Report Claims Trump Pushed For AT&T Time Warner DOJ Lawsuit To Hurt CNN, Help Rupert Murdoch

from the old-boys-club dept

The late 2017 DOJ announcement that it would be suing to stop AT&T's $86 billion merger with Time Warner turned more than a few heads. While the DOJ insisted that the move was driven entirely by an interest in protecting consumers, the decision was utterly discordant with the Trump administration's often facts-optional assault on consumer protections with bipartisan support, ranging from net neutrality to basic environmental protections. And the DOJ's sudden concern about the impact of media consolidation was in stark contrast to Trump's FCC, where demolishing decades-old media consolidation rules has been a top priority.

At the time of the lawsuit, many wondered if some other motivations were really at play. After all, Rupert Murdoch had been pushing Trump for more than a year to scuttle the deal for anti-competitive reasons. Time Warner rejected a News Corp. acquisition offer in 2014, and more recently AT&T rebuffed the company's attempt to buy CNN... twice. Time Warner employees quoted at the time believed Murdoch was the driving motivation for the political pressure to quash the deal:

"According to executives I spoke with, the theory is that Murdoch privately encouraged Trump to scuttle the deal as revenge for Time Warner rejecting Murdoch’s $80 billion takeover offer in 2014. “A direct competitor, who was spurned from buying us, perhaps is trying to influence the judicial process? That’s corruption on top of corruption,” one Time Warner executive told me."

No hard evidence has proven any such connection, though if it were true, it's hard to think anybody involved in such an effort would put of of it in writing.

Another unproven theory generally gained more widespread public acceptance: that Trump had pressured the DOJ to intervene in the deal because of Time Warner-owned CNN's critical coverage of Trump. That obviously raised a lot of First Amendment questions about whether the President was pressing a government agency to help hamstring or otherwise silence a critic.

Trump and the DOJ repeatedly stated that Trump played no role in the the pressure for the suit. And Trump himself repeatedly stated he was "not going to get involved" in the case. Yet a New Yorker piece this week quotes sources who say that promise was never actually adhered to:

"...in the late summer of 2017, a few months before the Justice Department filed suit, Trump ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the Justice Department to intervene. According to a well-informed source, Trump called Cohn into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exasperation to Kelly, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!"

Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, evidently understood that it would be highly improper for a President to use the Justice Department to undermine two of the most powerful companies in the country as punishment for unfavorable news coverage, and as a reward for a competing news organization that boosted him. According to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting he told Kelly, “Don’t you fucking dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way."

Whether that was the end of it isn't clear. I'll note that many consumer advocates I've spoken to over the last few years believe that the DOJ under Makan Delrahim genuinely believed it was doing the right thing in challenging the suit. That of course doesn't mean Trump and Murdoch didn't try hard all the same. The piece also quotes former government insiders like Blair Levin, who ponders whether Murdoch was an architect of Trump's ire toward the deal:

"Blair Levin, the former F.C.C. official, told me, “There may be innocent explanations.” But, he adds, “Trump famously said you’re going to get sick and tired of winning, and that may not be true for the rest of America, but it sure is true of Murdoch.” He says of Murdoch, “He’s an incredibly cunning political player. He leaves no fingerprints. He’s been in the game of influencing government behavior to his benefit longer than most of us have been alive."

Of course hunches, theories, and anonymous sources aren't proof. And it remains possible that the DOJ under Makan Delrahim was just suddenly and genuinely concerned about vertical integration. Still, that flies in the face of everything the Trump administration (and particularly his friend Ajit Pai at the FCC) has stood for as they've worked tirelessly to make it easier for giant companies and broadcasters to merge. And it seems entirely possible that having been rebuffed by AT&T twice, Murdoch hoped the DOJ would win its case and force AT&T to sell off CNN to News Corporation. All under the guise of consumer protection.

If this all really was Murdoch gamesmanship, it ended in a remarkable face plant. The DOJ not only lost its initial case challenging the merger, it recently lost on appeal. In part because decades of lobbying have weakened antitrust, making it harder than ever for DOJ lawyers to make even the most obvious of points (in this case that AT&T would quickly raise its competitors prices for must have content, something that occurred before the ink deal was even dry).

The DOJ also failed because it refused to draw attention to net neutrality. The elimination of net neutrality by the Trump FCC opened the door wide to AT&T abusing its role as network operator to hamstring its competitors, most notably by only applying usage caps and overage fees on users that use competing streaming services. But the DOJ didn't mention net neutrality once during the trial, likely in part because it would have only highlighted the FCC's culpability in making this megamerger even more problematic than it already was.

Congress is still investigating whether politics and personal gain played a starring role in the Trump administration's sudden, uncharacteristic concern about monopoly power. One gets the sneaking suspicion there will be more details forthcoming.

Filed Under: antitrust, doj, donald trump, gary cohn, john kelly, mergers, rupert murdoch
Companies: at&t, cnn, fox, time warner


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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
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    Zof (profile), 8 Mar 2019 @ 6:37am

    I'm not seeing things right?

    I just want to absolutely clear that the story itself admits it's not a story, but instead a rumor with zero actual evidence. This is a "what if" fiction piece at this point. I'm not even sure why you'd bother publishing it, other than for pageviews.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 8 Mar 2019 @ 6:59am

      Re: I'm not seeing things right?

      Correct - you aren't reading it right. The story is commenting on an article published by the New Yorker. Not a rumor - the New Yorker actually published it.

      And as commentary, it is especially relevant considering the well known patterns of lies, cheating and law-breaking already established by The Cheeto.

      Also remarkable valuable insight into the non-stop coverage given by Faux News, which is clearly a reciprocal arrangement.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
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        renosablast (profile), 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:17am

        Re: Re: I'm not seeing things right?

        Nice try, but a swing and a miss. An unverifiable article from another publication being cited in a subsequent article does not give it any more credibility. Much of the public seems clueless as to being fleeced by the MSM with this "circular logic". The MSM milks this fact to the max, and I generally do not accuse or suspect Techdirt of adding to this problem, but this article certainly falls into that category.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Drunk Uncle Sam, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:39am

          Re: Re: Re: I'm not seeing things right?

          Yeah, you guys are right .. nothing to see here, move along.
          Just like all those other lies being told by MSM, it is all fake news and everything is fine - no worries.

          Let me guess, your source of non-MSM news is Brietbart, Infowars, Fox ... amirite?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Baron von Robber, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:19am

      Re: I'm not seeing things right?

      How much do you get paid for this? I could type out tripe just as easy and would like to be paid too.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:26am

      Re: I'm not seeing things right?

      Oh look, you don't know how reporting works.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 8 Mar 2019 @ 9:36am

      Re: I'm not seeing things right?

      Hey Zof. Long time to debunk.

      Yes, the New yorker story is all rumor and anonymous sources. Which is why Karl spends so much time highlighting that it is rumor and anonymous sources.

      But TECHDIRT's story, on the article written by the new yorker, is not all rumor and anonymous sources. Its based on the actual reporting of the new yorker.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2019 @ 6:57am

    With every rabid attack that the left makes on Trump, they further solidify and guarantee his second victory in 2020.

    With every riot, assault, doxxing and act of physical intimidation, portrayal of the assassination of the president, and threat towards Conservatives, we gain one step in advancing the Conservative cause to preserve our country against the Left's insanity and restore our Republic's constitutional greatness.

    So, do what you will. I've been doxxed, threatened, harassed, permanently shut down and lost 20,000 followers. We have been assaulted, attacked, stalked, targeted by the mainstream media and demonized. President Trump has received death threats, his wife has been continually criticized and insulted, his son has been threatened by pedophiles, his cabinet has been forced to leave restaurants.
    But, unfortunately for all of you on the left, we have news for you:

    We're. Still. Here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TFG, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:18am

      Re:

      I don't believe you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:25am

      Re:

      lol

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TDR, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:45am

      Re:

      Oh look, blind adoration of a political party and its candidate. I guess you missed all of the chief toddler's missteps, assaults on the press, incoherent ramblings, xenophobic and racist policies, white supremacist and mysonigistic tendencies, overall dishonesty, approval of his FCC's ripping off of the public through dismantling all protections against the telecoms and fighting any real reforms, and his plain desire to be nothing but a dictator. He's a sociopath and a pathological liar, like most politicians at his level, but I think much more extreme than even them. Why do you think even much of the rest of the right is disowning him?

      And I don't swing left, either, I prefer to avoid labels as they just serve to make it easier to dismiss people when in reality they don't fit into neat little categories like you wish they would. I believe in not letting rhetoric and money dictate policy and government. But apparently you're just fine with him doing those things.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Glen, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:46am

      Re:

      "We're. Still. Here."

      And still every bit as entertaining.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2019 @ 7:51am

      Re:

      "The Left" as you call it, lol, is attempting to enforce the law. You know, that set of rules that "the right" has tossed out the window - but it is rabid attacks according to you, please explain.

      I'm sorry, but Mr Trump is headed to jail and will not be available for any political activities in 2020.

      "With every riot, assault, doxxing and act of physical intimidation, portrayal of the assassination of the president, and threat towards "

      • Because "the right" does none of these things. LOL

      "I've been doxxed, threatened, harassed, permanently shut down and lost 20,000 followers. "

      • Because it's all about you

      " for all of you on the left"

      • Because everyone fits very nicely into one of two different boxes and these boxes are intended to fight each other at all times thus providing cover for the puppet masters to conduct their nefarious activities under the cover of continual warfare.

      I'm glad you are still here as a variety of opinions is what provides different options, evaluations and possible learning experiences - but I doubt you care much for all that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Baron von Robber, 8 Mar 2019 @ 8:22am

      Re:

      You have something on your chin.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 8 Mar 2019 @ 9:00am

      Re:

      With every rabid attack that the left makes on Trump, they further solidify and guarantee his second victory in 2020.

      Blaming somebody else for who you vote for? That's very Party of Personal Responsibility of you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2019 @ 12:18pm

      Re: That’s some fine projecting Lou

      Cool story bro.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      techflaws (profile), 8 Mar 2019 @ 10:21pm

      Re:

      "We're. Still. Here."

      And still are stupid assclowns dragged around by a ring through the nose by a lying fat fuck that despises you. Impressive!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 10 Mar 2019 @ 12:30pm

      Re:

      his son has been threatened by pedophiles

      Nah, that was just Roy Moore visiting the White House.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2019 @ 9:19am

    Unwritten evidence and FOIA

    No hard evidence has proven any such connection, though if it were true, it's hard to think anybody involved in such an effort would put of of it in writing.

    That bit about "in writing" made sense 20 years ago. But why should it be the deciding factor today, when it would be simple to automatically record (at least) every phonecall government officials make? When storage space got cheap, FOIA was never updated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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