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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the nominee for attorney general, reaffirmed his commitment to impartial antitrust enforcement despite President Donald Trump’s recent meetings with corporate leaders involved in high-profile mergers still facing agency review.
Sessions will “insist” that Justice Department decisions are based on facts and the law, if he’s confirmed by the Senate, according to a letter obtained by Bloomberg BNA, sent in response to a Jan. 18 inquiry from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Klobuchar sought assurances from the nominee that the White House wouldn’t influence agency actions in the wake of meetings between Trump and executives from Monsanto Co. and Bayer AG, and AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc.
“The president’s high-level meetings with companies involved in ongoing antitrust investigations raise serious concerns about cronyism and political interference with antitrust enforcement,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the panel, told Bloomberg BNA.
“Senator Sessions failed to articulate any concrete actions that he will take to ensure the full, fair, and impartial enforcement of antitrust laws. American consumers deserve better,” Blumenthal added.
Trump’s meetings with corporate executives add to a long list of conflict-of-interest issues and other concerns hanging over Sessions nomination ahead of a Jan. 31 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions was a vocal Trump supporter during the campaign season.
Klobuchar, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee, said she’ll remain focused on holding the new administration accountable when it comes to antitrust issues.
“Ensuring the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division should be a priority for every administration,” she told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mailed statement.
Klobuchar raised concerns about the meetings in a Jan. 18 letter to Sessions and asked him to explain how he would handle White House efforts to influence antitrust cases.
“The Department must follow the facts wherever they lead, and make decisions regarding any potential charges based upon the facts and the law, and consistent with established procedures and policies of the Department,” Sessions said in his reply letter. “That is what I always did as a United States Attorney, and it is what I will insist upon if I am confirmed as Attorney General.”
Sessions said it’s “certainly proper, within limits, for the President, members of Congress, and others to communicate with the Justice Department through the proper chains of command regarding policy decisions.”
A Senate Democratic staffer said Sessions could have gone further to address Klobuchar’s concerns by agreeing to stay away from cases where the president has weighed in, for example.
Prior to the Trump meetings, there were already concerns that he might try to pressure antitrust regulators.
In October, Trump said he would block the AT&T-Time Warner deal because it would place “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” He also indicated, however, that he was unhappy with news coverage by CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. Trump’s position on the Bayer-Monsanto transaction is unclear.
During his confirmation hearing on Jan. 10, Sessions received strong support from fellow Republicans, but there were a number of tough questions from Democrats.
Sessions tried to assure his Senate colleagues that he was prepared to stand up to Trump on a number of issues. He also responded to many questions about his record on matters such as civil rights and immigration. On antitrust enforcement, he said there will be no political influence.
Trump’s meetings with CEOs, which came after Sessions’ confirmation hearing, triggered even more antitrust questions and concerns.
“Even the appearance of inappropriate interference could irrevocably undermine the legitimacy of antitrust enforcement,” Klobuchar said in her letter to Sessions.
Traditionally, the White House hasn’t been involved in antitrust enforcement decisions, she said.
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