What's going on with this issue?
The concern is that White House aides might be beholden to lobbyists if those lobbyists pay for their legal bills in order to protect them during internal investigations. Additionally, private government ethics watchdogs have expressed concern that if donations from lobbyists are allowed to remain anonymous, the public would not be able to determine who might be secretly influencing White House policy.
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE), an executive branch agency, is responsible for promulgating ethical guidelines for certain government employees. In 1993, the Clinton-era OGE issued a guidance document that permitted lobbyists to pay for the legal fees of White House aides who were caught up in the numerous Clinton-era scandals, as long as those contributions were anonymous, so that the aides theoretically did not know who made the contributions and thus would not be beholden to them.
According to Politico, former President George W. Bush's OGE director changed this practice because "we preferred more sunshine in the process." Before the 2016 election, former President Barack Obama's OGE director, Walter Shaub, initiated a review of this policy and placed a prominent note at the top of the 1993 guidance document indicating that it was not consistent with the actual practice of the OGE. According to Shaub, after he left in July, this note was replaced with a note indicating that the 1993 guidance "HAS NOT CHANGED" and thus permits anonymous donations from lobbyists to pay for legal fees of White House aides.
What does the White House say?
According to Politico, the White House is not helping to set up any legal defense funds, and no one in the White House is pushing to allow for these anonymous donations. The White House further claims to be investigating various ways to prevent lobbyists from contributing to these legal funds. The White House denies charges that the guidance was changed surreptitiously and that they negotiated for the change with Shaub's successor while Shaub still held the job.
What does this mean?
For now, registered lobbyists will be able to anonymously donate money to the legal funds to fay the legal bills of White House aides who are under investigation as part of the ongoing special counsel probe. This means that the public will not be able to detemine who these White House aides might be indebted to.