long list of other campaign and administration officials fired, mired in ethical controversies, or facing criminal charges, it also casts further doubts on Trump’s frequent campaign boast that he would staff the White House with “the best people.”

“The sense that his judgment in appointing people is, to put it mildly, suspect is reinforced every time he lashes out at those very people,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University and co-author of “Ten Great American Trials: Lessons in Advocacy.”

Manigault Newman has always had what she calls a “very unique” relationship with Trump. It is indeed atypical for a president to bring someone into the White House at the special assistant level whom he previously fired on national television in three separate seasons of his reality show and also featured on a dating show.

Before her apparent realization that the president is a racist, Manigault Newman was his most high-profile African-American defenders, citing her own success as proof of his support for racial equality.

“I am living the American dream because of Donald Trump,” Manigault Newman wrote a Hollywood Reporter column after the 2016 election. “Look at my career, the wealth and exposure that I’ve had: It’s very difficult to make the argument that Donald Trump doesn’t like black people and black women.”

Trump has at times been very complimentary of Manigault Newman as well.

“I adore you,” he told her as he fired her for the third time on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2013. “We've had tremendous success together. You helped make me a star.”

After that episode aired, Trump told “Fox & Friends” he was just trying to be nice, but he added she was “great” and reiterated they “had tremendous success together.”

At a September 2016 rally, Trump singled out Manigault Newman for praise, calling her “a wonderful woman” who he helped make a star.

“She has done so much for me with the African-American community, with communities generally,” he said. “And she’s another one -- she is such a fine person, and nobody knows itYou are amazing, okay, and I just want to thank you very much for everything you’ve done.”

As is often the case when former government employees write self-serving accounts of their experiences, the media and the audience are left unsure how much to believe. Manigault Newman’s well-documented history as a deceitful, vindictive reality show villain further complicates that calculation, as does President Trump’s track record for dishonest statements.

“I’m sure she saw stuffbut from seeing how she acted on ‘The Apprentice’ and what she said on the campaign trail, I believe a lot of what the critics say about her,” Talan said.

Several people mentioned in excerpts of the book have challenged Manigault Newman’s accounts of their words and actions. Pollster Frank Luntz and Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson have both denied her claim that they confirmed the existence of a recording of Trump saying the n-word.

“I don’t think many people on either end of the political spectrum will take her all that seriously until and unless she provides conclusive documentation of some of the more serious and troubling allegations that she’s making,” Altschuler said.

Assuming the recordings she has are genuine, Manigault Newsman does have some evidence to back up her claims about the Trump White House. She acknowledged she made recordings of her conversations because she wanted to protect herself against her backstabbing former colleagues.

“It is part and parcel of a narrative that is widely accepted of an administration of backbiters, of an administration in disarray, of an administration that continues to play the game of musical chairs in a way no previous administration has done,” Altschuler said.

According to Talan, the fact that she recorded the chief of staff in the Situation Room is shocking, but what Kelly said on the tape is not. Reports of Omarosa’s alleged unethical behavior in the White House were widespread, and Kelly’s threat to her reputation seemed reasonable.

“This is not a nursery school,” Talan said. “This is the White House.”

While momentarily embarrassing for Trump and Kelly, the recordings released so far do not validate Manigault Newman’s most explosive allegations about the president’s behavior, mental acuity, and prejudices. She has at times hinted that she recorded many other conversations.

“If Omarosa was more credible and a real figure of substance and not just TV and attention, what she claims would hold more weight,” Talan said. “That said, if there’s some smoking gun, some secret recording we haven’t heard, then that’s different.”

On “Today” Monday, Manigault Newman indicated whoever has the alleged recording of Trump hurling racial slurs will release it if Trump denies saying it. If that ever happens, it would certainly lend her further credibility.

“If there is a tape which comes to light in which President Trump uses the n-word, that will be a serious challenge for an administration that is now touting the low unemployment rate for African Americans,” Altschuler said. “If there are other tapes that come to light that further underscore the backbiting in the White House, that too will add to a narrative that doesn’t paint the administration in a very good light.”

The legality of all of this is a bit fuzzy, but experts say it is unlikely Manigault Newman committed a crime by recording Kelly, even if they were in the Situation Room. Despite the setting, there is no indication their conversation involved classified information or national defense information.

“I don’t see any laws that she violated,” said former federal prosecutor Seth Waxman. “D.C. is a one-party consent jurisdiction for recording conversations, so she is okay there. I’m not an expert on national security regulations, but from what I understand from those that are, she didn’t violate any of those provisions either. The fact that she was in the Situation Room and her motivation doesn’t impact the legal analysis.”

Former Obama administration ethics official Norm Eisen has suggested the tapes may constitute presidential records under federal law, making it illegal to retain them with intent to use them for personal gain, though he added prosecution for that offense is not likely.

The White House is reportedly exploring legal options to prevent Manigault Newman from releasing more recordings, but it may not have many. Carrying a personal phone or other recording device into a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) and recording someone inside represented a massive breach of national security protocol, but again, not necessarily an illegal one.

“It’s bad conduct, it’s a basis to terminate her employment, take away her security clearance—if she had one, which I understand she did not—and take any number of other personnel actions,” Waxman said. “But, as for bringing criminal charges, I don’t see a basis for that.”

Trump introduced an additional legal wrinkle Monday, claiming Manigault Newman has a “fully signed Non-Disclosure Agreement.” However, legal experts have long questioned whether such agreements that White House senior staff were reported to have signed are enforceable.

“As we’ve said: Donald Trump can’t muzzle federal employees. If these NDAs prohibit employees from revealing all information they learn at work — without consideration of what that information is — they are unconstitutional and unenforceable,” the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted in response to Trump.

Any legal action against Manigault Newman would risk feeding further oxygen to a story with no political upside for this White House, keeping the spotlight on a media-savvy adversary and the president’s problematic history of handling racial controversies.

“Sometimes, less of a response is more effective than more of a response,” Altschuler said. “There’s a wonderful French expression, ‘He who excuses himself accuses himself.’ The more you engage in blaming and biting and blasting the other person, the more you keep the story going.”

Late Monday afternoon, Fox News published additional details from “Unhinged,” in which Manigault Newman describes Trump as demanding “moblike loyalty,” compares him to a “cult leader,” and claims first lady Melania Trump wants a divorce. No matter how the White House responds, the former “Apprentice” reject’s story is clearly far from over.

“It still strikes me as how ludicrous of a world we’re facing,” Talan said. “You wouldn’t believe it in a script, you wouldn’t believe it in a Hollywood movie, but it’s all too true.”

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