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Is the FTC harassing Elon Musk? Jim Jordan takes on Lina Khan

This was Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-Oh.) big chance to expose Lina Khan, the Democratic chair of the Federal Trade Commission, as a partisan hack whose “obsession” with Twitter and Elon Musk has driven her to flout norms and ethics as part of a “targeted harassment” campaign against the tech billionaire.

Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, had summoned Khan for a hearing whose stated purpose was to examine her “mismanagement,’ “disregard for ethics,” and “politicized rulemakings.” And now here they were, face to face.

“Madam Chair, why are you harassing Twitter?” Jordan asked Khan.

But as Jordan and a handful of like-minded Republicans grilled President Biden’s would-be trustbuster on Thursday, it seemed to many in the room — including one or two from his own party — that they were the ones doing the harassing. That they were the ones with the Musk obsession. That Jordan was the one wielding his power to settle petty political scores at taxpayers’ expense.

“If we’re going to throw rocks,” Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) said, “let’s make sure we’re not in a glass house.”

Khan, who made her name advocating for greater antitrust scrutiny of tech firms like Amazon, was approved as an FTC commissioner in June 2021 with bipartisan support. But she has since become a lightning rod for criticism from swaths of the right, who have made her a poster child for what they see as the Biden administration’s regulatory overreach. Meanwhile, her agency’s attempts to block high-profile mergers, like Microsoft’s $69 billion deal to acquire gaming giant Activision, have stumbled in the courts.

But Jordan didn’t call her before his committee to talk about antitrust policy. He wanted to talk about her shortcomings as a leader, her alleged ethical lapses, and most of all her agency’s dealings with Musk, who has become a hero to many on the right since acquiring Twitter last year. Musk has rolled back the social network’s efforts to moderate hate speech and falsehoods, backed Republican Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid, and invited bloggers to review internal Twitter documents from prior to his tenure for evidence of anti-conservative bias.

When Jordan asked why Khan was “harassing” Twitter, she began to explain that the FTC’s scrutiny of Twitter’s privacy and security practices goes back a decade, long predating Musk’s ownership of the company or her tenure as FTC chair. Jordan quickly cut her off — and continued to cut off her answers to each successive question he asked, returning each time to the topic of Musk.

He then pivoted to interrogating her about accusations of FTC bias against Twitter that were drawn from a court document that Musk’s Twitter had filed just hours before the hearing began. Khan had yet to read it and said she could not comment on it until she had done so, leaving Jordan to take quotes from it out of context without rebuttal.

Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) called it a “pretty lucky coincidence” that the evidence supporting the Republicans’ accusations was released in “such a timely manner.”

Democrats were similarly unimpressed by Republicans’ accusations of ethical lapses on Khan’s part.

Jordan and Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wy.) pressed Khan as to why she didn’t recuse herself from a case involving Facebook parent company Meta. Bloomberg first reported last month that an FTC ethics official had suggested Khan recuse herself to “avoid an appearance of partiality,’ though the commission’s Democratic majority approved her participation. The issue? Khan’s public stances on Meta and antitrust policy from prior to her appointment — which were presumably part of the reason she was appointed.

Khan made clear in the hearing that she had no personal stake in Meta or other companies she regulated. In fact, as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) pointed out Thursday, it later came to light that the ethics official who recommended Khan’s recusal owned Meta stock herself. (The FTC has defended the official’s conduct.)

Hageman also criticized Khan for taking the title of “counsel” on a House committee for a brief period before she had been admitted to the New York bar — and then of letting her bar membership lapse while serving as FTC chair.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) accused committee Republicans of “amazing hypocrisy,’ comparing the Khan hearing to their controversial questioning of FBI director Christopher Wray on Wednesday.

“You don’t ask about membership in a bar association on a judiciary committee where there are members who never passed the bar and aren’t members of the bar,” Cohen said. (Jordan graduated from law school but has acknowledged he never took the bar.)

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Co.), who has backed legislation toughening antitrust rules for tech giants, was a rare Republican who broke with Jordan’s line of questioning, criticizing Congress inability to pass legislation restricting its own members’ conflicts of interest while calling on Khan to testify “because you wrote a law review article.’

Some Republicans criticized Khan over more substantive issues of antitrust policy and consumer protection.

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a former litigator, probed Khan about the scope of the FTC’s authority to regulate consumer privacy. Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Ca.) criticized the efficacy of Khan’s strategy in light of the FTC’s losing record in major merger cases. “Are you losing on purpose?” he asked.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) criticized the FTC’s attempt to block the Microsoft-Activision Blizzard merger, lamenting that some in Washington ‘want to beat on anyone that has a trillion-dollar market cap.”

Democrats remained supportive. They praised her agencies’ efforts to take on credit card fees, robocall scams, tax preparation services and prescription drug prices, in some cases asking how legislators could help.

Ivey’s remark about throwing rocks in a glass house came in response to Republican claims that Khan’s FTC had burdened Twitter with overly broad requests for information. Ivey noted that the committee itself was sending out similarly onerous requests to private companies — “depending on whether they’re on the good side of the Republicans or not.”

“I think we should be very careful in making sure we’re using the power of the committee and the House of Representatives in an appropriate way,” Ivey said. “Just like they’re asking the FTC to do.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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