Nixon Scandal Resulted In A Law To Prevent The Politicization Of Antitrust Cases; Meanwhile Trump Uses His Politicized Antitrust Effort In Campaign Ad
from the different-times-apparently dept
Everyone knows about President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, but you might now know as much about another huge scandal that preceded that one — involving Nixon meddling, for political purposes, in an antitrust case by his Justice Department against a large “tech” company/conglomerate at the time. The case involved ITT trying to buy up some smaller companies, and the DOJ brought an antitrust case against them. The scandal part was that ITT approached the White House and worked out a deal: ITT would donate $400,000 (roughly $2.5 million today) to the 1972 Republican National Convention, and Nixon would get the DOJ to drop the case. Which he did. As the Nixon tapes eventually revealed, he called up then deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and said:
?The I.T.T. thing ? stay the hell out of it. Is that clear? That?s an order … I do not want McLaren to run around prosecuting people, raising hell about conglomerates, stirring things up.?
Kleindienst’s responded that he understood. Soon after he was nominated to be Attorney General, and during his Senate confirmation hearings he was asked whether the White House had interfered in the DOJ case against ITT, and he denied it. During Watergate, when the Nixon tapes came out, proving that Kleindienst lied, he ended up pleading guilty for lying to Congress.
The reason that the IIT quid pro quo deal with the White House was revealed was because a lobbyist for ITT named Dita Beard had sent around a memo with the details of the deal, which amusingly closed with “please destroy this, huh?” It wasn’t destroyed, and instead was leaked to the Washington Post’s Jack Anderson who sent his associate, a young Brit Hume, to Beard’s house to verify the memo and get an explanation for it.
So, what’s this historical story got to do with anything? Well, as we’ve discussed a few times now, current Attorney General Bill Barr’s antitrust crusade against Google is clearly a politicized farce. Barr told the DOJ that they had to file before the election. DOJ staffers resigned from working on the case in protest. And the final case is stunningly weak.
But, after the ITT/Nixon debacle, Senator John Tunney introduced and got passed into law the Antitrust Procedures and Penalties Act, better known as the Tunney Act. It was designed to prevent another ITT/Nixon situation from happening again, by trying to stop the DOJ/White House from politicizing antitrust. The mechanism to do so is somewhat simplistic, but any settlement agreement is supposed to go before a judge to check to make sure the deal is in the public interest, rather than for shady political reasons. Parts of the law are often ignored in antitrust settlements, and it makes news when judges remember it exists.
However, it does seem notable that the whole intent of the law was to stop sketchy backroom politicization of antitrust activities by the White House telling the Justice Department what to do. And yet, now, we literally have a President of the United States directly politicizing his own DOJ’s antitrust campaign. On Wednesday evening Trump tweeted out a weird campaign ad that rambles incoherently about “big tech” being bad, and how something needs to be done. Then he flat out admits that because he believes big tech is “against him” that’s why “we” are going after Google:
Big tech has to be spoken to and probably in some form has to be stopped because they’re taking away your rights. They’re taking away things that nobody would have believed possible. So one of the things we’re doing — you saw what happened with Google — with the lawsuit. One of the things we’re doing is looking very powerfully and strongly at big tech. Go out and vote.
In any other administration in history, this alone would have been a scandal. The DOJ is supposed to be an independent agency from the President, and isn’t supposed to bring cases based on political whims, such as tech companies “not liking” the President. And the President isn’t supposed to be claiming direct credit for the lawsuit. Like others have pointed out, this is like Stupid Watergate. Things that Nixon did behind closed doors Trump is doing blatantly out in the open, and somehow that’s why he gets away with it.
Here, he’s flat out admitting that the DOJ cases against Google is not for legitimate reasons by for political ones, and he’s using that case, for which he takes credit, in a literal campaign ad. If the courts actually cared about the Tunney Act (and a few judges out there might still believe in it) this would be yet another giant gaping hole in the case. Google now has more than enough evidence to highlight that the entire case was brought for political purposes, and not for legitimate ones.
The Nixon/ITT mess raised enough concerns that it caused some to talk about impeachment (of course that was then superseded by Watergate). Here, Trump is doing worse things in public, and it barely gets a shrug.