from the ill-communication dept
We’ve long noted how Bill Barr, a former Verizon lawyer (and forefather of our domestic surveillance apparatus) isn’t a big fan of this whole “rule of law” thing. It had already been established that he’d been wielding the DOJ’s antitrust authority as a personal Trump bludgeon, using it to launch capricious, unnecessary probes (the whole short-lived and nonsensical inquiry into California automaker emissions), and prop up the interests of companies willing to kiss Trump’s ass voraciously enough (the decision to rubber stamp the Sprint/T-Mobile merger while ignoring all objective data).
But in testimony this week before Congress, longtime agency employee turned whistleblower John Elias made it very clear that it’s all dumber and worse than we had previously known. The cornerstone of his testimony (pdf) involved noting that Bill Barr and DOJ antitrust boss Makan Delrahim routinely ignored staff advice and waged all manner of vindictive, facts-optional, politically motivated assaults on industry under the auspices of “antitrust.”
Barr’s biggest target appears to be the legal marijuana industry, investigations into which consumed upwards of 29% of agency resources. In many instances, he notes, Barr’s DOJ launched inquiries into marijuana companies and smaller mergers that in no way posed competitive or monopolistic threats. In many instances, the merging companies didn’t even compete with one another. Yet the inquiries pulled agency resources from investigations into, you know, actual monopolies:
“At one point, cannabis investigations accounted for five of the eight active merger investigations in the office that is responsible for the transportation, energy, and agriculture sectors of the American economy. The investigations were so numerous that staff from other offices were pulled in to assist, including from the telecommunications, technology, and media offices.
Reminder: most objective experts noted that the T-Mobile Sprint merger was a terrible idea, inevitably resulting in less competition, higher prices, and layoffs. The DOJ not only ignored its own staff’s advise to block the deal, Delrahim personally helped usher the deal to completion via his personal email and text messaging accounts. Every last shred of objective data showing the deal was a bad idea was ignored. What wasn’t ignored? Small legal weed companies that were targeted simply because King Dingus (and likely evangelicals, and the pharmaceutical and alcohol lobby) don’t much like legalized marijuana.
In his testimony, Elias makes it clear that Delrahim’s staff are frequently and fully aware that these inquiries are baseless bullshit:
“The head of the Antitrust Division, Assistant Attorney General Delrahim, responded to internal concerns about these investigations at an all-staff meeting on September 17, 2019. There, he acknowledged that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ?on the fifth floor,? a reference to Attorney General Barr?s offices in the DOJ headquarters building. Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation.
You don’t say. Elias, throughout his testimony, also very politely makes it clear that the DOJ’s antitrust responsibilities have been hijacked to cater to the daily Trump brain fart du jour, perfectly represented by the dumb and now defunct California emissions effort:
“When news of the investigation became public and spread within the Antitrust Division, many of my colleagues, who are familiar with the ?state action? defense as well as the NoerrPennington doctrine, questioned why the Division was investigating conduct that appeared to be prompted by a state regulator. In response to criticism of the investigation, on September 11, AAG Delrahim circulated an all-Division email in which he stated that he ?strongly believe[s] that the Division has a basis to investigate and that the standards for opening a preliminary investigation were more than satisfied based on the available facts.? AAG Delrahim simultaneously announced an all-staff town hall meeting for September 17. There, he stated that staff was not rushed into initiating the investigation. That representation conflicted with the recollection of a staff member who had assisted with the opening memorandum.”
Keep in mind, this is the same Barr DOJ many journalists and “experts” somehow believe will not only conduct a fair inquiry into giants like Google, but will deliver valid, good faith remedies for the very real problems Google helped create (as opposed to say problematic remedies focused on aiding aspiring Google ad competitors like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon).
Like so many policy subjects (the environment, encryption, an open internet, police brutality, on and on and on…) Trump arrived at the worst possible time for a litany of reform efforts. That’s doubly so for the government’s antitrust authority, which has been steadily eroded for years and is in dire need of meaningful reform in the Amazon era. Instead we get… whatever the fuck this is supposed to be.