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Documents Show Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice Influence Over U.S. Trade Policy

FOIA requests submitted to the Biden Administration reveal that competition agencies unduly influenced USTR trade negotiations, among other findings.

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One FOIA request remains unanswered, but we expect to receive FOIA production related to this outstanding request soon. Image courtesy of US Chamber of Commerce
One FOIA request remains unanswered, but we expect to receive FOIA production related to this outstanding request soon. Image courtesy of US Chamber of Commerce
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US Chamber of Commerce

On December 11, 2023, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a series of FOIA requests to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). We have been seeking to understand the factors that may have influenced the precedent-breaking decisions made by USTR regarding its sudden withdrawal of support for strong digital trade rules in the WTO, which were based on language in existing U.S. trade agreements. The move also affected the U.S.’s position in digital trade negotiations in the Indo-Pacific Economic Partnership (IPEF).

In January, USTR responded to two of the FOIA requests by producing its visitor logs for the time requested, as well as USTR communications with outside groups Rethink Trade, Open Markets Institute, and Public Citizen. 

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A summary of USTR’s responses and the related documents can be found here.  

In April, USTR finally responded to two of the remaining FOIA requests, in which the U.S. Chamber requested “all records related to the dates of communications between United States Trade Representative or her staff with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ),” from January 1, 2023, to present. The responses are available on this page.

One FOIA request remains unanswered, but we expect to receive FOIA production related to this outstanding request soon.

What We Found

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USTR collected 112 pages of communications responsive to the Chamber’s request, of which 66 heavily redacted pages were released. The other pages have been entirely withheld. From what can be seen, the communications cover a range of issues, including event and meeting planning, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) negotiating text, communications strategy, digital trade, and competition policy. There are two major items of note:

FTC and DOJ Influence Over Trade Policy: Even though roughly half of the Chamber’s requested correspondence has been withheld by USTR and those communications that were released have been heavily redacted, the email traffic between the agencies confirms the influence FTC and DOJ had over USTR negotiating positions in the IPEF’s trade pillar.  

Getting on the Same Page: In an email from the USTR Chief of Staff to the Chief of Staff at the Department of Justice Antitrust Division on April 17, 2023, there is a discussion of how to respond to a letter transmitted the same day from the U.S. Chamber to the National Security Council and National Economic Council demanding greater oversight of the FTC and DOJ. The exchange between USTR and DOJ suggests the two agencies were not on the same page as the National Security Council. The email stated: “But with NSC Comms also involved we may have this whole fight in miniature, I don’t know.” 

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