Judge approves AT&T-Time Warner merger opposed by Trump
A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that AT&T and Time Warner can go through with their $85 billion merger, dealing a blow to the Trump administration’s Department of Justice.
The decision from U.S. District Judge Richard Leon gives AT&T an entry into the media business with control over popular brands like cable networks CNN, HBO, TNT and TBS. It could also set in motion a series of mega-deals across industries.
In his 172-page decision, Leon wrote that the Justice Department failed to prove that the combination would hurt competition. He also urged prosecutors not to seek a stay ahead of the companies’ merger deadline on June 21, which he said would cause “irreparable harm” to the deal.
The administration, which may still appeal the decision, sued the companies in November, arguing that the tie-up could be used to suppress competition and raise prices for consumers.
Makan Delrahim, the Justice Department’s antitrust chief, said prosecutors were “disappointed” with the decision but did not reveal whether they would seek a stay or appeal the ruling.
“We continue to believe that the pay-TV market will be less competitive and less innovative as a result of the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner,” Delrahim said in a statement. “We will closely review the Court’s opinion and consider next steps in light of our commitment to preserving competition for the benefit of American consumers.”
Other major industry players could take Tuesday’s ruling as a green light to pursue their own deals. Comcast is expected to try to buy much of 21st Century Fox, potentially laying the groundwork for a bidding war with Disney.
The decision is a huge loss for the Justice Department, which broke from recent tradition by challenging the vertical merger, which involves two companies that don’t compete directly with each other.
AT&T hailed Tuesday’s ruling.
“We’re disappointed that it took 18 months to get here but we’re relieved that it’s finally behind us,” AT&T lead attorney Daniel Petrocelli told reporters outside the courthouse.
David McAtee, AT&T’s general counsel, added in a statement that the company was looking forward to closing the deal on June 20.
The decision caps off nearly two years of drama surrounding the deal.
When the companies first announced the merger in October of 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump lashed out at the proposal on the campaign trail, calling it “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”
Many Democrats also questioned allowing the creation of an telecommunications and entertainment giant.
AT&T argued, though, that the deal is necessary for the telecom giant to compete with new entertainment offerings from Silicon Valley and with internet platforms over advertising revenue.
CEO Randall Stephenson said during the trial that the company could combine Time Warner’s entertainment offerings with AT&T’s troves of customer data to create targeted advertisements similar to the business models that Facebook and Google rely on.
Trump’s animosity toward Time Warner network CNN raised questions about whether the president had influenced the Justice Department’s decision to try to block the merger with its November 2017 lawsuit. The president has long accused the network of biased coverage against his administration.
The White House and the Justice Department both denied that there was any political interference in the decision.
When the department’s lawsuit was announced, AT&T itself questioned if the administration’s action was politically motivated. But at the same time, the company was also paying Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for advice on getting the deal through the regulatory process.
Ultimately, White House drama didn’t play a role in the case. Judge Leon, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled before the trial that AT&T would not be allowed to pursue a line of inquiry into any White House communications with the Justice Department about the merger.
Critics of the merger are already predicting even more consolidation in the media industry, with consumers and smaller competitors paying the costs.
“Allowing this merger to proceed raises serious concerns for consumers and the future of American media, and also sends a troubling signal to others that it’s open season for vertical mergers that could allow a company to raise the cost of essential products and services that its rivals need to compete, leading to higher costs for consumers and less innovation,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, said in a statement.
“I urge the Justice Department to take swift action to appeal this judgment to ensure that competition and consumers are protected.”
In his decision, Leon tried to tamp down on speculation about what the ruling could mean for the rest of the industry.
“[T]he temptation by some to view this decision as being something more than a resolution of this specific case should be resisted by one and all!” Leon wrote.
Updated at 6:26 p.m.