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2017-04-25 06:38:02
How Trump’s Pick for Top Antitrust Cop May Shape Competition

WASHINGTON — Makan Delrahim, the nominee for chief antitrust cop at the Justice Department, was 10 when his family immigrated to the United States from Iran as Jewish political refugees. Unable to speak English, he struggled to keep up in school. He worked afternoons and weekends at his father’s gas station near Los Angeles until college.

As a young Senate staff member years later, Mr. Delrahim found those early experiences had laid the foundation for his conservative views.

“I came to realize that my values identified with the conservative viewpoints of personal responsibility, hard work, respect for individual rights and appreciation of a limited role of government,” Mr. Delrahim, 47, said in his first interview since being nominated last month by President Trump for assistant attorney general for antitrust.

On Wednesday, Mr. Delrahim will have his confirmation hearing for the Justice Department position, where these views will be closely scrutinized by Congress. If he is confirmed — and he is expected to be — his philosophies will help shape the corporate competition landscape for the next few years, at a time when mega-mergers like AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner and Bayer’s $56 billion purchase of Monsanto are on the docket.

In the interview with The New York Times, Mr. Delrahim declined to address AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, which is now undergoing regulatory review, or other large deals, saying he would “examine any matter according to evidence and economic analysis.” But he gave other hints of how he might act as the department’s top antitrust official.

Specifically, Mr. Delrahim, a former lobbyist, said he would not go after a company just because it was big, and would do so only if there were violations of antitrust law. “Just like any other industry, if there is wrongdoing, we would investigate,” Mr. Delrahim said. But “federal laws should not be used as a fishing expedition by government.”

He also intimated that he was skeptical of antitrust action against intellectual property rights holders, referring to some earlier comments on the matter. In a 2007 statement, for example, he had warned that cases that blended intellectual property rights with antitrust enforcement could hamper innovation.

Legal experts have extrapolated that Mr. Delrahim is also likely to credit mergers with helping competition — not only reducing it — and to point out how big deals can promote the United States economy. That “would be a major change from his most recent predecessors,” the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell recently said in a memo to clients.

These views contrast subtly with those of the Obama administration, which took a more aggressive approach in antitrust toward protecting innovation, especially in the technology industry.

During the Obama years, the Justice Department rejected several deals — including Comcast’s pursuit of Time Warner Cable, which ended in 2015, and AT&T’s bid for T-Mobile in 2011 — for their potential to impede competition. In the case of AT&T and T-Mobile, there was also the aim to ensure that the nation had at least four major wireless carriers. The Obama administration also charged Apple and publishers in 2012 with price-fixing in e-books.

Mr. Delrahim would take over antitrust duties at a moment of profound economic transformation, with tech companies like Google and Amazon dominating search and commerce while extending their reach in transportation, media and other industries. Telecom companies are trying to morph into media powerhouses that control the distribution and creation of television and online content.

With a wave of corporate mergers in other areas — chemicals, agricultural products and health insurance — some Democratic lawmakers have warned that industries have become too concentrated, putting consumers in danger of higher prices and giving them fewer options in vital services.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who will be at the Wednesday hearing, said in a statement, “I plan to ask if Mr. Delrahim will enforce the laws to protect American consumers and if he will commit to being independent, focusing on the merits of each case, not on interference from the White House.”

Mr. Delrahim has had years of experience in antitrust matters. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1991 with a degree in kinesiology and obtained a law degree at George Washington University in 1995. He then joined the law firm Patton Boggs before leaving to be a counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1998. There, he cut his teeth on antitrust working for Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. Mr. Hatch had pushed for an investigation into Microsoft’s practice of tying its web browser, Internet Explorer, to its ubiquitous Windows operating system.

In 2003, Mr. Delrahim joined the Justice Department as deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust, where he worked on issues such as coordination of international antitrust enforcement. He also worked on the department's 2004 suit to stop the software company Oracle from buying the rival software maker PeopleSoft; the transaction ultimately went through.

In 2005, Mr. Delrahim left Washington and joined the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Los Angeles. Over the years, he was the lawyer or federal lobbyist for clients including Ultimate Fighting Championship, Comcast, Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Mr. Delrahim endorsed Mr. Trump relatively early in last year’s presidential campaign. In an op-ed in The New York Post in March 2016, he called on conservatives to back Mr. Trump, even if he was not their — or his — top choice.

“I understand where they’re coming from, but I’m practical, and I’m willing to take my chances with The Donald,” he wrote, emphasizing that the main goal was to put conservative justices on the Supreme Court.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, Mr. Delrahim left private law in January to join the administration as deputy counsel. He helped prepare Neil M. Gorsuch, now a Supreme Court justice, for his confirmation hearings and arranged many meetings with Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee.

Former Democratic and Republican colleagues at the Justice Department describe Mr. Delrahim as fiercely loyal to the Republican Party, though he has a reputation for forging bipartisan relationships. His wife was a Democrat when they met and has voted for Democrats; Mr. Delrahim said he still did not know how she voted in the 2016 election.

Democrats recall when Mr. Delrahim became a crucial ally in 2000 to help pass amendments to an antitrust law. House Republicans were unwilling to sign on, but Mr. Delrahim worked to allay their concerns and brokered compromises between them and Senate Democrats, said Jonathan Leibowitz, a partner at Davis Polk who was then working on the bill for Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat. Mr. Leibowitz later was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

“He’s a conservative but his instincts tend toward pragmatism and not ideology,” Mr. Leibowitz said of Mr. Delrahim.

In the interview with The Times, Mr. Delrahim indicated at least one topic that he intended to focus on at the department: the coordination of international antitrust enforcement. Over the past decade, he said, American companies have become more vulnerable to a patchwork of global antitrust actions. Regulators in Europe, for example, have filed antitrust charges against Google and other Silicon Valley companies.

“I’m seeing more complaints about enforcement motivated by protectionism, so that will be an important area of inquiry for antitrust enforcement and cooperation,” Mr. Delrahim said.

He emphasized that antitrust is intended to support free markets and that the government should intervene only when necessary. A monopoly is perfectly legal until it abuses its monopoly power, he said.