WASHINGTON — One day after an announcement in 2018 that President Trump’s former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman had written a negative tell-all memoir, the White House asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into a seemingly unrelated paperwork dispute that led to a government lawsuit against her, according to documents and interviews.
The Justice Department has taken aggressive legal actions against a number of former Trump aides who wrote unflattering memoirs, prompting accusations that administration officials were abusing their power over law enforcement to enact retribution.
The timing of the White House’s referral to the Justice Department of its dispute with Ms. Manigault Newman over a missing form suggests that the eventual lawsuit against her may be part of that pattern — even though the case, on its face, is not about her scathing August 2018 book, “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House.”
“This was weaponization of a lawsuit by the White House for retaliation for writing a book — for saying offensive words about Mr. Trump,” said John Phillips, a lawyer for Ms. Manigault Newman.
The Justice Department said that career lawyers who were assigned to investigate the form dispute recommended filing a lawsuit based on the facts. The White House declined to comment about whether the book influenced its decision to escalate the dispute by referring the matter to the department for such scrutiny.
Senior Justice Department officials referred both to Ms. Manigault Newman and to communications with the White House the day after her book announcement, according to a log of their emails that the department produced and provided to The New York Times in response to a pending Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Ms. Manigault Newman is a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” Mr. Trump’s reality television show, and worked for his 2016 campaign, taking a White House job after his election. But the two later had a falling out. In late 2017, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, fired her — in a conversation she secretly taped — and she was escorted out without packing up her office.
After her termination, Ms. Manigault Newman was required, under a provision of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, to file a report disclosing certain financial and travel matters. But she told the White House that she could not fill it out until she received boxes of files from her former office containing tax and travel records; the White House was slow to give them to her.
As a back-and-forth played out, news of Ms. Manigault Newman’s memoir emerged on July 26, 2018, alarming Mr. Trump. A pre-sale announcement that day promised a “jaw dropping” takedown and a tell-all about the “corruption and controversy” of the Trump administration to be published the next month, attracting news media attention.
The next day, July 27, according to the Justice Department log, two email chains began “regarding authorization to communicate with the Office of the White House Counsel and discussing options for whether a lawsuit should be filed or not.”
That was the date the White House made the referral to the Justice Department, beginning its inquiry, said a department official whom its press office provided for an interview about the matter on the condition of anonymity.
None of the materials the White House sent to the department made any reference to Ms. Manigault Newman’s book, the official added. But the official also noted that the department did not know what was in the minds of Mr. Trump’s aides when they decided to make the referral.
That August, the book was published. It portrayed Mr. Trump as a bigot and a misogynist who was in mental decline. The Trump campaign swiftly filed an arbitration action against Ms. Manigault Newman for purportedly violating a nondisclosure agreement. It is not yet resolved.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the Justice Department and Ms. Manigault Newman over the unreturned form and the unreturned files dragged into 2019.
Several legal experts said the Justice Department receives several referrals a year from agencies having trouble getting ex-employees to fill out required exit paperwork, and such disputes usually end with a settlement of several hundred to several thousand dollars. At no point, Mr. Phillips said, has the department made a settlement offer to Ms. Manigault Newman.
In June 2019, the department instead sued Ms. Manigault Newman, seeking a fine of “up to $50,000.” The next month, Mr. Phillips said, the White House finally handed over her files, and she has since filled out the form, although a dispute remains about whether her work was adequate.
Jody Hunt, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Division at the time the lawsuit was filed but has since left government, said the department’s decision to go to court was “a routine matter based upon the recommendation of career attorneys and had nothing to do with her book.”
Mr. Phillips has argued that Ms. Manigault Newman did not intentionally fail to turn in the form — a necessary element — because the White House was holding onto files she needed to do so. The department has not accepted the idea that access to those files was necessary.
The Justice Department in the Trump era has also acted against other onetime members of Mr. Trump’s circle who wrote critical memoirs.
In June, the department asked a judge to order Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton to pull back his book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” which presents a negative account of Mr. Trump.
The request to enjoin the book was extraordinary as a matter of First Amendment law and because copies were already printed and distributed. The judge refused to grant that order but is still weighing the department’s request to seize Mr. Bolton’s $2 million advance in a dispute over the prepublication review process, which is meant to screen out classified information.
In July, another judge ruled that department officials had engaged in retaliation against Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, who was about to publish “Disloyal: A Memoir,” which portrays the president as a sordid, mafia-like figure.
Mr. Cohen was serving a prison sentence at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, but officials had ordered him returned to prison when he refused their demand that he sign a document barring him from publishing his then-forthcoming book.
And in October, the department sued Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a onetime friend and aide to Melania Trump, over her book, “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady,” which presents Mrs. Trump as selfish and shallow. The memoir contains no classified information, but the department accused Ms. Winston Wolkoff of violating a nondisclosure agreement.
Mr. Phillips said he would seek to depose officials and obtain the contents of emails to figure out the motivation behind White House officials’ decision to refer the dispute over Ms. Manigault Newman’s form to the Justice Department immediately after they learned of her book.
“This doesn’t just reek of retaliation; it is fairly provable to be retaliation, which violates the First Amendment,” he said.