By Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee wants to know whether President Donald Trump played any role in what has been described as a federal antitrust investigation of Ford and three other auto companies that have made a deal with the state of California on fuel mileage standards.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Thursday sent a letter to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and the Justice Department, noting his committee’s investigation into possible allegations of obstruction of justice “and other abuses of power” by Trump.
“We write to obtain information regarding President Trump’s latest apparent attempt to deploy the Justice Department’s legal antitrust authority for partisan political purposes — in this case against the state of California and automakers with which it has reached an emissions agreement,” wrote Nadler.
The letter was also signed by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who chairs a subcommittee overseeing antitrust issues. The Judiciary Committee put out a news release Friday afternoon announcing that the letter had been sent.
The Justice Department declined comment and the White House didn’t immediately respond.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration seemed to make a concerted effort to warn California and the automakers — which also includes Volkswagen, BMW and Honda — that they could face federal violations for a deal in which the car manufacturers and the state set future mile-per-gallon standards.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Justice Department was examining potential antitrust violations related to the agreement and, in a letter to the California Air Resources Board, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation cautioned that it “appears to be inconsistent with federal law” and that only the administration could set fuel standards.
The automakers made the deal with California against the longstanding threat of the Trump administration freezing yearly increases in mpg-standards put in place under former President Barack Obama.
While that hasn’t happened yet, this week, Trump announced that the federal government would terminate California’s waiver — granted under the Clean Air Act — to set fuel standards that it and 13 other states require.
The Trump administration has argued the standards force Americans to spend more on autos while doing little to improve the environment. Supporters of the standards say they have greatly reduced carbon emissions — improving health — and will continue to do so.
California and other states have already moved to sue to protect the waiver, Michigan among them, even though the state is not one of those that has adopted California’s standards.
In Thursday’s letter, Nadler and Cicilline said the “potential abuse of the Department of Justice’s enforcement authorities to target perceived political adversaries of the president are of significant interest to the committee,” noting reports that Trump was “enraged” by the deal struck with California ahead of his administration finalizing its own, less restricting fuel standards.
“We are concerned the department’s investigation is no more than a pretextual attack by the Trump administration on the four automakers’ legitimate use of the governmental process,” they wrote.
“As Assistant Attorney General Delrahim acknowledged before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, the department cannot point to any evidence of an anticompetitive agreement in support of its investigation. On this point he testified, ‘I have nothing, that’s the purpose of an investigation.’ “
They said nothing that has been raised to date should stop the automakers from working with California to strike an environmental agreement.
In the letter, they request “documents and communications” between Trump and the Justice Department regarding the automakers’ deal with California.
But the administration has balked at providing much of the documentation and testimony the Judiciary Committee has requested in the past, especially that involving communications involving the president, so it wasn’t immediately clear that this request would fare any better.