Federal Communications Commission nominee Nathan Simington reached out to Fox News this summer in an attempt at “engaging” host Laura Ingraham to support President Donald Trump’s quest to make it easier to sue social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, according to emails obtained by POLITICO.
Simington, a senior adviser in a key Commerce Department tech agency, wrote that the popular Fox News host could help sway the FCC to act on Trump’s proposal before Election Day. He also suggested that democracy hinged on the ability of the commission — which has not traditionally regulated social media — to target Silicon Valley companies.
“Any additional support we might be able to obtain could help to get the FCC on board more quickly and thereby ensure a freer, fairer social media landscape going into the elections this fall,” Simington wrote in a June 22 email to a Fox News staffer. “This is of concern both to the presidency and also down-ballot, and given the emerging role of social media as a replacement for mass media, our democracy will be weakened if we cannot respond to this issue quickly and effectively.”
Simington, who works for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, wrote the email months before Trump nominated him for a five-year term on the FCC.
Trump has spent the final months of his reelection campaign and presidency feuding with the dominant social media platforms after they started fact-checking his posts on topics such as the pandemic and alleged election fraud. In a May executive order, Trump asked the FCC to reexamine a congressionally created liability shield that protects online companies from suits over how they handle user-posted content.
Ingraham, whom Trump frequently has cited favorably, has echoed the GOP’s attacks on the tech industry and years earlier had eyed joining the administration. Fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson publicly backed Simington’s FCC nomination in an October segment where he pressured Senate Republicans to speed up.
Simington, the NTIA and a Fox News spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
Possible trouble for Simington: The FCC nominee’s quest for a lame-duck confirmation has already faced an uncertain future. The newly obtained records undercut his attempt to downplay his role in the administration’s tech liability fight.
Simongton’s current agency, the NTIA, petitioned the FCC in July to act on Trump’s request to trim the liability shield. But he declined during a Nov. 10 confirmation hearing to recuse himself from any FCC rulemaking on the issue, though he said he would abide by any ethics counsel recommendations.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal argued during the Commerce Committee hearing that Simington’s work at the department requires him to recuse. The senator has threatened to block Simington, although a unified Republican caucus could still force his nomination through in a floor vote.
Blumenthal said Monday that the email to Fox adds to his concerns.
“This email shows that Mr. Simington was an active and eager soldier in President Trump’s attempted assault on the First Amendment,” Blumenthal said in a statement to POLITICO. “Mr. Simington was willing to bully the very agency he’s been nominated to join in order to do the electoral bidding of the Republican party on the taxpayer dime.
“I am demanding that Mr. Simington explain himself in follow-up questions for the record, and I certainly hope he will be more forthcoming in his written responses than he was during his hearing,” the Connecticut Democrat added.
During this month’s hearing, Simington said he played a supporting role in drafting the NTIA’s petition, estimating that he was responsible for only 5 to 7 percent of it. But in a July 1 email to other administration officials — also obtained by POLITICO through a Freedom of Information Act request — acting NTIA chief Adam Candeub called Simington “instrumental in drafting these regs” and “getting the final version of the petition” draft ready.
Trump has nominated Simington to replace Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who lost his bid for a new term after questioning whether Trump’s requests of the FCC would be legal or appropriate.
Pressure on the FCC: Commission Chair Ajit Pai announced before Election Day that the FCC would kick off a rulemaking to reexamine the online liability shield, which Congress created by passing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. But he hasn’t released any proposal, and any attempt would probably be doomed as Democrats prepare to take control.
Months before that, the new records show, Simington was trying to amp up pressure on the FCC — a legally independent agency that is not required to follow the White House’s dictates.
In his June email to Fox on what he called a “hot issue,” Simington expressed hopes for an FCC rulemaking “restraining social media companies from behavior that, absent certain case law re CDA 230, would be illegal” in addition to upholding “press and communications freedoms.”
Other emails obtained by POLITICO from August show Simington working with Candeub to draft an op-ed they hoped to place in The Wall Street Journal, which ultimately never happened.
What’s next: If Senate Republicans can jam through Simington’s nomination before the end of the year, they could postpone President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to form a Democratic majority at the FCC. That would have consequences beyond the fight around Section 230 and could slow Democratic initiatives such as any attempt to restore the commission’s Obama-era net neutrality rules.
Concerned about leaving the FCC spot open for Biden to fill, Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) plans to hold a vote on Simington’s nomination after Thanksgiving, a committee aide said Monday, requesting anonymity to speak frankly. The committee still awaits Simington’s written answers to members’ questions and will formally schedule a vote once those are received.
It’s still unclear whether enough Republicans would vote to advance Simington in committee and on the floor during the handful of legislative days remaining.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), whom Trump personally singled out this month in a tweet promoting Simington, recently confirmed she’ll be a yes. But Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), whose broader grievances with the FCC have caused him to block previous nominees to the agency, has not expressed support yet. Multiple other Senate Republicans, including Commerce member Rick Scott (R-Fla.), are quarantining due to the coronavirus, adding to the uncertainties.
Wicker talks frequently to lawmakers and the White House to ensure that Republicans have the necessary votes, the aide added.