White House Won't Share Data On Whether It Interfered In AT&T Merger Review

from the something-fishy 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 that have 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."

One obvious theory is that Murdoch convinced Trump to scuttle the deal as a competitive favor, perhaps with an eye on using the deal to force AT&T to divest CNN to Murdoch as a merger condition. This could have theoretically played well within Trumpland given Trump's personal disdain for critical CNN coverage, something that wouldn't be a problem under Murdoch control. Proving that of course is something else entirely, since it's unlikely that, were it true, anybody involved would put such an arrangement in writing.

Fast forward to last month, when a New Yorker piece on the Trump White House's close ties to News Corporation included this notable but overlooked bit:

"...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!”

That prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Representative David Cicilline to demand the White House turn over any correspondence that could help clear things up. But this week, the White House refused, insisting that all correspondence with advisors was protected:

"In a letter dated Monday and released on Tuesday by Cicilline, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declined to release any documents, saying he would not provide “protected communications between the president and his senior advisers that are the very core of the executive branch’s confidentiality interests."

Cipollone added that the Justice Department would be responding “in due course.”

Again, it remains entirely possible that Trump simply wanted the deal spiked out of spite for CNN. But Murdoch's involvement here would explain a lot. The Trump DOJ of course proceeded to do a face plant at trial thanks in part to a Luddite Judge, but also thanks to the DOJ lawyers' failure to mention net neutrality once at trial. It was a rather important contextual omission given AT&T's plans to use both its ownership of "must have" media (like HBO), and its domination of broadband networks anti-competitively. Was the DOJ just clueless or did it just not want to highlight the perils of the Trump FCC killing net neutrality?

It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the DOJ tried to stop the deal without any external motivation, but it would certainly be nice to see more data clearing that up one way or another.

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Filed Under: antitrust, doj, donald trump, merger
Companies: at&t, cnn, time warner

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  1. identicon
    bob, 18 Apr 2019 @ 12:28pm

    executive privilege

    This is one place where I do support the executive privilege between a president and his advisors. So, no, they shouldn't be forced to produce that unless someone leaks it and that leak shows illegal actions.

    However any correspondence between the whitehouse and othere entities like the DOJ absolutely should be producible upon request by congress supoena, law enforcement investigation, and/or Freedom Of Information act requests.

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