In what may qualify as the strangest development in the history of federal regulation, the Trump administration last week launched a probe against four automobile makers, alleging that in striking an agreement with California to meet tougher state emissions standards than the federal government wants, they may be violating antitrust laws.
That’s right: The U.S. government is going after an industry for being too environmentally responsible.
The backstory should sound familiar: Former President Barack Obama pushed for tougher auto emissions standards. So of course President Donald Trump felt compelled to demonstrate just how destructive he could be toward Obama’s legacy and, more relevantly, toward the environment. As always on environmental issues, Trump’s approach is less policy than vandalism.
Obama pushed for cars to reach an average efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 to cut emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Trump’s administration, hostile as always to responsible attempts to alleviate climate change while it kowtows to business, is dialing back that goal to 37 miles per gallon, essentially inviting automakers to pollute more.
But Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW, cognizant of growing national concern over global warming — and, perhaps, the shifting sand that is Trump’s policy-making — declined his gift. Instead, they cut a deal with California Gov. Gavin Newsom to meet standards slightly lower than what Obama sought, but well above what Trump offers. (Due to the size of California’s automobile-sales market, its state standards effectively offset national ones.)
Trump’s furious reaction on Twitter was both utterly irrational and utterly predictable, effectively accusing auto executives — of all people — of being too politically correct on the environment. Now he has dispatched his Justice Department to misuse federal law in one of the most cynical ways imaginable: by arguing that, in reaching an agreement to self-regulate cleaner cars, the automakers are violating antitrust standards put in place to prevent price-fixing and anti-competitive behavior.
Since the rise of the modern environmental movement, the relationship between federal regulators and automobile makers has been consistent: Regulators have generally sought to nudge automakers toward cleaner, more efficient cars, while automakers have pushed back for the sake of production efficiency and profit. Only in the erratic, upside-down political domain of Trump’s White House would these roles be reversed. Under Trump, on this as on so many other issues, the U.S. government now wears the black hat.
This whole episode should end any remaining doubts that Trump’s primary governing ethos is one of petulance, malice and pathetic insecurity, and is completely detached from any concern about what’s best for America, the environment or even for business. This is a malicious abuse of federal power, in service not to a pro-business policy but to Trump’s ego. The automakers should stand firm against it.