Judge Denies AT&T Request for Trump Admin Documents

Public Knowledge is celebrating a Judge's decision not to force the Trump White House and Justice Department to produce records of communications between the two as part of a DOJ suit to block AT&T's proposed merger with Time Warner.

Judge Richard Leon is presiding over the suit.

According to Public Knowledge, the judge ruled that AT&T "had not met the high legal burden" required to get access to the government documents.

"This ruling demonstrates that the court refuses to be distracted by politics and instead is focused on the facts and the law," said Public Knowledge President Gene Kimmelman. "This is a great result for consumers worried about the danger of higher prices and harm to online competition likely to result from this merger."

“We respect the judge’s decision and look forward to the upcoming trial,” said Dan Petrocelli, lead trial attorney for Time Warner and AT&T, in a statement. The trial is scheduled to begin March 19, 2018, unless the sides can settle before then.

DOJ has said that it filed suit against the deal because a combined AT&T/Time Warner would have too much control over must-have programming. It wanted asset spin-offs AT&T and Time Warner had signaled were a nonstarter, instead essentially offering up what amounted to their own behavioral conditions on access to programming.

Justice wants AT&T to spin off the Turner programming assets, arguing they give the combined company the incentive and opportunity to disfavor competitors.

DOJ's decision to sue followed by only days a speech by the official overseeing the review, antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, who signaled Justice would be looking for more divestitures and fewer behavioral conditions, suggesting the latter remedy was over-regulatory, as well as essentially allowing an illegal merger under conditions that were hard to monitor.

Some Democrats who are not fans of consolidation and might have been more upbeat about the prospect of divestiture nonetheless had signaled they thought that Justice was challenging the deal because of the President's view that media outlets are out to delegitimize his presidency through fake news, a charge he has arguably leveled most often, and most vigorously, against Time Warner-owned CNN.

AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson has said he did not think that the deal's issues at DOJ stemmed from presidential interference, but in a press conference last fall announcing AT&T's decision to fight the suit, he said that given the abrupt shift in antitrust approach by Justice, he didn't know if that had played a role though he could understand why that might appear to be the case.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.