Trump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify

A top White House adviser is pressing lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee to bring Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosHillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns Largest tech company CEOs made billions amid pandemic How the latest X-37B mission may change the world MORE to testify before Congress, a request that could shake up the political dynamics around the investigation into the country’s largest tech companies.  

At a private meeting this week, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told the Republicans and Democrats leading the House’s antitrust investigation into Big Tech that they should invite Bezos and other e-commerce executives to testify about counterfeits, sources confirmed to The Hill.

Navarro has been leading the Trump administration’s efforts to curb the spread of fake and pirated products online — particularly on Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer. 

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His request marks the first time a White House official has weighed in publicly on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee’s tech probe.  

“What I said clearly was that, given the extreme seriousness of this issue and the failure of the e-commerce hubs to cooperate in any substantive way on any of this, it’s prudent to have the CEOs of the major e-commerce platforms come and talk truthfully to the American people about this on Capitol Hill,” Navarro told The Hill. 

"This committee appears to be doing a very substantive investigation of how market power is affecting the American people,” Navarro added. “My point was simply that e-commerce platforms, absent market power, are doing great damage. When you add the market power of the Amazons and eBays of this world to the mix, it’s counterfeiting danger on steroids."

The move is the latest salvo in a public feud between Navarro and Bezos. Last week, Navarro accused Bezos of walking back an invitation to meet with him about counterfeits. Trump has long maintained a personal vendetta against Bezos.

Navarro’s request comes at a sensitive moment for the bipartisan House investigation, which has focused on whether the largest tech firms — Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple — are using their vast market power to suppress competition, ultimately harming consumers.

Lawmakers are looking into whether it’s necessary to rewrite the country’s century-old antitrust laws to better take on the digital marketplace, which is dominated by a handful of companies. 

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The Democrat helming the investigation, Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting House Democrat to introduce bill cracking down on ad targeting MORE (R.I.), the chairman of the panel's antitrust subcommittee, has repeatedly said he wants to hear publicly from executives, including Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers Twitter adds fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets despite Trump attacks Pelosi says Zuckerberg comments are a 'disgrace' MORE and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. But some Republicans have balked at the idea — including the Judiciary ranking member, Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsGOP women's group rolls out endorsements ahead of contested races Bossie, Lewandowski warned Trump he was in trouble in 2020: report The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP beset by convention drama MORE (R-Ga.), who previously said he doesn’t believe testimony from top executives is fruitful or necessary. 

But at the meeting on Wednesday, according to sources in the room, Collins told Navarro, “We’re on this. Anything you need.” 

“It’s important we address the sale of online counterfeits. I’d welcome any witnesses from companies who can help us do that,” Collins said in a statement to The Hill on Thursday. Collins, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill, in January announced he is running for the Senate in Georgia, but Trump has yet to offer an endorsement in the race, which has pitted Collins against sitting GOP senators.  

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Collins, under congressional rules, has to leave his position as the top Republican on the House Judiciary committee on March 12. He will be replaced by Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers House punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate MORE (R-Ohio), also a staunch Trump defender. 

That means Jordan is inheriting the months-long tech investigation, which kicked off last June, and will have to weigh in on whether he wants to invite and even subpoena prominent tech executives. 

During the meeting and in an interview with The Hill, Navarro emphasized that he is working under the president’s orders. He said Trump has “made it clear to me” that e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Chinese firm Alibaba “must be held accountable for the damage they are doing to consumers, workers, and even our national security.” 

But a Jordan aide demurred when asked whether the tough-talking Ohio Republican will support bringing in, and potentially subpoenaing, Bezos and other executives. The aide told The Hill that Jordan is taking an “open-minded and deliberative posture when it comes to these matters.” According to sources who were in the room, Jordan asked questions during the meeting with Navarro but did not seem to show his cards.

The meeting on Wednesday included Navarro, Collins, Cicilline, Jordan and the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee’s ranking member Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerLobbying world House Judiciary Committee calls on Bezos to testify as part of antitrust probe GOP, Democratic senators call for more assistance to local media in coronavirus stimulus MORE (R-Wis.). Sensenbrenner and Cicilline declined to comment. 

Since launching the Big Tech probe, the lawmakers in charge — House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Collins, Cicilline and Sensenbrenner — have emphasized they are working on a bipartisan basis.

But earlier this week, cracks started to show in that foundation when Collins and Sensenbrenner wrote a letter accusing Nadler of “jeopard[izing]” the subcommtitee’s investigation. They took issue with a video that showed Nadler saying at a public event on Sunday that U.S. leaders should “break … up all the large companies.” 

In a letter to Nadler on Monday, Collins and Sensenbrenner warned, “We want to be clear—we will not participate in an investigation with pre-conceived conclusions that America’s large tech companies are inherently bad, cannot be allowed to exist in society, and must be broken up.” 

“We are gravely concerned that your comments have jeopardized the Subcommittee’s and the Committee’s ability to perform bipartisan work through the Subcommittee’s investigation,” they wrote.  

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Collins raised concerns over Nadler's comments with Cicilline at the Wednesday meeting, sources in the room told The Hill. Nadler was not in attendance. 

According to one source, a seemingly aggravated Collins told Cicilline that Nadler’s comments were inappropriate and unhelpful to the investigation. Collins said the platforms "don’t need to get more ginned up" about the investigation, according to three sources. 

Cicilline reiterated that Democrats do not have any “predetermined judgements" about the companies, said one source.

“This has always been a very serious investigation that has enjoyed bipartisan support from the full committee,” Cicilline separately told The Hill on Wednesday. 

The tech investigation has long been seen as a bipartisan bright spot in a fiercely divided Congress. Behind the scenes, the Republican and Democratic staffers on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee worked side-by-side as they amassed millions of documents from tech companies, even as the full committee barreled through the hyperpartisan impeachment process. 

So far, the House antitrust investigators have not publicly decided whether they will subpoena Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon for any documents or executive testimony. From the outset, Republicans including Sensenbrenner and Collins have emphasized that they have not committed to any subpoenas or foregone conclusions about the power of Big Tech. 

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Only one Republican involved in the investigation has said publicly that he would support subpoenas: Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzTrump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections Trump to order review of law protecting social media firms after Twitter spat: report On The Money: US tops 100,000 coronavirus deaths with no end in sight | How lawmaker ties helped shape Fed chairman's COVID-19 response | Tenants fear mass evictions MORE (Fla.), a wildcard Republican who often allies himself with Trump. 

Gaetz told The Hill that he believes the committee should “subpoena the executives and ask tough questions.” 

“I have conveyed to Mr. Jordan that I believe that Mr. Cicilline has acted in good faith and in a bipartisan way,” Gaetz told The Hill. “Mr. Cicilline’s investigation has been bipartisan, he has done everything to include the members of the subcommittee in the work that he’s doing, and I intend to continue to work to make that bipartisan in an enduring way with legislation.” 

Lawmakers on the committee are still nursing their wounds after the bruising impeachment battle, Gaetz said. Nadler and Cicilline were two of the top Democrats leading the charge, with Cicilline running the Democrats’ impeachment messaging arm, while Gaetz, Collins and Jordan were vocal Trump defenders.  

“I think honestly after impeachment, it’s reasonable for members of the Judiciary Committee, particularly in the minority, to look at all actions in the majority with some skepticism,” Gaetz said, noting, “I want to be a part of the neosporin in this process.”    

The tech antitrust investigation is set to conclude by the end of March, culminating with a final report about the committee's findings. The key lawmakers could potentially unveil legislation that would overhaul the country’s antitrust laws to effectively rein in dominant tech companies. 

The Republicans have left open the possibility that they will break with the bipartisan investigation if they don’t agree with Democrats’ tactics and decisions in the coming weeks. It’s unclear how Navarro’s input will shift the political dynamics at play. 

"My message to the people in the room, and it was loud and clear, is that this is an issue that transcends political party,” Navarro said.