Trump in Iowa
Credit: Flickr/Max Goldberg

Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department had opened an anti-trust investigation into four automakers. The issue wasn’t that the companies were colluding to fix prices or eliminate competition, it was that they had all agreed to abide by the fuel efficiency standards imposed by the state of California.

The Trump administration has been attempting to write a new rule to roll back the fuel efficiency standards adopted by Obama’s EPA. However, Coral Davenport and Hiroko Tabuchi reported that those efforts were running into problems.

In the Trump administration, three senior political officials working on the rollback, a complex legal and scientific process, have all left the administration recently. A senior career official with years of experience on vehicle pollution policy was transferred to another office.

That means the process is now being run by Francis Brooke, a 29-year-old White House aide with limited experience in climate change policy before moving over from Vice President Mike Pence’s office last year. Given the lack of experienced senior staff members, people working on the plan say it is unlikely to be completed before October.

They went on to write that, during White House meetings on the topic, Trump was prepared to drop the roll back of Obama’s fuel efficiency standards and had shifted his focus to coming up with ways to retaliate against both the automakers and the state of California.

According to a more recent report from Davenport, the rollback now appears to have been put on hold, but retaliation efforts are going full steam ahead. The anti-trust investigation appears to be the way the administration is taking on the automakers, which is why the editorial board of the New York Times issued this stinging rebuke.

President Trump’s Justice Department — for it is increasingly clear that the department has been reduced to an arm of the White House — has opened an antitrust investigation of four auto companies that had the temerity to defy the president by voluntarily agreeing to reduce auto emissions below the level required by current federal law.

The investigation is an act of bullying, plain and simple: a nakedly political abuse of authority…

The investigation is particularly striking because the department has shown little interest in preventing corporations from engaging in actual anticompetitive behavior. This summer, for example, the department blessed T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, a deal likely to harm mobile phone consumers and workers, and to impede innovation.

If the Justice Department wants to get serious about antitrust enforcement, there are plenty of places to get started. This investigation is an embarrassment. It might as well wheel out the statue of Lady Justice and replace it with a bronze marionette.

According to the WSJ, the state of California also received a letter that threatened legal action.

On Friday, top lawyers at the Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to California’s top air regulator, Mary Nichols. It urged her to dissociate the state from the four auto makers, saying the commitment may result in undefined legal consequences.

“The purpose of this letter is to put California on notice that this framework agreement appears to be inconsistent with Federal law,” the letter states. “Congress has squarely vested the authority to set fuel economy standards for new motor vehicles, and nationwide standards for (greenhouse-gas) vehicle emissions, with the Federal government, not with California or any other State.”

That last sentence is the kicker, because it’s not true. Robinson Meyer provides some historical background.

When Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1970, it empowered the EPA to set new national standards on air pollution from cars and factories. It was the federal government’s most aggressive attempt ever to address the dangers of smog and toxic air pollution.

But this was old hat for California, which had already been dealing with smog for two decades…When Congress began drafting the 1970 Clean Air Act, the state fought to maintain its ongoing regulatory scheme. It argued that its program should be left alone, since it was successful, and that its air problems were naturally worse than other states’…

California succeeded—and dramatically so. California is written into the Clean Air Act by name: At any time, it can ask the EPA administrator for a waiver to restrict tailpipe pollution more stringently than the federal government. If its proposed rules are “at least as protective of public health and welfare” as the EPA’s, then the administrator must grant the waiver…

Under the same provision, any other state can choose to adopt California’s more stringent standards. Fifteen states currently opt for the tougher rules, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the entire New York metro area. This means that California’s rules actually cover 135 million people, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population.

So what the lawyers at the Transportation Department and the EPA should have said in that letter to Mary Nichols  is that they are preparing a plan to revoke California’s authority to set its own vehicle greenhouse gas standards. But I suppose that wouldn’t have sounded as threatening.

What we are seeing in all of this is that the Justice Department, as well as the Transportation Department and the EPA, are being used to retaliate against institutions on behalf of the president. This is the same kind of corruption of the federal government we’ve seen recently on everything from the NOAA’s defense of “sharpie gate,” to the Air Force being used to prop up a failing Trump business, and the State Department withholding funds from Ukraine in order to pressure that country into investigating a potential Trump opponent.

As Jonathan Chait notes:

This is the story of 2019, as Trump has replaced institutionalists attempting to curtail his grossest instincts with loyalists happy to indulge them. It is playing out across multiple dimensions. This is the through-line between several seemingly disconnected episodes from the last several days…Trump’s stench is slowly seeping into every corner of government.

In other words, the entire federal government has been corralled into being nothing more than a glorified “fixer” for Donald Trump.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.