By Peyman Pejman
The Iranian-American community’s contributions to the United States are extensive and varied. From science and the arts to economics and diplomacy, untold numbers of Iranian-Americans have made their mark. Yet perhaps none has ever held a White House position as high as Makan Delrahim.
Delrahim was appointed in January to the new administration of President Donald Trump. He helped get the new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – a friend of his – nominated.
Kayhan London caught up with Delrahim for an interview from Washington, D.C.
Makan Delrahim, can you tell us about your background?
I was born in Tehran and was almost 10-years-old when I moved with my family to Los Angeles in 1979. [That was] after the Shah had been deposed, but before the hostages were taken. My mom worked in an administrative role in a regulatory agency. My father had a factory which made leather goods.
I went to high school in L.A. and attended the University of California in Los Angeles for undergraduate studies, then moved to Washington, D.C. to study physiology. There, I went to law school, graduated from George Washington, and worked during the day at the NIH [National Institute of Health]. I got a job to do technology licensing and went to law school at night. That was my first experience with government.
Then I went to work for the Clinton administration, at age 23, on an inter-agency transfer from the NIH to the White House Office of the United States Trade Representative, the organization that does all the trade negotiations. That was my first taste of major public policy.
After graduating from law school, I started my legal practice at Squire Patton Boggs, a law firm that was politically connected but also a major international firm. After three years, in 1998, I moved to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by [Utah Senator] Orrin Hatch, to work on technology policy. I [was involved in the] investigation into Microsoft [over monopolistic practices in the software industry]. I thought I’d be there two years, but ended up being there for just over five and a half years. After two years, I became chief of staff for the chief counsel at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
How and when did you become involved with the Republican Party?
When I joined the office of Orrin Hatch. I didn’t really have a formulated political view [before then], although basic [Republican] philosophies started [appealing to] me, in that I believed in hard work, in accountable government, and in personal responsibilities. Some of those [ideas] started [forming] when I worked at the Senate Judiciary Committee, even though I went there as a technology and antitrust policy expert. That’s kind of how it started.
I’d say I was a Republican probably before I went to work for Orrin Hatch, but I became more aware or sympathetic to those views [afterwards.]
The Senate Judiciary Committee oversees all criminal law, confirmations of judges and of the attorney general, the justice department, drugs, civil rights, immigration. All of those were policies that I worked on.
Around then, [I] interacted with the [George W.] Bush Administration. We were right at the cutting edge of a lot of policies – not only judges but also the Patriot Act. I was the committee’s chief counsel on the Republican side.
Then I got a chance to join the Bush administration. I was appointed by the President to the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft as deputy for international and appellate issues in the Antitrust Division, which took me back to my subject-matter expertise. I served two years and went back to private practice.
Not too many people in the Iranian-American community in D.C. seem to know you. Do you deliberately keep a low profile?
No, not at all. D.C. and L.A. have different communities. When I was in the D.C. area, I think I was one of the early members of the Iranian-American Lawyers Association. Whenever I have been asked to get together with anybody, I have been delighted to do that.
Much of my practice and background has been mostly in antitrust, trade, and technology areas; that’s where most of my personal interest and focus has been. I have not been at the center of or an activist on foreign relations or policies or those kinds of issues.
Rumor has it that you are being vetted for a new position.
I have a current job as deputy White House counsel to the president, helping the president with judicial nominations and oversight. There are a lot of press reports about me being considered for other jobs, which is all fun and interesting, but I have a job now.
The reports say you could be the next head of the Antitrust Division at the Justice Department.
I used to be the deputy in that job so you would think it would be natural for people to speculate. They look at former deputies in Republican administrations and they say because that job has not been filled, it would sound logical, but I have a job.
And that’s the one you are planning on staying in for a while?
I don’t know. If the president or the attorney general asked me to head the antitrust division, that’s something that would be a great honor as well. If not, I am happy where I am.
As a hyphenated American, how do you feel when issues like the travel ban come up?
It is not an area of focus for me inside the White House, but I would tell you that the countries that were selected for the Executive Order, protecting border security, were selected by the previous administration. Those were countries that they said could [pose] risks and dangers, of terrorist suspects coming through the immigration process. So that is an area that I look at from the constitutional prerogative of the president.
I think the president not only has the constitutional prerogative to protect borders, but also was given statutory authority by Congress. Especially since 9/11, countries all around the world, including the U.S., [are tightening] border security, and with that, certainly, come inconveniences. The policy allows for various waivers, particularly where refugees and asylum seekers are concerned, but the broader policy is to protect borders. I wish none of this was necessary. I wish there was no terrorism.
But the president also has the authority to look at the list and adjust it or seek advice from people like you. Are you comfortable that this was done as well as it could have been?
We are in litigation. I think the president announced that there will be a new Executive Order. It will be more tailored. It would be best to look at that.
In your own position, how comfortable, or eager, are you to offer your opinions and expertise on such issues?
The counsel to the president is a very longtime and close friend of mine. We have a trust-based relationship. I feel comfortable weighing in with him and other policymakers inside the West Wing, and I think people would listen. But I am not the policy developer. Our office certainly has input.
I did not have much [input on the travel ban]. The travel ban was three days before the announcement of the Supreme Court nominee, and much of my work was 17-18 hours a day around that confirmation.
What would you say to those hyphenated Americans and minorities who are concerned about their civil liberties in the Trump administration?
I would say that their civil liberties are totally protected. The great thing about this country are the institutions and the constitution that protect the process. I can assure you that not only this President, but various advisers around him, including the office of the counsel, are as worried and concerned that every single policy is totally compliant with civil liberties and protective of those civil liberties. Everybody is trying to do the right thing. These are tough issues. Security and liberty can go hand in hand, and we have to strike the right balance.
I would say, also: Don’t believe everything that is reported. My old boss John Ashcroft used to say, ‘People don’t write about safe landings, only plane crashes.’ If the people not involved in the public policy process only hear about crashes, they think there are crashes every day, and that’s just not what it is.[We are] at the beginning of this administration. We came through tough elections but we’ve got to have faith in the system.