DOJ's antitrust chief said he talks to Trump but not about important mergers

Key Points
  • Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's antitrust division, said the president doesn't call him up on sensitive merger cases.
  • Delrahim, who's in charge of tech antitrust investigations at the DOJ, spoke at the DealBook Conference on Wednesday.
DealBook 2019: Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice 191106
Photo: Samuel Corum | DealBook
The DOJ's antitrust chief confirmed that he talks to Trump

The Justice Department's antitrust chief, Makan Delrahim, confirmed that he has spoken with President Donald Trump, but said the president doesn't call him up directly to discuss topics like the department's controversial effort to block AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner.

Delrahim, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's antitrust division, discussed his relationship with Trump at The New York Times DealBook Conference on Wednesday. Delrahim's office is reportedly leading several antitrust investigations in the tech industry and earlier this year announced a broad review of tech power.

In an on-stage interview with CNBC "Squawk Box" anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin, Delrahim was asked if his life would be easier if the president stayed quiet on cases his division is tasked with assessing.

"The president of the United States has the right just like any other citizen," to speak his mind, Delrahim said, noting that several Democratic senators wrote to him about the AT&T case while it was ongoing.

The DOJ's decision to try to block the merger incited concerns on the left that the move might have been motivated by the president's animus toward CNN, which Time Warner owns. The DOJ has denied that claim.

Delharim was asked about other conflicts involving Trump. In March, Reuters reported that T-Mobile's CEO and other executives spent $195,000 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., as the company's attempted $26 billion acquisition of Sprint was under review.

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"I would prefer that they don't stay at any hotel because they think it influences a law enforcement [official] or a regulator," Delrahim said. He added that "people love to make things out of absolutely nothing."

He also said there are other reasons to stay there.

"Look, it's a phenomenal hotel," he said. "It's got a great restaurant in there. I have been there because it really is one block away."

Delrahim refused to divulge much about the status of the antitrust probes into Big Tech companies. Multiple outlets reported this summer that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission divided oversight, with the DOJ's Antitrust Division taking the lead on investigations into Google and Apple and the FTC taking charge on Facebook and Amazon. At a September congressional hearing, Delrahim and FTC Chairman Joe Simons revealed conflict over that agreement, and Reuters later reported that the antitrust division was looking to open a Facebook probe as well.

Delrahim said there are sometimes conflicts between the agencies but that more often than not, things run smoothly between the two. If he were redesigning the system, though, he said it would be worth rethinking dividing antitrust enforcement across multiple federal and state agencies.

"At some time maybe Congress should take a look at does this all make sense," he said.

Delrahim said that antitrust probes are at different stages of progress and that the division has been speaking with various players in the industry as well as their customers and potential competitors who ultimately failed to enter the market.

Delrahim said his team is also looking at the use of data in its review.

"Data can give you market power," he said. "And it's abuse would be a violation of antitrust law."

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