A staff member of Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida on Monday, alleging that she experienced “racial and gender discrimination” while working for the campaign, that she was paid less than male and white colleagues, and that Trump once kissed her partially on the mouth, without her consent. The claim related to the kiss may prove difficult to verify. Four people said that the campaign worker, Alva Johnson, told them about the incident afterward, but two other people, who Johnson said were present at the time of the kiss, told me that they did not see it. In a statement, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, denied that it had taken place.
The most legally significant aspect of Johnson’s suit may ultimately be something the complaint does not explicitly address: the pervasive use of nondisclosure agreements by Trump during his campaign and in his Administration. Johnson’s suit is at least the sixth legal case in which Trump campaign or Administration employees have defied their nondisclosure agreements. Three of those actions, including Johnson’s, were filed this month. Johnson, who was the campaign’s administrative field-operations director in Florida, signed a nondisclosure agreement that bars her from revealing any information “in any way detrimental to the Company, Mr. Trump, any Family Member, any Trump Company or any Family Member company.” Johnson’s attorney, Hassan Zavareei, said, “We expect that Trump will try to use the unconscionable N.D.A. and forced arbitration agreement to silence Ms. Johnson. We will fight this strong-arm tactic.”
The White House referred questions about the nondisclosure agreements to Michael Glassner, the chief operating officer of Trump’s reëlection campaign. He said in a statement, “The campaign takes our NDA agreements very seriously, and will enforce them aggressively if they are breached.” Johnson said that she considers the issues raised by her suit important enough to merit breaching the contract. “I am suing because my work holds the same value as the work of my white male counterparts,” Johnson said, in an interview. “I am suing because this predatory behavior should not be minimized, especially when committed by the most powerful man in the world.”
Nondisclosure agreements are routinely employed in the business world, but experts say that there is little comprehensive data on how they are used by Presidential campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign reportedly required paid staff to sign such agreements, but Trump’s campaign seemed to use the agreements more widely, and even required unpaid volunteers to sign them. The practice has carried over to the Trump White House. The Washington Post reported last year that dozens of White House aides had signed N.D.A.s, a break in tradition from previous Administrations, which used the contracts more sparingly. White House interns have also reportedly been asked to sign the agreements as part of their mandatory “ethics training.”
Two former Trump advisers who had senior roles in the campaign said that workers were pressured into signing such agreements. Internal e-mails received by one of the former advisers repeatedly insist that “we must have that NDA.” The second adviser told me that Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager, “was tasked by Mr. Trump to insure that anyone and everyone working with the campaign, whether salaried employee, volunteer, surrogate, or otherwise, execute a nondisclosure agreement or they would be terminated immediately. They strong-armed people to sign.”
The first adviser, who went on to hold a position in the White House, recalled that Stefan Passantino, the deputy White House counsel in charge of overseeing ethics, personally demanded a signature on an N.D.A. “They would not allow me to take the document off campus, would not allow me to e-mail the document to my attorneys. That’s where the red flags started,” the adviser told me. The adviser declined to sign, and felt that the decision had a negative impact on the adviser’s standing in the Administration. (Passantino did not respond to a request for comment.) A third former campaign official called the reports of workers being pressured to sign the agreements exaggerated. He said that staffers who declined to sign were not terminated, and noted that there were “always concerns” within the campaign about the enforceability of the agreements.
Johnson’s lawsuit will almost certainly face intense scrutiny, both because of her claims and because of the nature of the incident at the heart of the lawsuit. The complaint acknowledges that “forcible kissing might appear at first glance to be on the lesser extreme” of misconduct, but it argues that the interaction meets common-law definitions of battery, a legal term referring to harmful or offensive contact.
The lawsuit says that Johnson joined the Trump campaign in January, 2016, as the director of outreach and coalitions in Alabama, and that she held various positions in the ensuing months, eventually working as the administrative field-operations director in Florida. Johnson, who is African-American, asserts in her lawsuit that she was paid “substantially less” than other staff members with similar responsibilities because of her race and gender, and that campaign staffers made comments about race that made her uncomfortable. (One of those staffers disputed Johnson’s account, accusing her of having an “agenda.”) An analysis by the Boston Globe in June, 2016, found that female staffers on the Trump campaign were paid, on average, three-quarters what their male counterparts received.
The incident in which Johnson said that Trump kissed her occurred during an event that she had helped organize in Tampa in August, 2016, according to the complaint. In an R.V. before Trump’s speech at the event, the complaint alleges, Trump took Johnson by the hand and leaned in to kiss her; she attempted to turn away, but, she claims, his mouth made contact with the corner of hers.
In her statement, Sarah Sanders said, “This accusation is absurd on its face. This never happened and is directly contradicted by multiple highly credible eyewitness accounts.” The two people who disputed Johnson’s account, Karen Giorno, a staffer, and Pam Bondi, a campaign surrogate, said that they had been close enough that they would likely have witnessed the incident. “I don’t even recall Alva being on the R.V.,” Giorno told me. (Photographs from the rally place Johnson inside the R.V.) Bondi, who said that she travelled with Trump extensively and never witnessed inappropriate behavior, added, “Had it happened, I feel I would have seen it, because I was there the entire time.”
Three of Johnson’s family members—her partner, her mother, and her stepfather—said that she told them about the incident immediately afterward, and recalled that she was in tears. Johnson said that at first she continued to go to work. In October, 2016, the Washington Post released audio of Trump saying, “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” At that point, Johnson said, she saw the incident with Trump as part of a pattern. She said that she took several sick days and consulted an attorney, whom she told in a text message that Trump had kissed her. She also spoke with a therapist, whose notes state that “she was having nightmares because of what happened.” The attorney, Adam Horowitz, advised Johnson to notify the campaign that she was resigning. Shortly afterward, the campaign sent Johnson a termination letter.
After Trump’s election, Johnson said, she wanted to “leave the incident in the past,” and she attended an inaugural ball and applied for a job in the Administration. She said she feared that the President or his supporters would attack her character if she filed a public complaint. (Johnson was arrested for marijuana possession in 2000, and in 2006 her sister and her father filed a motion for a protection order against her in family court in Georgia, after what her attorney said were heated arguments.)
Johnson’s lawsuit is at least the fourth filed against Trump by women with complaints of unwanted physical advances. None of the previous suits have resulted in judgments against Trump, but settlement negotiations are ongoing in at least one. At least nine additional women have publicly claimed that Trump kissed them without their consent, but none of them have pursued legal action.
Johnson’s complaint comes just days after Jessica Denson, who worked on the campaign as a national phone-bank administrator and then as a Hispanic-engagement director, filed a class-action claim seeking to invalidate nondisclosure and arbitration agreements signed by any Trump campaign workers. The claim, filed with the American Arbitration Association, argues that the contracts are too broad and represent an “unconscionable” restraint on employees with workplace complaints. In November, 2017, Denson sued the campaign in New York State Supreme Court, accusing one of her supervisors of “pervasive slander, aggravated harassment, attempted theft, cyberbullying and sexual discrimination and harassment.” Trump Organization lawyers then sought to enforce the agreements she had signed, which, they argued, prevented her from raising her complaint outside of private arbitration. The case has resulted in a protracted legal battle. Denson’s attorney, David Bowles, said that her claim was filed to defend “the rights of campaign workers to be free to speak, as they should be under the law.”
Trump’s efforts to enforce the contracts have extended to the White House, despite the fact that many legal experts believe that public servants are exempt from sweeping nondisclosure agreements. Last week, Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House staffer, filed a lawsuit arguing that Trump’s use of nondisclosure agreements violates the First Amendment. Trump’s campaign organization had filed an arbitration claim against Sims in response to an unflattering book that he wrote about his time in the Administration. Mark Zaid, an attorney whose firm currently represents Sims, said that the Trump Administration was applying private-sector tactics to the government in an unprecedented way.
Trump’s attorneys are also engaged in an ongoing arbitration process with Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former White House staffer and a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” which they initiated after she published a book that accused the Administration of racism and misogyny. “They’re using N.D.A.s to suppress speech, to avoid accountability, and thus to avoid setting legal precedent,” Manigault Newman’s attorney, John Phillips, told me. He said that enforcement efforts as extensive as Trump’s had “never happened before in the government sector.”
Legal experts said that Johnson’s case, and the broader pattern of high-profile legal skirmishes over Trump’s use of nondisclosure agreements, could produce significant legal rulings and affect the President’s ability to enforce the contracts. “We now have the President of the United States trying to enforce nondisclosure agreements that are so over-broad they would keep secret illegal actions or keep information that’s in the public interest from the public,” Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Law School who specializes in government transparency, said. “This is a moment of reckoning for excessive N.D.A.s.”