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Why Omarosa’s attack on Kelly could backfire

“Apprentice” star-turned-spurned White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman opened a new front in her war on the West Wing on Sunday, attacking chief of staff John Kelly as a bully who drummed her out of the White House unfairly.

With new prey in her talons, Manigault Newman gave voice to many of the problems that have roiled the West Wing. In a tell-all interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she spoke in dramatic terms about the White House’s difficulties with race, honesty and loyalty, at the same time that President Donald Trump is reckoning again with criticism of his equivocal response one year ago to violence at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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And Manigault Newman put some of the problems she described on stark display Sunday, surfacing a tape she surreptitiously recorded in the White House Situation Room.

“You have to have your own back, because otherwise you’ll look back and see 17 knives in your back,” she said of her decision to record conversations in the White House.

Manigault Newman said she taped conversations with Kelly and others to protect herself, but her accusations may backfire. She argued that she was terminated unfairly, revealing that she had taped the conversation in which Kelly dismissed her, citing “integrity violations,” back in December.

But national security experts say recording a conversation in the Situation Room, though unbeknownst to Kelly at the time, constitutes exactly the sort of integrity violation of which she was accused — and worse, it was a potential security breach in a room that’s meant to be one of the most locked-down in Washington.

“That, in and of itself, deliberately bringing an unsecured cellphone into a [secure facility], would absolutely be a fireable offense,” said Bradley Moss, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in national security law.

“The very idea a staff member would sneak a recording device into the White House Situation Room shows a blatant disregard for our national security — and then to brag about it on national television further proves the lack of character and integrity of this disgruntled former White House employee,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Sunday.

Manigault Newman’s accusations, which come as she is promoting a book due out this week, go beyond her own firing. She said last week that she is aware of a tape on which Trump can be heard uttering the N-word — and she said Sunday she has heard that tape, part of what she described as a long journey to the realization that the president is a racist and “a con.”

Manigault Newman defended the president in the wake of last year’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, praising Trump for “clear and decisive remarks.” Pressed Sunday on her remarks as white supremacists mark the one-year anniversary of the rally by marching across the street from the White House, Manigault Newman replied, “I was complicit, and for that, I regret it.”

Omarosa Manigault and Donald Trump are pictured. | AP Photo

The White House has said Manigault Newman’s book is “riddled with lies and false accusations.” Trump on Saturday called her a “lowlife,” and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Sunday that everyone in the West Wing had signed nondisclosure agreements promising confidentiality about what happens in the administration, intimating that Manigault Newman had breached that agreement.

Manigault Newman, however, appears unfazed by any restrictions. Her account of her firing comes at the very start of her new book, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO. Manigault Newman writes in the book that she thought the timing had to do with a conversation in which she told White House aide Hope Hicks that she did not want to be in the White House defending Trump if a tape of him using the racist epithet emerged. Shortly after, she wrote, Kelly asked to speak with her.

On Sunday, she questioned why her December meeting with Kelly was held in the Situation Room, accusing the chief of staff of trying to intimidate her. “Why not have the meeting in the chief of staff’s office? Why put me in the Situation Room and lock the door?” she asked NBC News’ Chuck Todd.

Going into the conversation, Kelly had anticipated a fight, according to two senior administration officials. And rumors had also begun to spread through the White House that Manigault Newman was recording conversations, according to a former senior administration official. Those people said that’s why Kelly took Manigault Newman into the Situation Room, where officials are asked to surrender their electronic devices, which are put under lock and key, before entering.

Staffers are barred from bringing those devices into the Situation Room, where the most sensitive national security discussions are held, because they pose hacking risks. There’s no public evidence that Manigault Newman’s devices have been breached, but the White House believes Kelly’s phone was compromised for months in 2017. The White House decided to ban personal cellphones from the West Wing entirely in January, after Manigault Newman was fired.

Kelly and his team had also worked the news media — announcing that Manigault Newman had resigned her post effective Jan. 20 before telling her in person that she was being fired. It was an attempt to box her into leaving without drama and parting with the president without bitterness, but it has backfired in spectacular fashion.

Kellyanne Conway is pictured. | AP Photo

“I think it’s important to understand that if we make this a friendly departure, we can all be, you know, you can look at your time here in the White House as a year of service to the nation. And then you can go on without any type of difficulty in the future relative to your reputation,” Kelly can be heard saying on the tape — a remark Manigault Newman says she took as a threat.

“He goes on to say that ‘Things can get ugly for you,’” she told Todd. “That’s downright criminal.”

White House aides say that Kelly was not threatening her reputation but trying to force Manigault Newman to resign rather than endure the spectacle of a messy firing — and that Manigault Newman refused, forcing Kelly to fire her and locking herself in her office after their tête-à-tête in the Situation Room. Her erratic behavior that day led Kelly to deactivate her White House badge, though she remained on the payroll through Jan. 20, the day the White House had initially announced she would resign.

On the tape, Manigault Newman can be heard asking whether Trump knows she is being dismissed. Kelly replied, “The staff and everybody on the staff works for me and not the president.”

“It tells you that Donald Trump has no idea what’s going on in the White House,” Manigault Newman said on NBC, though she acknowledged Trump knew she was being fired.

Indeed, according to White House aides, after her firing, the president told Kelly: “You did what you had to do.”

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