President Trump claimed on Saturday that he had nothing to do with the Justice Department’s handling of the $85.4 billion AT&T–Time Warner merger, which reportedly included the potential requirement that AT&T sell off Turner Broadcasting, CNN’s parent company, in order to gain approval from antitrust regulators. “I didn’t make that decision,” Trump said to reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday, “it was made by a man who’s a very respected person — a very, very respected person,” likely referring to DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim. Delrahim was among the federal officials who informed AT&T earlier this week that, due to anti-competition concerns, the government would sue to block the merger unless the company divested itself of some of its soon-to-be combined assets, likely including Turner Broadcasting or DIRECTV.
President Trump, arguably the biggest and most powerful critic of CNN in the world, said near the end of last year’s presidential campaign that the merger was “a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few” and that it was “an example of the power structure I’m fighting.” Then in January, Bloomberg reported that Trump was still opposed to the deal, with one Trumpworld confidant explaining that the then-president-elect’s opposition was, in part, due to his frustration with CNN’s coverage of him. One analyst whom Bloomberg spoke with at the time even suggested that AT&T consider selling CNN to avoid Trump’s meddling.
Likely referring to his earlier remarks opposing the merger, Trump said on Saturday that “I did make a comment as to what I think,” further explaining that he felt “you should have as many news outlets as you can — especially since so many are fake.”
“I didn’t make a statement on it, but I made that statement long before at the very early part. So we’ll see how that — it will probably end up being maybe litigation, maybe not. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
Trump’s vocal criticism of CNN has hardly abated since he became president, and he has repeatedly accused the network of publishing “fake news” reports about him and his administration, and has even shared a video of himself attacking a CNN avatar on Twitter.
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that, earlier this year, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is also Trump’s son-in-law, met a top executive at Time Warner to complain about CNN’s coverage of the Trump campaign. During that meeting, Kushner told the executive, Gary Ginsberg, that CNN should fire 20 percent of its staff because they had failed to correctly analyze the campaign and predict the outcome of the election. Ginsberg rejected the suggestion.
Both Delrahim — who said late last year that he didn’t see the merger “as a major antitrust problem” — and the White House have denied that Trump or White House officials have attempted to instruct or influence the DOJ’s decision regarding the merger. Delrahim, a Trump supporter, was recently confirmed to lead the government’s antitrust efforts after a stint as a top White House lawyer. DOJ officials told the Journal that plans to challenge the merger predated Delrahim’s arrival at the agency; but the Journal also reports that the government’s demands of AT&T became much more forceful following Delrahim’s confirmation, though that could be because of legitimate anti-competition fears that emerged over that short time.
In July, however, the New York Times reported that, according to a senior Trump official, White House advisers had discussed using federal approval of the merger as leverage to pressure CNN for more favorable coverage. Whether those discussions became strategy is not known, but AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said on Thursday that he had no reason to suspect the government’s decision was politically motivated, and that he has not been instructed to sell CNN in order to gain approval — though he reportedly brought up the CNN issue at a meeting with the Justice Department on Monday.
In another twist, Reuters reported on Friday that none other than 21st Century Fox executive chair Rupert Murdoch had twice called Stephenson, unprompted, in May and again in August to chat about CNN. One source told Reuters that Murdoch had asked if the network was for sale — though another source denied that. 21st Century Fox had tried to acquire Time Warner in 2014 and had apparently planned to divest CNN as part of the deal to avoid antitrust issues — but their $80 billion offer was rejected.
Stephenson said on Thursday that he will not sell CNN or divest from any other major assets on account of the merger, and that AT&T is prepared to litigate if the government sues to block the merger. Considering Trump’s comments and anti-CNN cheerleading, as well as all the other intrigue around possible White House machinations regarding the deal, that court case could prove interesting.