Democrats raise political influence issue in antitrust probe

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats are challenging a new Justice Department probe into a deal between California and four big automakers, accusing the Trump administration of using antitrust powers to target political opponents.

“My suggestion is you’re doing this for political reasons,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told the Justice Department’s antitrust chief at a Senate hearing Tuesday. “You’re doing this because the administration is cross.”

The official, Makan Delrahim, defended the investigation and denied any political motivation or influence from the White House.

Delrahim said the investigation seeks to determine whether antitrust laws were violated by Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW in reaching the July deal with California.

Under the deal being reviewed, the automakers plan to comply with pollution and related mileage requirements established by California that are tougher than the federal standards sought by President Donald Trump.

Democrats also questioned whether political influence played a role in the antitrust regulators’ effort to block the $85 billion merger of AT&T and Time Warner or their approval of T-Mobile’s $26 billion takeover of rival cellphone company Sprint.

The administration, meanwhile, is poised to revoke California’s authority to set auto mileage standards, insisting that only the federal government has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. A formal announcement is expected Wednesday.

Asked whether Trump or anyone at the White House had pressured him on antitrust actions, Delrahim said no, “unequivocally.”

“I don’t view politics as having a role in our enforcement decisions,” he said.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are conducting separate, far-reaching antitrust investigations of the big tech companies. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel didn’t raise political interference as an issue in those reviews, but they joined with Republicans to criticize federal regulators’ enforcement actions against Big Tech as too weak.

“What the public sees is a facade with respect to Big Tech,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He told FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, who testified at the hearing alongside Delrahim: “We need more than a task force. We need action.”

Simons confirmed that the FTC’s competition task force is investigating Facebook. Delrahim acknowledged that Google is among the companies included in the Justice Department’s probe. In addition, Amazon and Apple are believed to be under investigation by both agencies.

The FTC’s recent $5 billion settlement with Facebook over privacy violations, for example, came under sharp criticism by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., as too lenient. “What I see from your agency is, frankly, a culture of paralysis,” he told Simons.

Simons maintained that if the agency had fought Facebook in court, the case would have dragged on for years and the government would have wound up with an even smaller penalty.

Hawley expressed concern that “turf wars” over antitrust between the FTC and the Justice Department have led to a lack of enforcement. And Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the Republican heading the subcommittee, condemned the dual investigations of the same companies as inefficient overlap, with regulators grabbing “the same slice of the same pie at the same time.”

“Consumers are harmed when you’re tripping over each other and you’re prevented from doing your job effectively,” Lee said.

But Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the panel’s senior Democrat and a presidential candidate, said: “I am more concerned that consumers are going to get a big pie in their face if we don’t do something about this. … The American people increasingly understand that competition is important for their well-being.”

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