What’s worse: corporate monopolies or a kangaroo government?
We are on the verge of finding out, now that the badly politicized Trump administration Justice Department plans to investigate Big Tech for antitrust violations.
The Justice Department says it plans to study the market power of Facebook, Google, Amazon and perhaps other tech firms. Apple seems to be off the hit list, for now, but that could change. The probe comes as critics have accused Big Tech of squashing competition, misusing consumer data and behaving like monopolies.
It’s worth probing whether tech goliaths have too much power, and imposing remedies, if needed. But the Trump Justice Department lacks the credibility to conduct a fair inquiry that puts the public interest first. The Justice Department, under Trump, has abused its authority on antitrust and other matters and proven to be a tool of Trump’s personal empire. Trump has expressed personal animosity toward all three companies, which taints the very existence of a Justice Department inquiry.
Trump repeatedly rails against Amazon because its CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post, which regularly reports critically on Trump (as does every respectable news organization). Trump has blasted Google for search results that are unflattering to him, even if perfectly legitimate. And Trump has dunned Facebook for banning right-wing extremists friendly to him.
But Trump wouldn’t really abuse the government’s antitrust powers for personal reasons, would he? As a matter of fact, he would—and has. The Trump administration fought the merger of AT&T and Time Warner for no plausible reason except that Time Warner owns CNN, another frequent Trump critic. Trump criticized the proposed merger before becoming president and reportedly asked top aides to block it. A judge shredded the Trump administration’s arguments against the merger, and the government lost an appeal. The deal went through earlier this year.
The Trump Justice Department has further sullied itself through Attorney General William Barr’s deceptions regarding Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Trump’s connections with Russian operatives. Before the Mueller report became public, Barr published a four-page summary that whitewashed the report and made no mention of numerous abuses of power Trump committed while trying to derail Mueller’s investigation. The report itself outlines numerous connections between Trump officials and Russians and a concerted effort by Trump to bury the evidence, which would probably be prosecutable crimes were Trump not president. The head of the Justice Department is a company man willing to put the government’s law enforcement resources into Trump’s personal service.
Se we have motive, method and prior evidence of malfeasance. Trump’s motive for going after Big Tech is his personal hostility toward Amazon, Facebook and Google. His method is to use Justice Department antitrust tools, even though none of the companies is a traditional monopoly that gouges consumers with high prices. And Trump has misused antitrust prosecution before, so we know he’d do it again.
If there’s any redeeming news, it’s that the antitrust probe will probably proceed slowly, with no significant action before 2021. That means that while Trump is campaigning for reelection, he’ll be able to say he’s clamping down on Big Tech, without actually doing it. That might be good enough for him. If he gets reelected in 2020, we’ll find out. If he loses, we might get a proper, believable analysis of Big Tech’s power.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman