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Senator Raises Concerns of White House ‘Political Influence’ Over AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Variety logo Variety 7/7/2017 Ted Johnson
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After reports that the Trump administration may use government approval of AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner as “leverage” over CNN, a key Democratic senator is asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions for disclosure of any contacts between the White House and the Justice Department about the transaction.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee, wrote in the letter that “any political interference in antitrust enforcement is unacceptable.”

“Even more concerning, in this instance, is that it appears that some advisers to the President may believe that it is appropriate for the government to use its law enforcement authority to alter or censor the press. Such an action would violate the First Amendment,” she wrote.

On Wednesday, the New York Times, citing an unnamed senior administration official, said that the merger was a “potential point of leverage” in pressuring CNN. The Daily Caller reported that the administration is conditioning its support of the deal on whether CNN chief Jeff Zucker is fired or forced to resign.

Klobuchar asked Sessions for contacts between the White House and the Justice Department on the merger.

Trump has repeatedly attacked the network as “fake news,” and even tweeted out a video in which he’s shown wrestling a man, with the CNN logo superimposed over his head, to the ground. The video had been altered from one taken at a WrestleMania event about 10 years ago.

The Justice Department is reviewing the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner transaction, but its Antitrust Division weighs whether transactions conform to antitrust law, not over what its impact would be on the nature and tone of news coverage. Makan Delrahim, Trump’s choice to lead the antitrust division, is still awaiting Senate confirmation, but during his confirmation hearing, he said that he would maintain the independence of the division.

Klobuchar noted that she has raised “serious questions about the impact” of the merger, but wrote that the “transaction should be judged solely on its impact on competition, innovation, and consumers, not as ‘leverage’ for political gain.”

Still, the idea that the White House would try to exert its influence over the review, for political reasons rather than antitrust concerns, has been unsettling to some antitrust experts.

During the campaign, Trump said that he opposed the AT&T-Time Warner merger, citing the concentration of the media. He has said little publicly about the pending transaction since then.

In December, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was asked about Trump’s opposition to the transaction, and even then suggested that Trump’s unhappiness with CNN was a factor.

“Anytime the president of the United States comes out and says they’re not in favor of what you’re trying to do, you have to pay attention,” he said at a media conference. “But I don’t know what part of the deal he’s referring to. I’ve heard rumors he’s not happy with CNN, so that might have come into it.”

Stephenson met with Trump in January, but the company said that the merger was not discussed.

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