Conservatives Urge Trump to ‘Terminate’ FTC’s Qualcomm Complaint

A coalition of conservative leaders and groups are furious over what they call the Federal Trade Commission’s “midnight complaint “against smartphone chip manufacturer Qualcomm Inc., and they are pushing President Donald Trump to do something about it.

A letter sent to the White House on Thursday by several conservative groups and individuals — including Americans for Tax Reform and the American Conservative Union — asks that President Trump take “immediate steps to terminate” the antitrust complaint.

Thursday’s letter says Trump could address the Qualcomm complaint by appointing Republican commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen as permanent chair of the FTC. The president named Ohlhausen acting chair on Wednesday. The conservative groups said that’s a good start, but they suggested the move was insufficient.

Katie McAuliffe, the executive director at Digital Liberty and one of the signatories of the letter, told Morning Consult Thursday that because the FTC is an independent agency, the Trump administration isn’t able to take any special action to reverse the FTC complaint outside of nominating new commissioners.

She said the letter is meant to push the White House to quickly appoint a second Republican commissioner to serve on the FTC after Democrat Edith Ramirez resigns on Feb. 10.

Even then, McAuliffe said a Republican-led FTC would have to go through a relatively complex process to withdraw the Qualcomm complaint. “It’s not as easy as saying, ‘I changed my mind.’”

Jim Edwards, the co-director of the Inventors’ Project and another signatory on the letter, told Morning Consult that he hopes the letter pushes other administration officials, including those at the Commerce Department, to exert pressure on the FTC to withdraw the complaint.

In a 2-1 decision, the FTC filed the charges against Qualcomm in a federal district court three days before Trump took office. The complaint accuses Qualcomm of violating federal antitrust law by using its dominant market position to extract onerous supply and licensing terms from cell phone manufacturers and its competitors. It also says that Qualcomm extracted exclusivity from Apple Inc., its largest partner, in exchange for reduced patent royalties.

Apple has filed two lawsuits against Qualcomm alleging similar complaints, one in U.S. federal court and another in China. 

Ohlhausen dissented from the FTC’s decision to press charges against Qualcomm. As the agency’s sole Republican commissioner, she argued that the enforcement action was based on flawed legal theory that lacks evidentiary support and would undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and elsewhere.

Thursday’s letter zeros in on that last point, arguing that the FTC’s action could serve as a precedent to justify antitrust charges brought by Asian countries against the patent rights of U.S. companies. The letter describes her dissent as “a contra-distinction to the politically motivated actions taken by the outgoing FTC that harm U.S. companies relative to Asian competitors.”