White House employees who might need to lawyer-up for the ongoing Russian probes just got a huge gift from the Office of Government Ethics. The agency reversed guidelines that prohibited lobbyists from secretly donating to legal defense funds, reinstating a 1993 policy that greenlighted those donations.
Government ethics experts say the move opens up the possibility for conflicts of interest, at the very least. Marilyn Glynn, acting ethics director under George W. Bush told Politico, "You can picture a whole army of people with business before the government willing to step in here and make [the debt] go away."
In 1993, during the Clinton administration, the ethics office sent out this document that said organizers of defense funds could allow anonymous donations from lobbyists. But some officials say they realized the potential for conflicts and advised lawyers against doing that. Especially as the Clinton administration was investigated multiple times.
Except, the guidance was never officially changed. And the issue didn't really come up again until last year's election. Then-ethics Director Walter Shaub asked for a review, thinking that no matter who was elected, there was a need for clear guidance on legal defense fund donations. He had a sentence added to the 1993 doc saying it wasn't "consistent with current OGE interpretation and practice."
He left in July, and that sentence wasn't in a later version. Some, including Shaub, are calling the move sneaky. But the White House fought back, saying Shaub "has no direct knowledge of anything the White House is doing or assisting with."
But in some cases, Trump aides might need help paying for legal defense during the Russian probes. And the fees can add up quickly, especially when you're on a government salary.
But the ethics guidance isn't actually legally binding. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating any ties between Russia and people in President Donald Trump's orbit can look at any donation list for possible witnesses, especially if he thinks federal laws were broken.