"Extremely vigorous": Biden takes on monopolies like Ticketmaster "far more" aggressively than Trump

“Antitrust enforcement during the Biden administration has been extremely vigorous," one policy expert told Salon

Published June 13, 2024 10:28AM (EDT)

Joe Biden vs Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden vs Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Seeking to support embattled American consumers and workers against concentrated corporate power, President Joe Biden's administration has taken a record number of antitrust actions to prevent a few large companies from dominating their respective markets. That stands in stark contrast to his 2024 opponent, former President Donald Trump, who has sought to portray himself as an advocate for regular people but who, in office, used anti-monopoly rhetoric as cover for personal and political vendettas while letting favored corporations off the hook.

In May, Biden’s Department of Justice sued Live Nation, the high-on-the-hog group behind Ticketmaster and its allegedly deceptive sales practices, accusing the company of relying on "unlawful, anticompetitive conduct to exercise its monopolistic control over the live events industry." The move by the Biden administration is one of the latest in an unprecedented string of federal lawsuits against companies, blocking of mergers and opening of antitrust probes, all spearheaded by Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and DOJ's antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter.

This enforcement of antitrust policy, framed by a set of guidelines released in late 2023, is not just a matter of abstract economics or defying the rich and powerful on principle — it affects the livelihoods of average Americans by protecting them from companies that have means and incentive to maximize profit at consumers' expense.

Trump, despite his rhetorical attacks on "elites," seems to operate on a different set of principles, which in office often boiled down to taking revenge against companies that he perceived to have wronged him, such as CNN. The Trump administration also used the guise of enforcing antitrust laws to go after car makers who agreed to California's strict emission standards; this was paired with a permissive attitude towards companies Trump favored and half measures that appeared designed to build trust-busting credibility without having meaningful impact.

Taking on Corporate Consolidation

Consider Ticketmaster: The Trump administration administration settled with the company after it violated the agreement made when it merged with Live Nation, seeking to prevent the company from using its power to retaliate against venues that don't use its services, but did little to address its alleged price gouging. Unlike Biden’s regulators, Trump's declined to press further action even after Ticketmaster acquired Rival, a competitor, further consolidating its grip on live entertainment.

“Antitrust enforcement during the Biden administration has been extremely vigorous, far more than the Trump administration"

“Antitrust enforcement during the Biden administration has been extremely vigorous, far more than the Trump administration,” Steven Salop, a professor of economics and law at the Georgetown University Law Center, told Salon.

In the case of Ticketmaster, which swallowed up seven competitors between 1985 and 1991 and now controls paid concert access across the country, concertgoers have been forced by lack of alternatives to purchase tickets online and accept opaque, hidden fees that could double the price of the ticket. Although Live Nation acquired Ticketmaster 14 years ago, its disastrous handling of a Taylor Swift concert in 2022 drew fresh scrutiny that eventually provided an opening for the DOJ lawsuit. If the company is found guilty of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Live Nation will be forced to restructure or split into two or more companies.

It's not just concertgoers who find themselves at the mercy of monopolistic leverage.

The consolidation of food production and grocery retailers after the loosening of antitrust laws in the 1970s has been identified as a prime culprit behind rising costs at the supermarket, with top firms having the power to set unfair prices and manipulate the market in their favor. During the pandemic, food companies exploited supply-chain disruptions and claimed higher production expenses to further hike prices. Such claims didn't seem to account for record corporate profits in the last few years, with companies like Tyson Foods, JBS, and Marfrig all reporting net profit margins of over 300% in 2021.

Tyson essentially admitted as much, bragging to investors that their "pricing actions ... more than offset the higher [cost of goods]."

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The concentration of power in the hands of a few large companies also threatens the ability of workers to negotiate adequate wages and safe working conditions.

In 2022, Kroger and Albertsons allegedly used the collusion playbook favored across different industries to weaken Colorado workers' bargaining position by agreeing not to poach each others' strikers during a work stoppage. Their merger would preclude the need to cut a deal, and enable one dominant player to threaten and dictate terms to workers without fear of competition.

At the peak of the inflation crisis in late 2021, the FTC under Biden launched an investigation into top food companies, requesting that they hand over documents that might shed light on "empty shelves and sky-high prices." The report came out in March 2024, concluding that major firms "accelerated and distorted the negative effects associated with supply chain disruptions," which, rather than hurting them, helps "entrench their dominance" in the market.

A month before the report's release, the FTC sued to block Kroger's $24.6 billion acquisition of Albertsons in what could be the largest supermarket merger in American history, which could "lead to lower quality products and services, while also narrowing consumers' choices for where to shop for groceries," according to a commission press release.

Biden's trust-busting

In the last three years, the Biden administration has also grounded a JetBlue-Spirit Airlines merger, sued Amazon for exploiting customers with shady business practices, scotched an attempt by biotechnology giant Illumina to reacquire a cancer screening company, and opened investigations into Nvidia, Microsoft and OpenAI’s dominance over the AI industry. These and other enforcement actions have added up to the most prolific record of any presidential term.

It's had an impact. Unnerved by the prospect of litigation, companies such as Amazon, Lockheed Martin and Berkshire Hathaway backed off from plans to acquire smaller firms. The Biden administration's relentless approach has won applause from a range of consumer advocates, and criticism from the likes of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which has accused the administration of punishing successful companies and trying to "weaponize" antitrust policy in order to exert more control over the economy.

Corporations had a preview of the upcoming assault in 2021, when Biden announced the nomination of law professor Lina Khan to lead the FTC, an unusually high-profile appointment for that body. Khan had already earned fame in 2017, when the then-law student published "Amazon's Antitrust Paradox" in the Yale Law Review, arguing that American antitrust legal doctrine, with its focus on measuring competition through price and output alone, fails to account for anticompetitive behavior by platform-based business models.

Indeed, while Trump’s regulators focused on the narrow “consumer welfare standard” as the basis for enforcement actions, Biden’s regulators have expanded their interpretation of antitrust law to include harms to workers and producers.

In October 2022, the DOJ successfully blocked a merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, arguing that reducing the number of major U.S. publishers from five to four would harm writers. The FTC is using the same tack in its lawsuit against Kroger, whose acquisition of Albertsons would, it says, give them “leverage to impose subpar terms on union grocery workers.” 

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While Khan is under no obligation to answer to the Heritage Foundation, she has appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, where Republicans have charged her with overseeing a hyper-aggressive, politicized enforcement against the country's biggest companies. They have also claimed she "harassing" Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Tesla and X, by trying to obtain the company's internal records as part of a probe into its security and privacy policies. Khan noted that the FTC had been investigating X, formerly Twitter, even before Musk took over.

In April, the GOP-led House Oversight Committee also launched an investigation into White House-led efforts to tackle unfair corporate pricing, calling it a "political tool." But Republican criticism has focused on the purported, broader economic motives of the Biden administration, generally steering clear of any specific examples.

Trump's "cruel parody" of antitrust action

Despite a less effective record, Trump's administration did pursue more antitrust actions than his immediate predecessors, capping it off with 28 merger enforcement actions in 2020, the most in a single year since 2000. Those lawsuits had mixed success: While the DOJ lost both merger trials initiated during the Trump years, it gained the advantage in an arbitrated case against Novelis, which tried to acquire its aluminum-producing brethren Aleris, forcing the company to divest the latter’s sheet operations in North America as a condition for the merger.

Though Trump concurred with antitrust advocates that "Big Tech" was concentrating too much power in the hands of a few companies, he was less concerned with economic injustice than his stated belief that they were using their dominance to "censor" conservative viewpoints (studies have shown the opposite to be true).

In general, critics who support antitrust enforcement in principle  but not the practice of selective enforcement have accused the Trump administration of using antitrust law to pursue personal and political grudges. They point to his administration unsuccessfully attempting to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, with which Trump has maintained a long-running feud.

"AT&T ... is now trying to buy Time Warner and thus the wildly anti-Trump CNN," said a press release from Trump's 2016 campaign. "Donald Trump would never approve such a deal because it concentrates too much power in the hands of the too and powerful few."

Once he became president, Trump prodded officials to follow through with DOJ action against the merger dozens of times as punishment for CNN's unsatisfactory coverage. Concurrently, he waved through Disney's purchase of 21st Century Fox, a deal that represented a massive consolidation in the media market. Unlike the AT&T and Time Warner, 21st Century Fox is owned by right-wing media baron, Rupert Murdoch, who walked away from the sale billions of dollars richer. Trump later congratulated Murdoch on his success.

Sprint and T-Mobile also benefited from Trump's DOJ, which not only approved of a merger between the two companies that reduced the number of major cell phone providers from four to three, but also fended off an antitrust suit brought by a group of states. Most of Sprint's shares are owned by SoftBank, whose chairman, Masayoshi Son, enjoys friendly relations with Trump.

Other companies were not been treated so generously.

In 2019, the DOJ opened a probe into Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, and Honda for signing an agreement with California to raise fuel emissions standards higher than those proposed by the Trump administration, accusing them of scheming to limit competition. The investigation, which The New York Times editorial board called a "cruel parody of antitrust enforcement,” came shortly after Trump posted furious tweets at the car producers for leaving his own standards in the dust. In 2020, a DOJ whistleblower testified that Bill Barr, Trump's attorney general, targeted cannabis suppliers on a rationale "centered not on antitrust analysis, but because he did not like the nature of their underlying business."

While Biden prepares to take on Trump in the 2024 election, his antitrust chiefs are preparing their most intense round of lawsuits and investigations yet, hoping to finish as much as possible before the clock runs out on their boss' first term. Trump, hoping to win a second stint in office, is telling oil executives that he will fast-track their merger deals in exchange for their support. It's true to form for the Republican nominee — antitrust enforcement, or the lack thereof, is politics by other means.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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