The Editorial Board
Published 7:34 PM EDT Sep 12, 2019
To President Donald Trump, the soapbox that comes with his office is for stoking his ego, settling scores and deflecting blame. If he doesn’t like a court ruling, he attacks the judge. If he doesn’t like Amazon, he says the Postal Service should charge it more.
To many of his supporters, these outbursts are regarded as simply the president blowing off steam. But increasingly, the eruptions are being translated into policies and enforcement actions.
The best example could be in the Justice Department’s antitrust division.
One of the most respected and feared agencies in government, this division is the outfit responsible for breaking up Standard Oil and Ma Bell, as well as thwarting numerous proposed mergers over the years. Today, pretty much every corporation in America keeps close tabs on what it is up to.
And what is the storied antitrust division up to?
Using its extensive powers to craft enforcement policies that almost perfectly reflect and amplify Trump’s petty vendettas and political causes.
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This began in 2017, when the division filed suit to block the merger of AT&T (a big media platform with wired, wireless and satellite assets) and Time Warner (a content company churning out movies and television programming).
The move by the Justice Department raised eyebrows because it was genuinely hard to find people, outside of reflexively anti-corporate consumer groups, who were troubled by this combination. The two companies were largely in adjacent, not overlapping, industries. And for decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations, antitrust policy had been fairly tolerant of these types of merger.
But this one had a problem. Trump really, really dislikes CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. While no evidence has surfaced suggesting that he ordered the suit, he certainly made his feelings about the merger clear.
And so the case marched into court, where the Justice Department got its teeth kicked in, not once but twice. The trial judge not only ruled against Justice, he advised it to give up. “I do not believe that the government has a likelihood of success on the merits of an appeal,” he said. The appellate judges found the case “unpersuasive.”
Undeterred, the antirust division is on to a second action that — funnily enough! — almost perfectly reflects Trump’s politics.
Last week, four automakers (BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen) that had agreed to comply with California’s air pollution standards started receiving letters indicating they were the subject of an antitrust investigation.
Trump’s troubling effort to prevent California from setting its own mileage standards is the subject of a massive court battle. But the specific issue here is the misuse of governmental powers to threaten and intimidate companies that have agreed to work with California, or are considering it.
There is no antitrust issue involved in automakers working with California. There is merely Trump’s fuming about a state that voted overwhelmingly against him and has an economy big enough to impact national, even global, environmental policy.
The Justice Department and its storied antitrust division have real power. That authority should not be used as the enforcement arm to reward the president’s friends and punish those who defy him.
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