The federal agency tasked with opening foreign markets to American businesses is focusing more on antitrust enforcement instead, critics say. It’s a move that has angered some free market advocates, who now worry the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is neglecting her core duties.

“The job of the USTR is to go out and win access to foreign markets for American businesses, American workers,” Gary Winslett, a senior adviser for the Chamber of Progress, told InsideSources.

Under the leadership of Katherine Tai, the USTR has emerged as an ally of controversial Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan, a relentless antitrust activist whose attempts to regulate businesses have frequently been overturned by the courts. Khan has an untraditional view of antitrust, setting aside the traditional question of whether a company’s size is hurting consumers and instead arguing that some companies are simply too big, regardless of the market impact.

Similarly, Tai is taking an unconventional approach to the USTR’s job, as she explained at a recent SXSW event.

Asked about the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) regulations, Tai said the “trade policy formation” she is working on is “to not rely on our old instincts” of asking “what’s the nationality of your company, and ‘whose side should I be fighting on.'”

Instead, she suggested a more global view of the job as America’s top trade representative. “Right now the question that we’re looking at is, what’s the pro-democracy, pro-competition, pro-worker angle,” Tai said.

Not surprisingly, advocates for U.S. businesses say that’s a vague and often debatable standard. For example, while the EU says its DMA rules are “pro-competition,” American tech companies argue those rules are anti-U.S. and designed to restrict their market access.

Weeks later, the USTR 2024 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers omitted previous complaints about the EU regulations. Tai said foreign governments had a “sovereign right to govern in the public interest and to regulate for legitimate public policy reasons.”

That baffled tech groups.

“It was dangerous,” American Edge Project CEO Doug Kelly told InsideSources. “No EU tech companies…are impacted by the new law. This trend of lopsided regulations is now spreading to other countries, and risks crippling Western innovation, especially as the EU moves to regulate American AI efforts.”

Emil Panzaru with the Consumer Choice Center said the USTR’s endorsement of DMA meant favored corporations and their workers would benefit more than consumers and other workers. He suggested that Tai forgot the purpose of her office, “which is to help promote competition, lower prices, and engage in win-win for everyone.”

And it’s not just the EU. In early 2023, as the Biden administration was negotiations on a large economic initiative in Asia and the Pacific, Tai received an email from Rethink Trade, part of the American Economic Liberties Project. The email, made public by a Freedom of Information Act request by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, included a memo demanding more regulation of large U.S. tech companies and insisting economic negotiators “must seek terms that maximize domestic policy space” allowing foreign countries to have more power over these companies.

Tai used similar language announcing that the U.S. was withdrawing from World Trade Organization e-commerce negotiations. That ruffled feathers at the National Security Council and in Congress. The House Oversight Committee has asked Tai to turn over all communications with Rethink Trade.

Clark Packard, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, expressed concern that Tai’s USTR has lost its way.

“Ambassador Tai has called trade agreements ‘tools of the 20th century,’ which is probably news to most of the rest of the world,” Packard said. “Americans would be well-served if USTR focused on its statutorily defined role in the federal government.”

That isn’t likely to happen.

Since coming into power in 2021, the Biden administration has maintained a laser focus on enforcing antitrust.

The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission went to court 99 times on antitrust matters in Fiscal Years 2022 and 2023. That included well-known suits against Apple, Google, and grocery stores Kroger and Albertsons. Lesser-known suits targeted fashion companies Coach and Michael Kors and technology companies Illumina and Grail.

A USTR spokesperson declined to comment.