clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Democrats plan to press Trump’s competition cop on his ties to AT&T, tech giants

They’ll get their chance when Makan Delrahim has his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Trump Attends Panel Discussion On Opioid Addiction At White House Shawn Thew / Getty

Democratic lawmakers are signaling they plan to question President Donald Trump’s nominee to oversee competition issues on his past ties to corporate giants like AT&T, which is currently seeking the government’s permission to buy Time Warner.

Trump’s selection for the post — Makan Delrahim — previously spent years working at a Washington, D.C.-focused corporate law firm, where his legal and lobbying clients included such companies as AT&T, Comcast, Google and Qualcomm, according to federal records.

Delrahim cut his ties with many of those companies over the years, including AT&T, which he stopped representing in 2008, as well as Qualcomm, a company for which he terminated his lobbying registration at the end of 2016. Soon after, Delrahim officially joined the White House as one of Trump’s top legal aides.

Still, Delrahim’s previous work has triggered renewed scrutiny as he seeks to lead antitrust at the Justice Department, a gig that requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate. The top Democrat on the chamber’s leading antitrust committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said in a statement to Recode that she would push Delrahim to sit out of investigations that overlap with his past clients.

During his testimony, Klobuchar said she would “ask [Delrahim] if he will recuse himself from matters related to his prior employment, as required by law, to ensure the independence and integrity of the‎ antitrust division.” The Minnesota lawmaker added: “He should of course recuse himself.”

Asked specifically about AT&T, a spokesman later clarified that Klobuchar had been referring to “any matter related to a former employer or client.”

Delrahim is set to face such a grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Sen. Mike Lee, the Republican lawmaker who oversees the Senate’s top competition panel, told Recode that Delrahim’s corporate connections could serve him well.

“It’s not surprising that the president nominated an antitrust attorney to be assistant attorney general for antitrust,” he said, “and it’s not surprising that an antitrust attorney would have represented clients in antitrust matters.”

If he’s confirmed as assistant attorney general for antitrust, Delrahim would assume a job that has vast power — not only to approve major mergers, but also to investigate companies for anticompetitive practices. During the Obama administration, for example, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division stood in the way of AT&T’s failed bid to buy T-Mobile, and it brought charges against Apple for the way it priced its ebooks.

All nominees to the post — as with most roles in government — must undergo a full ethics review. Under an executive order signed by Trump in January, appointees must sit out of investigations or other matters that involve a former client of theirs for two years after they’re confirmed.

In Delrahim’s case, it means he’s likely to recuse himself on issues involving Qualcomm, according to sources familiar with his thinking. Delrahim represented the company as a lobbyist on antitrust issues in 2016, according to federal records. Months later, the chipmaker was slapped with a lawsuit by another agency, the Federal Trade Commission, which alleges Qualcomm tried to harm rivals like Apple.

Delrahim’s other corporate entanglements, however, are much older — so he likely won’t have to recuse himself. That might include his work for, then against, AT&T.

After Delrahim lobbied on behalf of the wireless giant in 2007, he worked in opposition of AT&T as a representative of telecom companies like DISH that opposed its unsuccessful attempt to buy T-Mobile in 2011. More recently, when asked about AT&T’s latest attempt at an acquisition — its proposed purchase of Time Warner — Delrahim in October said he didn’t believe it poses a “major antitrust problem.”

Delrahim also previously lobbied on behalf of Comcast*, which obtained the Justice Department’s approval to buy NBCUniversal in 2011, as well as a major telecom trade association, called NCTA, in Washington, D.C. For years, his law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, had been filing federal disclosures indicating Delrahim represented both clients. In December, though, the firm filed a series of updates that indicate Delrahim ceased working for Comcast and the group in 2010.

Asked about his corporate ties, a White House spokeswoman said Delrahim would “recuse himself in accordance with the law from matters where certain former clients are parties and any mergers he was involved with in the private sector.”

Still, Delrahim’s history may trouble some Democrats, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. A vocal foe of media consolidation, Franken told Recode in a statement he would press Delrahim to “ensure he prioritizes consumers and competition over his corporate ties — with everyone from Comcast to Anthem to Pfizer.”

Franken did not say whether Delrahim should recuse himself from reviewing AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, a deal that Trump himself previously blasted. But Franken did say that Delrahim had to remain “appropriately independent from the influence of the president — who has already demonstrated a willingness to treat proposed mergers like one of his business negotiations.”

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.