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Attorney General Nominee William Barr Says He’ll Look at Antitrust Impact on Tech Giants

He Says He'll Recuse Himself from AT&T-Time Warner Case

William Barr
Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the next attorney general, said that it was “more important” that the Department of Justice get involved in questions of how effective antitrust enforcers have been in protecting competition amid the growth of tech giants.

“I would like to weigh in on some of these issues,” Barr said at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, adding that privacy and data gathering were other areas of concern.
Earlier in the day, Barr said he is “sort of interested in stepping back and reassessing or learning more about how the Antitrust Division has been functioning and what their priorities are.”

“I don’t think big is necessarily bad, but I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of antitrust enforcers.”

He added that there was a way “to win in that marketplace without violating antitrust laws, but I want to find out more about that dynamic.”

Barr expressed his concerns amid increased scrutiny in Washington over the growth of tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. The Federal Trade Commission has been examining the effectiveness of antitrust laws in a series of hearings, but it is unclear if that will ultimately lead to any changes in legislation.

Barr also said that he would “absolutely” recuse himself from the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against the AT&T-Time Warner merger. A three-judge panel is considering the the DOJ’s appeal.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked Barr about his prior criticism of the Justice Department’s decision to try to block the transaction. When he was a board member of Time Warner, Barr wrote an affidavit in support of AT&T-Time Warner’s contention that the merger was politically motivated. He wrote in the affidavit that cited Trump’s “prior public animus toward this merger” as a reason many would view the lawsuit as political motivated.

But at the confirmation hearing, Barr toned down his criticsm. He said that his affidavit “speaks for itself,” and that he was expressing concern that the Antitrust Division “wasn’t engaging in some of our arguments…I am not sure why they acted the way they did.”

Makan Delrahim, the chief of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, has denied that the White House influenced the decision to challenge the merger.

Most of the hearing was devoted to how Barr will handle special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, given that Barr has previously been critical of the probe.

Barr told lawmakers that “on my watch,” Mueller “will be allowed to finish his work.”

In response to a question from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who asked what he would do if the president asked him to do something “that you think is inconsistent with your oath,” Barr said he would “not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong by anybody, whether it is the editorial boards, Congress, or the president. I am going to do what I think it right.”

He said he didn’t think Mueller “would be involved in a witch hunt,” the term that Trump often applies to the investigation. He later said that it’s “understandable that if someone felt they were falsely accused, they would view an investigation as something like a witch hunt,” while those who don’t “know the facts” may not use the term.

Barr told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that he had discussed the Mueller investigation with Trump, “but not in any particular substance.”

He told lawmakers Trump “has sought no assurances, promises, or commitments from me of any kind, either express or implied, and I have not given him any, other than that I would run the department with professionalism and integrity.”

Barr, however, would not commit to recusing himself from the Mueller investigation, as some Democrats have suggested. Barr wrote a 19-page memo in June, 2017 that criticized Mueller’s apparent pursuit of an obstruction of justice investigation. Barr, however, said that the memo was focused on a specific legal theory.

He declined to commit to recusing himself even if that is the advice of Justice Department ethics officials.

Barr told Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), “I am not going to surrender the responsibilities of the attorney general to get the title. I don’t need the title.”

He also has said that he is committed to “transparency” once Mueller completes his report, but did not explicitly say whether he would allow its release publicly.

“I don’t know at the end of the day what will be releasable. I don’t know what Bob Mueller is writing,” he said. His goal will be to “get as much information out as I can consistent with the regulations,” he said.

Barr also refused to say whether he would never interfere on Mueller’s decisions on who to subpoena and who to indict.

“I will carry out my responsibilities under the regulations,” he said, adding that the provisions allow the attorney general to step in in extraordinary circumstances.

Durbin also asked Barr why he would want to lead the Justice Department, given the relentless attacks that Trump aimed at Jeff Sessions, who was fired in November. Barr served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

He said that he was in a position in his life “where I can provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and the reputation of the department and serve in this administration.”