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Trump Pushes Nominee Who Backs Crackdown on Social Media

Rebecca Kern, Todd Shields and Jonathan Reid
·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump urged the Senate to confirm Nathan Simington as a member of the Federal Communications Commission, where he could supply a vote needed to advance the president’s efforts to rein in social media companies.

Simington has drawn opposition from Democrats critical of Trump’s emerging social media policy, and luke-warm support from some Republicans, casting doubt he could be confirmed during the shortened legislative session before President-Elect Joe Biden takes office.

Trump in a tweet before Simington’s confirmation hearing Tuesday called for “action NOW on this very important nomination!!”

Simington told senators at the hearing that he played a “minor role” in drafting an early version of the social media policy, and he agreed with Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz that it was a good idea. Simington said he had discussed the issue with the White House as his nomination was considered.

Separately, House Energy and Commerce Committee Democratic leadership wrote to the FCC today asking that they stop working on “controversial items during the transition period.” This would likely include the social media policy.

Simington is a senior adviser at the Commerce Department arm that drafted policy to expose the likes of Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to greater legal liability for blocking or labeling some users’ posts. Republicans say the effort would bring balance to social media, and Democrats call it a bid to censor online speech.

“I’m very concerned that you have been sent to the FCC on a mission to execute that order,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, told Simington. Blumenthal cited a “risk that the FCC will have diminished independence and in fact become a tool of the president, this president, for the next 70-plus days.”

Blumenthal cited the nominee’s discussions with the White House, and said he would seek to block a vote by the full Senate as long as Simington declines to recuse himself from voting on the social media policy.

The policy awaits action at the FCC, where Chairman Ajit Pai has said he intends to move forward.

There may not be enough time to bring Simington on board before control of the FCC flips to Democrats as Joe Biden takes office in January.

If Simington wins swift confirmation, he could be seated almost immediately and provide a third vote needed by Pai at the five-member agency. Simington would replace Republican Michael O’Rielly, whose nomination for another term was withdrawn by the White House after he criticized Trump’s social media policy.

Pai would need to disregard normal FCC procedures in order to issue a social-media order that relies in part on Simington’s vote before the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a Washington communications attorney.

“It’s highly improbable, unless they are going to do drastic departures from regular order in a way that would be politically very costly” by inciting hostility from lawmakers, Schwartzman said in an interview.

If Simington’s nomination fails, the FCC likely would fall to a 2-to-2 partisan tie in the new year after O’Rielly leaves, his term having expired. That would bring policy making at the agency to a virtual halt as new members are selected.

(Updates with testimony from Simington in fourth paragraph.)

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