President Trump has made two major attempts (so far) to use his power to intimidate and control independent media. The second attempt was his intervention to deny Amazon a $10 billion Pentagon contract as retribution against the Washington Post. The first was ordering the Justice Department to block an AT&T merger, in order to punish CNN. And while the courts ultimately stymied the latter move, Trump is attempting to keep up public pressure on AT&T and its ownership of CNN, tweeting last night:
Trump’s tweet attempts to connect CNN’s alleged lack of “credibility,” which is Trump’s way of saying that its message is not controlled by his loyalists, to its alleged bad ratings (which is not in fact correct) and thereby to AT&T’s management. The whole message would be totally inscrutable were it not for the extraordinarily damning scandal that is the predicate for his thuggish warning.
CNN is a subject of Trump’s obsessive anger. During the campaign, he publicly opposed its merger, a position that pointedly contrasted with his general indifference to antitrust issues and corporate consolidation. In the summer of 2017, a New York Times report on Trump’s hatred for CNN included a pointed threat: “White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T.”
Last year, Jane Mayer reported that Trump attempted to carry out this very threat. The president called Gary Cohn, director of his National Economic Council, and ordered him to block the merger. After the meeting, Cohn told then–Chief of Staff John Kelly he wouldn’t follow the order. However, later that year, the Justice Department did block the merger, though it lost in court.
After Mayer’s report, the House Judiciary Committee told the White House to turn over documents relating to the merger. The White House flatly refused. So if there’s proof that Trump ordered the Justice Department to block the merger, that evidence is being withheld.
But the publicly available reporting all fits a pattern that suggests Trump used antitrust enforcement against CNN’s corporate owners as retribution for its coverage. And Trump’s tweets suggest, even as the courts stymied him, that he is determined to keep up economic pressure on CNN. Three years into his presidency, he is not giving up on his Orbán-like ambition to discipline and control independent media. Where things might stand after another five years is a question that ought to preoccupy those voters who wish to preserve American democracy.