President-Elect Donald Trump's picks to search for suitable nominees to staff top federal antitrust and competition posts are good omens for AT&T (T) and Time Warner (TWX) , the media giants who announced plans to merge last month.
The appointment of staunch conservatives to the transition team won't cheer liberals already distraught by Trump's election. But they do indicate that fair-minded experts in their field will be in charge of telecom and competition policy. They also should dampen fears generated by Trump himself on the campaign trail that he'll use regulatory powers to strike back at media outlets and company officials that clashed with him during the lead-up to the election. When the Time Warner deal was announced Trump said he'd have it blocked if elected.
Heading the efforts to find a new Federal Communication Commission chair and advise the incoming administration on where it should take telecom policy is Jeffrey Eisenach. He is co-chair of economic consulting firm NERA's communications, media, and Internet practice and an adjunct economics professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches about regulated industries. He's also a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Eisenach has served in senior policy positions at the Federal Trade Commission and the White House Office of Management and Budget and served on the 1980-81 Reagan-Bush Transition Team on the FTC and the 2000-2001 Bush-Cheney Transition Team on the Federal Communications Commission.
Serving the Trump Transition Team on staffing the FTC and giving input on the Department of Justice's antitrust picks is former FTC member Joshua Wright, now executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University. Wright served as an FTC commissioner from 2013 to 2015.
Both men are well-regarded scholars, who despite being fiercely conservative and well-connected within the GOP, have generated professional respect from Democrats they have served with.
That they are in charge of recommending who the future president should appoint to GOP seats on the FCC and FTC and perhaps to run the DOJ's antitrust division be a relief to anyone taken aback by off-the-cuff remarks Trump made about competition policy during the campaign that indicated he might use antitrust powers to carry out vendettas.
Last month Trump said that he would block megadeals like the acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T, even though the president typically claims no direct role in merger reviews. The boast caused concern because Trump has had a long-running feud with big media companies over what he has said was blatant favoritism for Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and blocking the deal would be a way to exact revenge. Similarly, in a May interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, Trump implied he would bring antitrust law to bear in reviewing Jeff Bezos' ownership of both and Amazon.com (AMZN) and the Washington Post, another media outlet that has angered Trump. Trump complained that Bezos is "using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don't tax Amazon like they should be taxed."
Eisenach's track record indicates he would screen out anyone to whom the use of regulatory policy as a tool for personal vendetta is acceptable. Eisenach is a fierce free-market and deregulation supporter and has criticized the FCC for pursuing net neutrality rules obligating telecom carriers to give all broadband content providers access to their pipes on equal terms.
Similarly, Wright had already built a reputation an outspoken advocate for a conservative approach to antitrust law that is heavy on economic analysis and critical of what he saw as regulators' too-static approach to competition law. Wright, who was a George Mason law professor when President Barack Obama nominated him to fill the Republican seat vacated by Tom Rosch, was a frequent critic of FTC and Department of Justice actions in high-profile merger reviews and other types of competitive conduct cases, commenting often in academic papers, blog posts and tweets. As an FTC commissioners he continues to make waves in the shape of formal dissents to commission decisions and in speeches at antitrust-focused events.
Julie Brill, partner and co-leader of Hogan Lovells US LLP's Global Privacy and Cybersecurity Practice Group and who served with Wright as a Democratic FTC commissioner, described him as "personable and warm." She finds his appointment to the transition team encouraging because it indicates antitrust and consumer welfare oversight will be taken seriously.
"We didn't always agree," she said but added that "he cares deeply about antitrust as well as consumer protection."
Fellow Republicans are also happy with his appointment.
"Josh is a first-rate academic and one of the world's finest antitrust scholars," said former FTC Chairman William Kovacic, now Director of George Washington University's Competition Law Center. "He has a sure grasp of the theory and the practice of government policymaking. His appointment is very good news for the future of the FTC and the U.S. system of competition law and consumer protection."