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The Biden Official With MAGA Admirers

Lina Khan’s chairmanship of the Federal Trade Commission is getting a lot of love from progressives — and Matt Gaetz.

Lina Khan
Lina Khan, the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, has garnered fans among some of Capitol Hill’s most right-wing Republicans. Graeme Jennings/AP

There’s very little the Biden administration does that receives Republicans’ praise — especially on the economy. Then there’s Lina Khan.

The chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission has garnered fans among some of Capitol Hill’s most right-wing and Donald Trump-loving Republicans.

“I hope her work continues in the Trump administration,” Rep. Matt Gaetz told NOTUS. “Her work against data brokers has been very important. Her work against some of the consolidated market power that hurts consumers has really inspired me.”

Under Khan, the FTC has emerged as an aggressive enforcer of antitrust and privacy law — a new approach that has garnered criticism that the agency is overstepping its bounds from both inside and outside the agency.

But where Khan’s detractors see overreach and an FTC unnecessarily antagonistic toward corporations, a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill see a chairwoman willing to take on an entrenched force in American society: big technology companies that have accumulated both tremendous market power and huge reservoirs of personal data.“I probably am one of the few Republicans who thinks Lina Khan is doing a good job,” Sen. J.D. Vance said. “I think she has some justifiable concerns about corporate concentration.”

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party cheered Khan’s appointment, having long called for reining in big technology companies’ power. Khan has also gone out of her way to court conservatives and speak to right-leaning audiences. In addition to an appearance with Gaetz on Newsmax, she had a fireside chat with the conservative legal organization, the Federalist Society. Her worldview and agenda at the FTC have made for some strange bedfellows in Washington.

“She’s terrific,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren told NOTUS. “There are people scattered among all different political persuasions who understand that in order to have competitive markets, we need a cop on the beat.”

In earshot of Warren’s comments, hard-line conservative Sen. Mike Braun joined in on the praise. “I’m interested in having all markets competitive and transparent, and you’re not a free enterpriser if you don’t believe in that,” Braun said.

“That’s right,” Warren responded.

“She’s willing to take on some of those industries that look like nobody can take them on and make them more competitive,” Braun added, dismissing recent criticism that she’s wasting FTC funds on losing cases. “If you don’t make the effort, you’re promoting oligopolies and monopolies.”

The FTC is an independent agency, but in appointing Khan, President Joe Biden made clear that he wanted to set a new direction in U.S. competition policy: an ideological shift away from the Nixon-era view of antitrust law’s purpose as simply lowering prices for consumers, and toward the goal of breaking up corporate power. The FTC shares antitrust responsibilities with the Justice Department, where Biden has also put another aggressive antitrust enforcer in place, Jonathan Kanter.

Khan, who rose to fame as a law student with a high-profile legal paper on Amazon as a reflection of the United States’ broken antitrust policy, has set a different tone than past chairs. She held the commission’s inaugural meeting in public and has advanced an agenda that has resulted in more party-line votes in the committee. Khan led the FTC’s far-reaching lawsuit against Amazon for monopoly control alongside 17 state attorneys and has taken on Meta, Microsoft and Albertsons with merger challenges.

“A lot of the anti-monopoly arguments — a lot of conservatives believe in them because they see monopolies as government-like institutions, and they want to address them,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project and a former Democratic Hill staffer. “There is a lot of alignment in what Khan is trying to do. Having a basic populist agenda — that’s what Khan is doing,” said Stoller, who worked with Khan at the Open Markets Institute before she went to law school.

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Traditional business-friendly lobbying groups and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have emerged as vocal detractors of Khan’s leadership. That wing of the conservative movement still has influence in Congress.

Khan’s critics have complained that the agency is pursuing losing cases based on fringe legal theories that the courts are rejecting. For example, last July, a judge ruled against the commission’s suit seeking to block Microsoft’s acquisition of video game maker Activision Blizzard, writing that the FTC did not show that the sale would “substantially lessen competition.”Critics have also pointed to sinking morale ratings in surveys of federal employee satisfaction, according to a recent House Judiciary Committee report. “She’s been terrible,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Jim Jordan.

Sen. Ted Cruz sent Khan a letter last summer criticizing her management style, citing his experience as director of policy planning under George W. Bush — an era he called “tremendously effective.” He said his thoughts on Khan haven’t changed since last year, even as other Republican allies in the Senate admire her.

“I’m deeply troubled by the job Lina Khan is doing. She has been extreme and radical. The FTC enjoyed, for decades, a bipartisan tradition of fairly enforcing the law, focusing on protecting competition and consumer protection.” Cruz told NOTUS last week.

But fellow hard-line Republican Sen. Josh Hawley disagrees with this rosy characterization of prior FTC chairs. Like Braun, he was one of 13 Senate Republicans who joined Democrats to vote for her confirmation as FTC chair. “I’ve had major issues with the FTC not actually doing anything on antitrust,” Hawley said, whereas, under Khan’s leadership, “I like the focus on antitrust. I mean, I like the renewed vigor.” He called her leadership a “mixed bag,” adding that “there’s been a lot of infighting, and it’s also been more political than I would like.”Gaetz defended the FTC’s recent losses in the courts. “She’s making breakthroughs, and sometimes you gotta lose a few of these cases to make good law. I know that as a lawyer, and there’s going to be doctrine established through the appeals and through the jurisprudence that wouldn’t even be undertaken but for Chair Khan,” Gaetz said.

Khan and Gaetz worked together on the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee five years ago, and he’s praised her work at the agency from his perch in Congress. Last summer, when he interviewed her on the air during a stint as a guest host on Newsmax, Gaetz said, “She has brought litigation against big business more aggressively than any person to hold her position in a generation.”

“A lot of these people that go work in government positions that interface with big business, they want to create the virus for the sole reason of selling the antidote when they get out,” Gaetz told NOTUS. “She’s not; she’s actually doing good work.”

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. Byron Tau is a reporter at NOTUS. John T. Seward, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed to this report.