President Donald Trump tried to pressure the Department of Justice into blocking AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc., according to a new report by The New Yorker. However, White House staff apparently ignored the president’s orders to pressure the DOJ, and it’s not clear whether Trump ever made any demands to the DOJ directly.
The New Yorker report—titled “The Making of the Fox News White House”—details Trump’s close relationship with Fox and his disdain for Fox competitors that provide less-glowing news coverage of his presidency.
Trump has long made his hatred of CNN well-known, and during his campaign he promised to block AT&T’s proposed takeover of CNN owner Time Warner. The Trump administration’s DOJ in November 2017 filed a lawsuit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner. But whether Trump had intervened wasn’t clear—AT&T ultimately succeeded in court and completed the merger, despite failing in an attempt to prove that Trump meddled in the merger review.
“I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed”
Details in The New Yorker report suggest that Trump ordered staffers to intervene in the DOJ review but that his staffers did not do so. The article says:
[I]n 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 50 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.”
We contacted the White House press office about the report today and will update this story if we hear back.
The article points out that 21st Century Fox unsuccessfully tried to buy Time Warner in 2014, and it suggests that Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch opposed the AT&T/Time Warner merger as “a matter of shrewd business.”
In November 2017, news reports said that the DOJ asked AT&T and Time Warner to sell off either CNN or DirecTV in order to win government approval of the merger.
Reuters reported around the same time that Murdoch twice called AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson to ask if AT&T would sell CNN but that Stephenson told him AT&T wouldn’t put CNN up for sale.
Trump once claimed “absolute right” over DOJ
Although Trump publicly opposed the AT&T/Time Warner deal, “Trump also claimed that he was ‘not going to get involved,’ and the Justice Department has repeatedly assured the public that he hasn’t done so,” The New Yorker article noted.
In December 2017, Trump told The New York Times that “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”
But the president interfering in DOJ matters to punish a news organization for coverage he doesn’t like could violate the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment prohibits retaliation based on speech, association, or political activity,” the watchdog group Protect Democracy wrote last year in a white paper that disputed Trump’s claims that he can do whatever he likes with the DOJ. “Therefore, it would violate the First Amendment for the White House to intervene in a specific-party matter in order to respond to political participation or discourage First Amendment protected activity.”
In an affidavit last year, DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim said that his review of the AT&T/Time Warner merger “took no account of the views of anyone else (including then-candidate or President Trump or anyone at the White House) as to CNN’s editorial content or exercise of First Amendment rights,” according to a Variety article.
Delrahim argued that AT&T buying Time Warner and its stable of popular TV programming would give the company too much control over programming and distribution and it would ultimately raise prices for cable customers. But AT&T defeated the government’s lawsuit in US District Court for the District of Columbia and again in a federal appeals court. Judges from both courts said the DOJ failed to prove its case.