Trump Admin Accused of ‘Corrupt Use of Antitrust Enforcement’ in Targeting Automakers

The Trump Administration is going after several different automakers over their decision to self-regulate above and beyond the floor mandated by the federal government. Critics say the move is a corrupt abuse of power.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has initiated an antitrust investigation into Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen after the companies agreed to cut tailpipe emissions in excess of the standards proposed by the Trump Administration.

Trump’s DOJ is looking whether the automakers violated federal anti-competition laws when they agreed to build cars in line with more stringent standards suggested by state authorities in California. The Trump Administration opened the first salvo in the automobile emissions battle by opting to gut and roll back several pro-environment rules and standards issued near the end of the Obama Administration.

The California Air Resources Board fought back by tightening up the Empire State’s own standards and moved in for a coup de grace by circumventing the federal government entirely–with the help of the four powerhouse auto companies.

In July, the deal to increase gas mileage standards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions was announced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) with a statement that singled out Trump’s decision to backtrack on environmental protection.

“Regardless about what the Trump Administration determines in the next few weeks, this is the direction we’re headed in,” Newsom said.

The automakers also issued a joint statement which subtly criticized Trump’s environmental policies:

Ensuring that America’s vehicles are efficient, safe and affordable is a priority for us all. A 50-state solution has always been our preferred path forward and we understand that any deal involves compromise. These terms will provide our companies much-needed regulatory certainty by allowing us to meet both federal and state requirements with a single national fleet, avoiding a patchwork of regulations while continuing to ensure meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The Trump Administration reacted furiously to the news.

White House spokesperson Judd Deere responded with a statement that claimed concern for stricter environmental standards–effectively the same standards recently cut by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Trump administration believes strongly in a national fuel standard that promotes safer, cleaner and more affordable vehicles,” Deere said.

Trump himself predictably responded to the agreement via Twitter.

“My proposal to the politically correct Automobile Companies would lower the average price of a car to consumers by more than $3000, while at the same time making the cars substantially safer,” the 45th president tweeted. “Engines would run smoother. Very little impact on the environment! Foolish executives!”

The DOJ’s antitrust investigation is being viewed in the broader context of the administration’s antipathy to stricter environmental regulations and California’s effective power over the auto industry to create more stringent national standards.

This is a deeply abusive and corrupt use of antitrust enforcement,” said Slate commentator Mark Joseph Stern.

Matthew Miller, who served as a DOJ spokesperson during the Obama administration, criticized the move on Twitter as well.

“This is a really disturbing abuse of power and another sign of how politicized DOJ has become,” he said. “Antitrust law doesn’t exist to punish companies for adopting policies you don’t like.”

And, according to a write-up in the New York Times, the antitrust move was a direct rejoinder to the car companies for their decision to work with California’s pro-environment leaders instead of the White House on emissions standards.

“Legal experts and people close to the Trump administration said the investigation was meant as a show of force for companies that have displeased the president,” the report said.

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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