The use of law-enforcement agencies for blatantly political purposes should be anathema in a healthy democracy. But President Donald Trump doesn't agree, as evidenced by the announcement that the Justice Department has begun a baseless antitrust investigation of Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America.
Under federal law, an antitrust violation exists when companies work together in restraint of trade; a company attempts to monopolize an industry; or companies engage in unfair methods of competition, including using deceptive ads. Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW have done nothing of this sort. Their alleged misdeed: agreeing in July to follow California's standards on gas mileage targets – instead of the weaker rules sought by the Trump administration – because they want a clearer business climate and a cleaner environment.
Their voluntary, publicly disclosed agreement is hardly an illegally collusive act. Two months ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said automakers were free to pursue stronger mileage standards than those set by the feds. Margo Oge, a senior EPA official for 18 years under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, told The Washington Post that the Justice Department's insinuation of illegality "doesn't pass the laugh test."
The good news is it seems unlikely the courts will accept the definition of antitrust as anything the president doesn't like. The bad news is even their rejection won't likely stop the 45th president from further attempts to deform and deface democracy.