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Fate of U.S. online gambling will depend on whims of President Trump

By Aaron Stanley

Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s Attorney General nominee, did not mince words when questioned by online gambling opponent Lindsey Graham during his confirmation hearing Tuesday morning.

While Sessions spent the entire day dodging bullets from Democratic senators, and even a few from his anti-Trump Republican colleagues, he didn’t try to hide his lack of enthusiasm for a 2011 re-interpretation of the Wire Act by the Justice Department. That reinterpretation opened the door for legalized intrastate Internet gambling in the United States.

The Alabama senator said that he was shocked by, and opposed the ruling when it was issued.

Worse yet for the online gambling crowd is that Sessions signaled an intention to revisit the decision. While an evidence-based approach to such matters cannot be faulted, a read between the lines offers a fairly good prediction as to the conclusion at which Sessions would be inclined to arrive.

The worst case scenario would be a reversal of the 2011 decision. That would be followed by a flood of lawsuits from affected states that would drag on for years. We could well be left with an undoing of the i-gaming industry that has sprouted in the U.S. over the past five years.

But i-gamers in New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada don’t necessarily need to be shaking in their boots. While the future of their industry just became significantly murkier, the good news is that there are a plethora of more pressing matters that the Sessions and his Justice Department will have to deal with before they even think about taking up the Wire Act.

Issues like waterboarding, cyber-crime, civil rights, immigration, criminal justice reform – perhaps even trying to lock up Hillary Clinton – all find themselves far higher on the to-do list than the Wire Act. Rest assured that there will be no public outcry, incendiary tweets from Trump, or mobs rioting in the streets because the ability to gamble over the Internet continues on.

At the end of the day, should Sessions want to revisit the 2011 decision, it will be at the direction of Trump.

Trump made public statements prior to his presidential candidacy in support of legalizing Internet gaming, on the grounds that if people are already engaging in it via dodgy offshore sites, then it makes sense to bring the activity out of the shadows.

But Trump’s presidential campaign also received significant contributions from Sheldon Adelson, albeit in lesser amounts than the Las Vegas Sands chairman and Internet gambling opponent has given to presidential candidates in the past.

Keep in mind that the landscape in Congress for passing Restoring America’s Wire Act, which would reinstate the online gambling ban, has grown more unfavorable with the retirement of Harry Reid. This fact could give extra steam to a push to revert back to the original Wire Act interpretation via the executive branch rather than by legislation.

Trump campaign prominently included “Draining the Swamp” and getting rid of traditional pay-for-play politics, but – as every politician learns when they come to Washington – it’s not that simple. Whether Trump was being truthful in his promises or not, there is a realistic possibility that the Adelson team could successfully press him for a return on their investment.

Sessions made a commitment in his opening statement to make the Justice Department more nimble and efficient in its undertakings. So there is a question as to whether reviewing the Wire Act would make for an effective use of Justice Department resources, considering the mountain of more pressing issues it will be dealing with.

It’s also worth remembering that the position of Attorney General is, at least nominally, a law enforcement role rather than a political one. This means that the AG is not supposed to be an underling of the president in the same way that other cabinet secretaries are. Sessions also insisted during the hearing that he would be a bulwark against any overreach by a Trump administration.

All this probably doesn’t offer strong reassurances to those in the i-gaming community who are concerned about the future of their industry. Still, the bottom line is that while Sessions isn’t a fan of the 2011 Wire Act re-interpretation, it seems a long a shot that his department would take up the matter. If it did, it almost certainly would be because of a directive from above.