Trump's White House just changed the ethics rules to let lobbyists pay the mounting legal fees for Trump staffers — as "gifts."
As the Russia investigation continues, it is now all but a certainty at least some members of Trump's administration, and perhaps Donald Trump himself, will need to spend an enormous amount of money on legal counsel to defend themselves. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in particular looks to be in serious trouble.
But Trump and his new general counsel to the Office of Government Ethics, David Apol, think they have the perfect solution: allow lobbyists to give legal fees as "gifts" to White House officials.
However, since lobbyists typically give "gifts" with the expectation of receiving something in return, it certainly appears to be a method by which those lobbyists can curry favor with Trump's team by helping ease the financial burden of their growing legal expenses.
In other words, per Norm Eisen, former Obama administration ethics counsel and chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) September 14, 2017
Walter Shaub, the previous head of the ethics office, who resigned earlier this year out of frustration with the Trump administration's flagrant disregard of ethics, also condemned the move and called it "very depressing."
This story disgusts me. I was hoping it was a technical website glitch. But the acting Director doesn't feel you deserve any answer, America https://t.co/qVpJXx1ziW
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) September 14, 2017
As outrageous as this sounds, there is actually a history behind this idea. According to Politico, this policy has its roots in a 1993 OGE memo allowing lobbyists to donate to government legal funds as long as the donations are "anonymous."
But White House ethics officials always hated this rule, and during the last three presidencies, it was informal policy to forbid such gifts. When Shaub was still at the OGE, he formally instated a directive overruling this memo.
Now, Apol has rewritten Shaub's directive to declare the 1993 rule "HAS NOT CHANGED" — and there is no reason to think legally embattled Trump officials will not take advantage.
The original thinking behind the 1993 allowance of lobbyists giving anonymous legal donations was that if the White House does not know who the lobbyist donors are, they cannot give special favors to that interest, and therefore it is not corrupt.
The problem is that in the digital age, the anonymity requirement is unenforceable. It would be easy for a lobbyist to arrange a backchannel with a White House official before sending the payment.
This is the same flaw in the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which held outside campaign spending can be completely unlimited if it is "independent" — the multitudinous cases of illegal collusion between candidates and outside groups proves independence is unenforceable.
Little by little, Trump's team is chipping away at checks on government ethics. This erosion of responsibility should concern all Americans.