The U.S. Senate voted to approve President Trump's nominee to lead antitrust matters at the Justice Department on Wednesday, paving the way for the agency to consider looming mergers and acquisitions that require federal approval.
Senate lawmakers confirmed Makan Delrahim by a 73 to 21 vote. His appointment comes at a critical time in Washington, as policymakers have spoken with rising urgency in recent weeks about the power of large, consolidated industries.
Delrahim sailed through the Senate with bipartisan support, benefiting from a long-standing reputation as an even-keeled, pragmatic expert in competition law. The son of Iranian refugees, Delrahim immigrated to the United States at 10. He served in the Justice Department's antitrust division under George W. Bush. Delrahim was an early Trump backer, writing a supportive op-ed in the New York Post in March 2016 and serving as a member of Trump's transition team after the election.
One of Delrahim's first tasks will be to weigh AT&T's massive $85.4 billion acquisition of the entertainment giant Time Warner, a deal that Trump has publicly criticized. During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to block the purchase, surprising experts who said it is unusual for presidents, much less presidential candidates, to seek to influence the outcome of pending transactions. The episode raised questions about whether Trump might pressure his antitrust officials to stymie the deal.
Analysts say the case could be an early test of Delrahim's public perception as an independent official. Some Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), said Wednesday in a floor speech that Trump “has made it clear: He expects his agency to carry out his orders,” and that Delrahim's record as a lobbyist — representing clients such as the health insurance and cable industries — makes him a poor fit for the job.
“During the airline merger wave that left us with only four major carriers, Mr. Delrahim was lobbying the government to approve a merger between US Airways and Delta,” said Warren, ticking off a list of companies Delrahim has advocated for. “Now he wants to take a spin through the revolving door and regulate the industries he worked to make even less competitive.”
But Delrahim is also an experienced Washington hand who is sensitive to the political winds, other analysts say.
“He's got a lot that could be on his plate. But he's got a strong background,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust official. “He's quite conservative. And yes, he's understanding of the political sentiments here that both the administration brought in and that the public is thirsting for a bigger crackdown on dominant firms.”
That could include a change in the way policymakers have historically viewed technology companies such as Google and Facebook, who have taken on a kind of incumbent status in Washington in recent months as the public has learned more about Silicon Valley's growing role in shaping the economy. Some conservatives have demanded that the tech industry be regulated like utilities to protect right-wing speech online.
Delrahim could be expected to weigh in on those issues. But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), whom Delrahim once served as a staffer, said he is well prepared to handle them.
“He’s an exceptional antitrust attorney, and just the person we’re going to need as we sort this all out,” Hatch said Monday.