Much of the media coverage surrounding President Trump's meetings with tech industry executives this week has focused on the companies in the room — Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and so on. But separate meetings organized around the same event have also included a smattering of government officials, including on Thursday the head of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai.
On one level, Pai's attendance makes sense: The day's meetings focused on the future of wireless technology, an area where the FCC has a lot of expertise and jurisdiction. On another level, though, Pai's presence was unusual: As the head of an agency that's supposed to keep its distance from the White House, Pai has shown no qualms about appearing on the same agenda with President Trump. And that is now raising questions among some about his overall independence from the Trump administration.
"It is a White House function in which he should not have taken part," said John Simpson, an advocate at Consumer Watchdog. “They should be going the extra mile to be independent from the White House. It is incumbent upon the chairman and the commissioners not only to act independently, but to avoid any appearance of conflict.”
In response to questions on the matter, Pai told reporters Thursday that he has always said the FCC is an independent agency. He then added: “There are ways we can collaborate with others to make sure we are all steering in the right direction. … To me, we are all sailors with oars in the same boat."
The FCC's independence from the executive, if you're unfamiliar, is another one of those norms that's supposed to keep Washington honest. It's observed by many of the agencies that aren't part of the president's Cabinet, a category that covers not just the FCC but also the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and others. Like other checks and balances, the principle of agency independence is meant to ensure that no president can exert undue influence over decisions that could have broad ramifications for certain interests or industries.
Pai wasn't in the same room with Trump on Thursday. But on two earlier occasions since the beginning of the year, Pai shared a room with Trump. Once was in Trump Tower before the president's inauguration and another was in a closed-door meeting in March, just days before Trump officially nominated Pai to take the helm as FCC chair.
There's little evidence to suggest anything out of the ordinary transpired in those early meetings. And prior FCC chairs have also shared close relationships with the leader of the free world. But that hasn't stopped some groups from filing Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on Trump's discussions with Pai, particularly after Trump showed an unusual level of interest during the campaign in issues potentially falling within the FCC's portfolio. For example, Trump has criticized AT&T's bid to acquire Time Warner. (For transparency purposes, it is customary for lobbyists and interest groups to file public documents disclosing what they discuss in meetings with FCC commissioners if they involve matters before the agency.)
“I don't think attending a White House meeting erodes one's independence,” said one former FCC official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss agency protocol. “It's what is said that could lead to an erosion of independence. If the administration or Trump or whatever president is saying to Pai, you need to do X, Y and Z, that would be troublesome. If Trump is [telling CEOs] that this is our strategy and you can assume the FCC will be doing this … that indeed would be more troublesome."
It is unclear — but not likely — that any issues facing the FCC came up at Thursday's White House meeting; experts on both sides of the political spectrum have described Pai as an experienced professional with a strong grasp on administrative procedure. What's more, Trump doesn't much need to telegraph to the industry what Pai will do; in public statements, the commission chairman has already made clear that he is an opponent of regulation and signaled that he is looking to streamline the FCC's role in government. That's largely consistent with Trump's own stated views.
An FCC spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, given Trump's inexperience in government, his penchant for speaking off the cuff and his explicit desire to favor some industries over others, some consumer advocates are wary of giving the White House the benefit of the doubt.
"I do not have a problem with the FCC chairman working with the executive branch on overall strategy. Indeed, it is essential that they coordinate their activities," said Andrew Schwartzman, a public interest lawyer at Georgetown University. But, he said, it is important that any discussion Trump has with Pai on FCC issues be documented. "I struggle to accept his assurances that there was no discussion going to the merits of any pending matters."
As an FCC commissioner, Pai himself slammed his predecessor for hewing too closely to the Obama administration. In 2014, Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was widely criticized for appearing to change course — because of alleged presidential pressure — on a proposal to implement new rules for Internet providers. President Barack Obama had called on the FCC to apply strong net neutrality regulations on ISPs, despite Wheeler's consideration of lighter rules just months before. Ultimately, his FCC passed the stronger version.
Wheeler — who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment — has always insisted that he came around to the idea of strong net neutrality regulations on his own. But conservatives complained that Wheeler had given in to Obama.
“The FCC succumbed to White House pressure and forfeited its independence by agreeing to apply Depression-era rules to the Internet,” Pai said in a statement in 2016. Under Pai's leadership the FCC is proposing to repeal the net neutrality rules.
Now that he is chairman, some consumer advocates say, Pai risks undermining the same norm that he accused Wheeler of violating.
“A lot of [Internet Service Providers], their paid pundits, Republican operatives, and sitting members of Congress spent a ton of time and taxpayer money trying to unearth evidence of improper coordination between Obama and Wheeler,” said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press. “So is this yet another curious case of Congress and corporate America looking the other way, when the Trump administration brags about doing something for which they tried to prosecute the previous administration? How remarkable.”
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications, Internet access and the shifting media economy. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.