The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. 
Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

The problem with anonymous gifts to White House legal defense funds


As the Trump-Russia scandal intensifies, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and other investigators are eager to chat with a variety of people in Donald Trump’s orbit. Just over the last week, we’ve learned about upcoming interviews with at least six current and former aides to the president, and just about every relevant player has lawyered up in order to protect their legal interests.

Of course, private counsel isn’t cheap, and these members of Team Trump can expect to pay at least several hundred dollars an hour in legal fees, which is a considerable expense for almost everyone.

But rest easy, Trump aides, because it turns out you may not have to shoulder that burden alone. Politico had this report overnight [note the update at the bottom of this post]:

In a reversal of internal policy, the Office of Government Ethics says funds benefiting aides caught up in Russia probes may accept anonymous gifts from lobbyists.

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics has quietly reversed its own internal policy prohibiting anonymous donations from lobbyists to White House staffers who have legal defense funds.

The little-noticed change could help President Donald Trump’s aides raise the money they need to pay attorneys as the Russia probe expands – but raises the potential for hidden conflicts of interest or other ethics trouble.

Ya think? White House aides, desperate to pay crushing legal bills, may have a conflict of interest when lobbyists quietly help pick up the tab with anonymous donations?

At issue is a position that was originally crafted in 1993 as an internal guidance, which said officials could solicit contributions to legal defense funds, but to avoid trouble, they couldn’t know “who the paymasters are.”

But then things got a little tricky.

As Politico’s report explains, the Office of Government Ethics determined that the 1993 policy was flawed, but it wasn’t changed or updated. The result was an ambiguity that went unresolved for several years. Shortly before the 2016 election, however, then-OGE Director Walter Shaub decided it was time to resolve the question.

After clashing with Team Trump, Shaub ultimately moved on to greener pastures, and as a result, he wasn’t at the OGE when it decided that anonymous donations are acceptable after all – a development Shaub described as “very depressing.”

I don’t imagine we’ve heard the last word on this.

Postscript: Buried at the bottom of the Politico piece is an interesting tidbit: Justice Department lawyers and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team still have “full authority to examine who’s footing the bill for potential witnesses in the Trump administration if they have reason to believe other federal laws are being violated from the donations.”

Update: The day after this report first ran, Politico published a follow-up piecethat said, “The head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics said on Friday that the agency is sticking with its long-standing stance prohibiting anonymous donations to White House legal defense funds, despite recently putting forward language that appeared to undercut that position.”