As a real estate executive and reality TV star, Donald J. Trump tightly controlled his image by insisting that everyone around him sign nondisclosure agreements threatening steep monetary penalties if they revealed anything about him or his company.
A few months into his presidency, Mr. Trump — infuriated by leaks about everything from staff rivalries to his bathrobe-wearing, TV-viewing habits — ordered Reince Priebus, then his chief of staff, to do the same thing in the West Wing.
To calm Mr. Trump, Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, drew up a broad document barring White House officials from publicly disclosing what they heard and saw at work. But he privately told senior aides that it was mainly meant to placate an agitated president, who was convinced that the people around him had to be pressured into keeping his secrets. Mr. McGahn made it clear the agreement could not ultimately be enforced, according to several people who signed.
The nondisclosure agreement, presented by Mr. Priebus to the senior staff last April, did not specify any penalties — financial or otherwise — for breaking it. But it was an early indication that Mr. Trump, who spent decades using pressure tactics and secrecy in his private life, wanted to do the same thing at the White House, breaking with tradition. He would push the obsession of many of his predecessors with damaging leaks to a new level.
And if the potential for punishment seemed remote to his top aides, the message from the president was clear: keep quiet.
The White House declined to provide a copy of the two- to three-page document, which was described by several current and former White House officials who signed it and insisted on anonymity to discuss it. A spokesman would not say whether senior officials were required to sign such an agreement.
But former White House lawyers and government ethics experts said the agreement raised serious legal questions and reflected Mr. Trump’s refusal to submit to the norms of public disclosure or respect the basic right of free speech.
“You can’t blanket wipe out speech, and you have to show there’s a compelling government purpose for doing so,” said Norm Eisen, the top ethics lawyer in former President Barack Obama’s White House Counsel’s Office.
“If they have taken even baby steps — much less what appear to be giant strides — into the area of muzzling the normal, permitted recollections about the nonclassified and nonconfidential aspects of White House service, then that’s going to trigger the First Amendment protection,” he said.
It is routine for White House officials to be required to sign confidentiality documents acknowledging that they may not publicly disclose classified information to people who do not have the proper clearance.
Beyond classified information, however, several senior officials who worked for Mr. Obama said they were never asked to sign a broader confidentiality agreement during their time in the White House.
Mr. Trump’s demand that his aides sign a confidentiality agreement was first reported this week by The Washington Post, but White House officials who have signed one disputed part of that report, which said an early draft of the nondisclosure agreement would have subjected staff members to fines of $10 million for each time they violated it.
Two officials said in interviews that a document with similar terms had been circulated during the transition between Mr. Trump’s election and his inauguration, but it was widely ridiculed by aides as a misguided tactic by the president-elect’s personal lawyers, and was never used.
Still, such agreements have been a staple of Mr. Trump’s business and personal dealings, and he is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic film actress better known as Stormy Daniels. Mr. Trump’s lawyers claim she violated a confidentiality agreement by publicly alleging she had an affair with him, which they say has exposed her to at least $20 million in damages.
Nondisclosure agreements were also a preoccupation of Mr. Trump during his presidential campaign, and after the election the president-elect had asked for agreements fashioned after the ones he used at the Trump Organization, his real estate company, for everyone coming into the Trump White House.
Among the supporters of the move were his daughter, Ivanka, and Jason Greenblatt, his longtime lawyer who would join the White House staff as the president’s chief international negotiator.
Mr. McGahn had warned Mr. Trump repeatedly that it would be difficult to bind federal employees to such an agreement, but the president pushed back, believing that its existence could act as a deterrent to would-be leakers, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions said.
Still, Mr. Priebus and Mr. McGahn repeatedly delayed responding to Mr. Trump’s request. By April, amid a rash of embarrassing leaks, they could hold him off no longer.
But if Mr. Trump thought that the use of a tactic commonly used in the tabloid-fueled business and entertainment circles in which Mr. Trump has existed for decades could plug leaks in the White House, he was mistaken.
Secrets from inside his administration have continued to gush out in the months that followed, in part, officials said, because few people around the president believed there would be any legal consequences for violating the confidentiality agreement.
In fact, that message was quietly reinforced by the counsel’s office even as aides signed the agreements last year, several officials said.
One former official said that he recalled being told that the document was merely meant to reassure the president. The official said that no one in the White House thought they were signing away their First Amendment rights.
A senior White House official said when aides sought to clarify whether they would be able to speak in specific instances — to fulfill a request from a congressional oversight committee, for example, or to field a question from a lawmaker — Mr. McGahn would reassure them they had wide latitude. Current and former officials said the agreement contained sweeping caveats stating that it was consistent with whistle-blower protections and other oversight and disclosure laws that apply to federal workers.
At the same time, lawyers in Mr. McGahn’s office went out of their way to ensure that anyone who had access to particularly sensitive information at the White House signed a copy.
One official who had not been present for Mr. Priebus’ initial request was later told by a White House lawyer that since he had been involved in many potentially controversial matters, he should probably sign the nondisclosure document, which he said he promptly did.
Mr. Trump’s White House has also broken with convention in trying to impose written nondisclosure agreements in other instances. A small group of journalists scheduled to travel on a trip to Afghanistan with Vice President Mike Pence were instructed in December to sign a confidentiality agreement before they would be given the details of the trip, for security reasons.
Reporters regularly agree to embargo logistical details of trips to war zones, but are not typically asked to sign a document binding them to do so.
Jarrod Agen, the vice president’s communications director, said the military liaison for the trip had asked for the document to be signed. When editors at various news organizations balked, White House officials backed down, agreeing to nullify it.
“All the reporters with knowledge of the trip decided to travel and agreed to embargo the details, making the document unnecessary,” Mr. Agen said.
But the limits of Mr. Trump’s anti-leak effort were best illustrated by the publication last month in Vanity Fair of an excerpt from a forthcoming book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” that gave an extensive and revealing inside accounting of the first six tumultuous months of the Trump White House.
The account was based on a series of interviews with Mr. Priebus.