The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Donald Trump's nomination of Makan Delrahim to be the antitrust chief at the Justice Department, setting the stage for a new period of Republican enforcement after eight months of limbo.
Mr. Delrahim, 47 years old, arrives at the Justice Department amid public uncertainty about the Trump administration's approach to antitrust enforcement. Republican regulators generally favor a less interventionist approach than Democrats, but Mr. Trump's populist comments during last year's presidential campaign, including his opposition to AT&T Inc.'s planned $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc., have complicated the usual predictions.
Mr. Delrahim, who previously served in the Justice Department's antitrust division during the George W. Bush administration, is considered to be in the traditional Republican mold, though many antitrust observers believe he won't shy away from bringing cases when he believes they are warranted.
His nomination received bipartisan support, resulting in a 73-21 Senate vote.
But Mr. Delrahim also had his skeptics, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who voiced concern that he would be too friendly to corporations. For a time her objections held up the nomination. The two met this month and Mr. Delrahim answered an array of questions from the senator, who agreed not to be a roadblock to a vote.
Mr. Delrahim since January has been serving in the administration as a deputy White House counsel, where he focused heavily on judicial nominations, including of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. He came to the White House after more than a decade in private practice, where he worked predominantly on antitrust and intellectual property matters.
The Justice Department's decision on whether to approve AT&T deal, and under what conditions, could be one of Mr. Delrahim's earliest and most consequential tasks. While Mr. Delrahim has been on the sidelines awaiting confirmation, the department has been deep into its investigation of the effects of the deal, which would combine a top wireless and cable provider with a major U.S. media and entertainment company.
Mr. Delrahim, in answers to senators during the confirmation process, left himself room to maneuver. The AT&T deal is a vertical merger -- a transaction that combine firms at different parts of the supply chain -- and Mr. Delrahim noted that antitrust scholars generally believe vertical mergers raise less serious concerns than mergers that combine head-to-head competitors. But he also said there can be times when a vertical merger could have anticompetitive effects.
"Just because a transaction or particularly types of transactions have been approved in the past does not mean that they could not raise competitive concerns in the future," Mr. Delrahim wrote in response to questions from Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), who has voiced objections to the AT&T deal.
Mr. Trump during the campaign said AT&T shouldn't be allowed to buy Time Warner, which owns CNN, because it would allow too much concentration of power in one company. Some Democrats have raised concerns that the merger could give AT&T the ability to impede the distribution of video content created by competitors, but they have likewise expressed concern that the president might attempt to use the government antitrust approval process as a way to exert leverage over CNN, a network Mr. Trump has criticized repeatedly for its coverage of him.
When he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, Mr. Delrahim pledged that his antitrust enforcement decisions would be free from political influence from the White House.
Other deals waiting Mr. Delrahim's consideration include Bayer AG's planned $57 billion acquisition of Monsanto Co.
His confirmation could reduce uncertainty for the business community, which has watched government antitrust enforcers operate throughout 2017 without Senate-confirmed leadership.
Mr. Trump has been slower than recent presidents to announce his antitrust picks and still hasn't announced nominees for three vacancies at the Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust authority with the Justice Department.
Antitrust enforcement isn't considered a highly partisan affair and enforcement differences between Republicans and Democrats more often involve disagreements at the margins rather than seismic shifts in policy. Nevertheless, those differences on occasion can determine whether certain mergers receive government approval.
Obama administration officials over eight years pledged to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement, a promise that saw mixed success. The Justice Department in the late Obama years did challenge several major deals, including in the health insurance industry, during a merger boom that saw close competitors in a range of industries attempt to combine.
But Democratic enforcers allowed continued consolidation in the airline industry and did little to challenge conduct by dominant companies that could be seen as stifling competition, despite a pledge to do so.
Write to Brent Kendall at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 27, 2017 18:56 ET (22:56 GMT)