The New Yorker is reporting that the President tried to pressure the Department of Justice to block the merger of AT&T/Time Warner, something that had been suggested by supporters of the deal given the President's attacks on Time Warner-owned CNN while on the campaign trail. He said flatly his Administration would block it.
Justice eventually filed suit against the merger, but lost in district and later appeals court, though the appeals court declined to get into the issue of whether the President put his thumb on the scale.
Antitrust chief Makan Delrahim is on the record saying he was not pressured to make the decision to block the deal.
The New Yorker cites a single, "well-informed," source that the President "ordered" Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, to pressure DOJ to intervene, though Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly told Cohn not to do so.
Among those who apparently had concerns about a political motivation to the suit is new Attorney General William Barr, a former member of the Time Warner board who challenged Delrahim's characterization of a meeting about the deal where Barr was also in attendance.
Barr said in an affidavit that Delrahim's version was "inaccurate and incomplete," and that his discomfort at that meeting stemmed from Barr's concerns that "Mr. Delrahim's position about the alleged harms from the merger and his inexplicable...rejection of remedies short of extreme divestitures were the product not of a well-versed substantive analysis, but rather political or other motivation."
During his confirmation hearing for the post Barr was asked what he meant by that and whether it was the President's historic antipathy toward CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. Barr said he was not sure why the antitrust division acted the way it did, but did say that what he meant was that he was concerned that the department "was not engaging" with some of the companies' arguments.
The New Yorker piece, which was about the relationship between Fox and the Trump Administration (Murdoch is said to have opposed the merger), also suggested that the FCC's blocking of the Sinclair/Tribune deal was another of three pro-Fox moves (so deemed by former Democratic Chairman Reed Hundt in the story, the other being DOJ allowing Fox to buy some Disney assets).
"In July, the FCC blocked Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative rival to Fox, from combining with the Tribune Media Company," the New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote. "The FCC argued that the deal would violate limits on the number of TV stations one entity can own, upending Sinclair’s hope of becoming the next Fox."
Actually, the stated FCC's reasoning for designating the deal for hearing—essentially the kiss of death—was that Fox misrepresented the deal, though admittedly if that was misrepresentation, the deal would then have exceeded the station limits.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said he did get a call from White House General Counsel Don McGahn about the status of the merger review, but that McGahn did not try to influence his decision, which, in any case he suggested, was and would have been based on the facts and the law.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted the following about the allegations of pressure on the deal.
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.
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