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The Trump administration launched a legal war last week against California and much of the auto industry, "punishing two of the major opponents of the president's efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations," said Zack Colman at Politico. Four automakers — Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen — signed a deal with California in July to cut their cars' greenhouse gas emissions. Now federal agencies have moved to strip California of its long-standing right to set pollution rules, and the Department of Justice has launched an antitrust probe of the carmakers. Auto manufacturers signed on to the standards in part to avoid having two sets of rules, one for California and another for the rest of the United States. While the deal calls for "less of a reduction than required by the Obama rules," it has run into scorn from President Trump, who derided the "politically correct Auto Companies." The legal assault "represents a striking escalation of pressure" from the administration. The role of the Justice Department in particular elicited fury from Democrats; former California Gov. Jerry Brown said it "smacks of Stalinism."
Don't fall for the carmakers' line about how they can't meet two sets of standards, said Holman Jenkins Jr. at The Wall Street Journal. If these companies faced stricter standards in California, "they would mostly just raise the price of their pickups" to push buyers to smaller cars. The real motivation here is that auto companies face electric vehicle (EV) mandates in China and Europe, and would like to sell the same cars in the U.S. They want the government to pass strict emissions rules, then hand out EV subsidies and credits to help them meet the standards. The problem is that the Trump administration won't play ball, so now "Ford and friends are trying to leverage California." Even if you're worried about climate change, the California deal is a loser. It doesn't consider upstream emissions, so "you can burn down the Amazon to charge your Tesla and it will still be considered a zero-emission vehicle."
By opposing cleaner cars, the Trump administration is once again "fanning the flames" of global warming, said The New York Times in an editorial. But what's really objectionable is the use of the Justice Department in "a nakedly political abuse of authority." The DOJ says the four automakers may have colluded by collectively agreeing to California's tougher standards, "which could result in higher prices for new cars and trucks." Yet the same DOJ had no issue with T-Mobile's acquisition of Sprint, a deal more "likely to harm mobile phone customers and workers." The difference? Those companies didn't defy and embarrass Trump. The president is making it clear he "will use the power of the state to bend companies to his will," said Joe Nocera at Bloomberg. If the automakers had joined together to sign on to Trump's plan, instead of California's, would the administration's "antitrust minions" be launching an investigation? Obviously not. Trump is attacking the automakers to further his war with California, which voted overwhelmingly against him, and it's put automakers "in an awful spot." Companies need to know they can count on the rule of law. Instead, they know they can be investigated "for political reasons" by a government of "thugs."