Trump’s pick for FTC chief: a Washington insider who has represented many tech firms

There have been months of speculation over who might lead the FTC and its efforts to regulate perceived monopolies and unfair business practices.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
The Washington Post

President Trump intends to nominate Joseph Simons, a longtime expert in competition law, to head the Federal Trade Commission, America’s top privacy and consumer protection agency, the White House said Thursday.

The announcement ends months of speculation over who might lead the FTC and its efforts to regulate perceived monopolies and unfair business practices, at a time when many policymakers have raised questions about the growing consolidation of industries, including retail and media.

One industry that may be breathing a sigh of relief: Silicon Valley.

Simons serves as a co-chair of the antitrust practice at the law firm Paul Weiss. His previous clients include many tech or tech-related firms, such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Sharp and Sony. He has also represented companies in the defense, music, software, telecom and transportation industries.

His selection by Trump is notable in who Simons is not: Earlier this year, Utah Atty. Gen. Sean Reyes was widely rumored to be Trump’s favored candidate for the FTC job. Reyes, who would have been a relative newcomer to Washington, had called for reopening a federal antitrust probe into Google over the company’s practices in the online search business. Many policy analysts took that to imply Trump wanted the FTC to take a harder line toward Silicon Valley.


Trump’s move to nominate someone else instead suggests a shift away from that approach.

A more establishment candidate with decades of experience, Simons served under President George W. Bush as the director of the FTC’s competition bureau. The White House’s decision to side with a Washington-insider type for FTC chair is consistent with Trump’s appointment of another longtime expert to head antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department, Makan Delrahim. Delrahim is said to be a straight shooter unlikely to be swayed by Trump’s public rhetoric on such issues as the AT&T-Time Warner acquisition.

Similarly, by siding with Simons over Reyes, the White House appears to be prioritizing the mainstream over the unconventional.

Some policy analysts said Simons’ first task should be to clarify how the FTC communicates its expectations to businesses involved in the sprawling world of data security. Currently, said Berin Szoka, president of the think tank TechFreedom, the agency simply provides nonbinding guidance reports and, in some cases, uses settlements reached with companies that it sues as a way to nudge industries toward a vague approximation of a standard.

“The resulting arbitrary enforcement is unfair to businesses and potentially fatal to tech start-ups,” Szoka said. “Even worse, it also makes consumers worse off, since companies don’t know how to comply with the law.”

Also on Thursday, the White House said Trump would nominate Rohit Chopra, a former top official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to fill a Democratic slot at the FTC. Chopra is known as a tough fighter who took on the private student loan industry and is close with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“The thing to know about Joe and Rohit is that they both play well with others, and that’ll be good for the commission executing its mission,” said Jon Leibowitz, a former FTC chair who is now a partner at the law firm Davis Polk.

Chopra and Simons — should they be confirmed by the Senate — would flesh out a short-handed agency that is currently led by Acting Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen, who is a Republican commissioner, and by Democratic Commissioner Terrell McSweeny. One additional Republican seat remains for Trump to fill; policy analysts say Noah Phillips, a legal aide to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is a leading contender for the role.