WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican antitrust veteran has been named on Monday to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's transition team for the Justice Department, a choice that lawyers say signals a more hands-off approach to antitrust enforcement compared to Democratic President Barack Obama.
David Higbee, a partner at the law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, worked for President George W. Bush's administration from 2001 to 2005, spending the last year in the Antitrust Division. Since then he has advised clients on merger reviews, antitrust litigation and government investigations.
Higbee joins Joshua Wright, an economist and former commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, as the only two people on Trump's transition team with a background in antitrust.
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The Obama administration has challenged an unusually large number of mergers in the last few years, leading to the collapse of Halliburton Co's plan to buy Baker Hughes Inc, among others. Currently, the Justice Department is suing Anthem Inc to prevent it from buying Cigna Corp and Aetna Inc to stop its purchase of Humana Inc.
While Trump, who campaigned as a populist, has talked tough on media mergers such as AT&T Inc buying Time Warner Inc, and singled out Amazon.com Inc for antitrust scrutiny, Higbee's naming heralds a return to a traditional Republican view of merger enforcement, lawyers said.
"Higbee will have that sensible caution," said Bruce McDonald, another veteran of the Bush administration now at the law firm Jones Day. "He will be more confident in business and markets and less confident that government can identify and fix problems."
An antitrust division designed by Higbee would be tough on price-fixing and mergers of competitors but would be cautious in challenging deals where companies buy suppliers or incidents where companies are accused of breaking antitrust law to run competitors out of business, McDonald said.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)