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AT&T chief denies Justice Department asked for CNN sale

AT&T chief denies Justice Department asked for CNN sale
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AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson on Thursday denied reports that the Justice Department wanted CNN sold as a condition for allowing a merger between the telecom giant and Time Warner.

"First and foremost, irrespective of what you read yesterday, I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN. Period,” Stephenson said at The New York Times’ Dealbook Conference.

"And likewise, I have never offered to sell CNN,” he continued, adding that the news network is at the center of his company’s business strategy.

"I don’t even know who in the DOJ is saying these things," said Stephenson.

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Justice Department sources told The Hill and other outlets on Wednesday that AT&T had offered to sell CNN from the combined company to get the merger approved by regulators. Other outlets reported that the Justice Department had demanded the sale.

Stephenson's comments on Thursday added a third version of what transpired during a meeting on Monday between AT&T and the Justice Department's antitrust division.

Aside from the denial of the conflicting reports that emerged Wednesday, all he would offer is that the meeting was "professional" and that he was trying to get to know Makan Delrahim, the newly-installed head of the division.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Delrahim's group was preparing a lawsuit in order to block the merger if the two sides couldn't reach an agreement. Stephenson said on Thursday that AT&T is hoping to settle with the Justice Department soon but is prepared to go to court in order to get the deal through.

“We’re prepared to litigate now," he said.

The reports that had CNN at the center of the merger negotiations touched off criticism from some Democrats who suggested that President Trump was interfering in a Justice Department matter in order to retaliate against an outlet with which he's been at odds.

“I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division," Delrahim said in a statement late Thursday night.

“The President did not speak with the Attorney General about this matter, and no White House official was authorized to speak with the Department of Justice on this matter,” added White House spokesman Raj Shah.

Stephenson endorsed those accounts on Thursday, saying that he had no reason to believe that Trump's enmity towards CNN was at play in the merger review process.

He said that he hadn't discussed the merger with anyone in the government other than Justice officials in the antitrust division.

Stephenson also expressed frustration that the private discussions had become the subject of a public spectacle.

"As you might guess, there was an inquisition at AT&T last night about how this information got out," Stephenson said.

- This report was updated at 3:41 p.m.