Antitrust threat raises questions about how Trump would wield power

Antitrust threat raises questions about how Trump would wield power
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Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Hollywood Walk of Fame star defaced Report: Senate's Russia probe understaffed Trump won't comment on Le Pen's advancement in French election MORE’s bellicose rhetoric against the business community is raising questions about how he would wield federal power if elected president. 

Trump has indicated he would bring businesses to heel in the White House, telling The New York Times he would unilaterally threaten higher tariffs on Fortune 500 companies unless they brought jobs back to the United States.

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The presumptive Republican presidential nominee went one step further last week, threatening an antitrust case against Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, in retaliation against reporting by The Washington Post, a paper Bezos owns.

Conservative groups opposed to Trump say the threat to sic the Justice Department on a political opponent is why he is fundamentally unsuited to be president.

The proposals “show the fundamental flaw in Trump as a president,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “At best, he doesn’t understand what a president is supposed to do. At worst, he is a thug that uses the presidency to go after business he doesn’t agree with.”

And while some business lobbyists write off Trump’s outlandish statements as campaign bluster, others are working behind the scenes to shape his views of important policy issues.

“There’s a lot of posturing and earned media quips that Trump and the Trump campaign have used very effectively to keep him in the news,” said John Murray, a partner at Monument Policy Group. 

“I’m not saying that those are things that business doesn’t need to be concerned about and wary of, but there is generally a difference between things that are said on the campaign trail and once you occupy an elected office.”

Over the last several months, Trump has singled out companies including Apple, Pfizer, Ford, Carrier Air Conditioning, Amazon and Nabisco for pursuing inversion deals — the act of reincorporating a company’s headquarters overseas to lower tax bills — and for producing goods in countries like Mexico or China.

He has floated imposing a 45 percent tariff on all imports from China and a 35 percent tariff on many goods from Mexico.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue told Bloomberg that Americans would “probably impeach [him] when they figured out what that really meant.”

Although Donohue quickly called his comment an overstatement, he said citizens shopping at Wal-Mart and Target would ultimately pay much higher prices for items as a consequence of the policies Trump is promoting.

Congress, not the White House, sets tariff levels, but some remain concerned about the way Trump might wield executive power.

“There are folks who generally believe that [he’s playing a role], or want to believe it. The business folks have no idea what to make of it, because all of the rules have been broken and it’s working,” said a Republican lobbyist for one company that has faced Trump’s ire who asked to remain anonymous.

“What do we do?” the lobbyist asked. “It’s frustrating because there’s no easy way to make him go away.”

Trump’s attacks on corporate behavior have become part of his unique brand of populism, which has resonated with working-class voters in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Breaking with GOP orthodoxy, Trump has been critical of foreign trade in his pitch to “make American great again.”

But Trump’s attacks on businesses often come with implicit threats, particularly when they are directed at media companies that he perceives as treating him unfairly.   

Earlier this year, Trump said he would “open up” libel laws, which are set at the state level, to make it easier to sue news organizations, saying The New York Times and The Washington Post would “have problems” if he were president. 

And after reports emerged that the Post had assembled a team of reporters to dig into Trump’s past, he lashed out at Bezos, who bought the news outlet in 2013.

“This [Washington Post] is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder tax-wise,” Trump said. “He’s using The Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”

“He thinks I’ll go after him for antitrust. Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much; Amazon is controlling so much of what they are doing,” Trump continued.

Over the weekend, Trump ally Roger Stone said the businessman could even shut down media companies like CNN once he wins the White House through the power of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent federal agency.

“When Donald Trump is president, he should turn off [CNN’s] FCC license,” Stone said.

McIntosh said that although Trump is unpredictable, his rhetoric throughout the campaign should not be taken lightly.

“You can’t just dismiss it and say, ‘Oh, he’s just blowing off steam.’ There’s a serious danger there,” McIntosh said.

But some advocates on K Street say they are taking Trump at face value when he boasts about being a dealmaker. Rather than go toe-to-toe with him after an attack, one corporate lobbyist said his employer took a softer approach.

“It’s more instructive to pay attention to the larger policy goals than it is to pay attention to every jot and tittle that he says,” said the lobbyist, who works for a multinational company. 

“When he is on the attack for jobs leaving the United States, what we should do is look at the root causes: excessive regulations, out-of-control litigation and high taxation,” he said. “Those are contribution factors, so maybe there are some other ways to skin the cat that may not be so harsh.” 

Trump’s treatment of the company in private, the lobbyist said, did not match what he had been saying in public.

“We just keep presenting the facts to all in hopes the data may set us free,” the lobbyist said.