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The watchdog group Public Citizen is calling on Congress and the Justice Department to investigate President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. Cohen has been in the headlines because of his role in the Stormy Daniels case. He paid the adult film star $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she says she had with the president. Cohen is now under federal investigation. But in addition, Cohen has had contracts with several companies all based on his connections to the Trump administration. NPR's Peter Overby wanted to know whether that was legal.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Public Citizen says Cohen solicited corporate clients after the election. Craig Holman drafted the letter for the group.
CRAIG HOLMAN: He would be bragging about his close connections to Donald Trump and others in the administration, and that if you hired Michael Cohen, you would have access to Trump and the administration.
OVERBY: Cohen isn't a policy expert. He's better known as Trump's lawyer or fixer. Here's how he framed it on CNN back in 2011.
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MICHAEL COHEN: They say I'm Mr. Trump's pit bull, that I am his - I'm his right-hand man. I mean, there's - I've been called many different things.
OVERBY: Mainly Public Citizen alleges that Cohen needed to register as a lobbyist. But it's not clear that he was actually lobbying. In Washington, it's one thing to be a lobbyist as defined by the Lobbying Disclosure Act. It can be another thing to sell access.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: That's pretty much the way Washington works.
OVERBY: Meredith McGehee is director of the political reform group Issue One and a veteran observer of political Washington.
MCGEHEE: People pay law firms, lobbyists, other individuals to help them navigate the muddy waters of Washington politics every day. And it is not captured within the lobbying disclosure requirements or any other laws.
OVERBY: Which leads to the question, how does the law define a lobbyist? There are three elements. First, you're getting paid by the client. Second, you have substantive lobbying contacts with federal officials at least twice on the client's behalf. And third - this is tricky - lobbying takes up at least 20 percent of the time you spend working for the client. It's quite possible Cohen didn't fit all three standards, especially the last one. Again, Meredith McGehee.
MCGEHEE: If he does not meet the requirements to register as a lobbyist, then he's simply engaging in the selling of access to the administration. And that is not against the law.
OVERBY: Not registering as a lobbyist means not disclosing your clients or how much they're paying you or the issues you're lobbying on. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders yesterday fielded plenty of questions about Cohen and his clients. It came down to this.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has the president taken any action during his administration to benefit Novartis, AT&T or Korea Aerospace?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.
OVERBY: One other factor to consider here, as law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy noted - lobbying is mentioned in the Constitution.
CIARA TORRES-SPELLISCY: The First Amendment is I think more famous for its free speech and free religion clauses, but it also has the Petition Clause.
OVERBY: That is, Congress shall pass no law abridging the people's right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. And, yes, there were lobbyists back in the Federalist era, too. None that we know of were connected to George Washington. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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