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Dem senator asks DOJ to probe White House efforts on AT&T-Time Warner merger

Dem senator asks DOJ to probe White House efforts on AT&T-Time Warner merger
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOn The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser GOP blocks effort to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry MORE (D-Md.) on Friday asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate possible attempts by the White House to block the recent $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger.

Van Hollen's letter comes after The New Yorker this week reported that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE asked DOJ lawyers to sue to block the deal.

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Multiple lawmakers and Democratic figures have suggested that Trump sought to block the deal because of his longtime feud with CNN, a channel owned by Time Warner and acquired by AT&T during the merger.

“I request that you open an investigation into whether White House aides and officials have improperly tried to influence DOJ regulators in order to meet the objectives of President Trump," Van Hollen wrote in his letter to Attorney General William Barr.

The New Yorker reported that Trump ordered Gary CohnGary David CohnThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience On The Money: Markets soar on Pfizer vaccine news | EU imposes tariffs on B of US goods over Boeing | Business groups applaud Biden's push for masks Former Trump economic aide Gary Cohn congratulates Biden MORE, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the DOJ to intervene against the merger.

Trump reportedly told his former chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE in 2017 that he had asked then-White House chief economic adviser Cohn to "get this lawsuit filed," lamenting that "nothing" had happened.

"I’ve mentioned it fifty times," Trump told Kelly, according to The New Yorker. "And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”

Van Hollen on Friday called on the DOJ to investigate whether Trump or other White House officials had encouraged the DOJ to oppose the merger. He also asked the DOJ to probe whether the White House had inquired about the Disney/FOX merger, which was approved last year, or any other mergers.

"The President of the United States should not use his office to direct the DOJ to punish those who he perceives to be his adversaries or to reward his friends," Van Hollen wrote. "This investigation and subsequent report should be made public to the American people to reassure them of the executive branch’s integrity and your agency’s independence.”

The DOJ did sue to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, but lost in court and on appeal earlier this year. The court's decision to uphold the merger was seen as a significant loss for the DOJ's antitrust division.  

Democratic Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Scammers step up efforts to target older Americans during pandemic Hillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk MORE (Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) on Friday separately pressed the DOJ over the White House's reported influence on the AT&T-Time Warner merger.

"The efforts of the Justice Department enforcers who brought a difficult but worthwhile case in the face of criticism are worthy of praise, but now many are wondering why they were allowed to bring the case in the first place," the lawmakers wrote. "The notion that federal law enforcement is a tool to serve the political and personal interests of our leaders is corrosive to our society and system of government. The public should be able to trust that antitrust enforcement — in fact all federal law enforcement — is impartial and free of political influence." 

Klobuchar and Blumenthal asked the DOJ to answer a range of questions about whether Trump or his associates attempted to exert influence over the merger, or if AT&T made any payments in an effort to sway the White House over the transaction.

Democratic lawmakers in the House have also weighed in following The New Yorker report, questioning whether Trump sought to intervene out of spite for CNN, which he has accused of being biased against his administration. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerThis week: Congress races to wrap work for the year Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Tensions rise with Trump, Barr Maloney to lead Democrats' campaign arm Hillicon Valley: GOP chairman says defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal | Senate panel advances FCC nominee | Krebs says threats to election officials 'undermining democracy' MORE (D-R.I.) this week requested documents regarding the AT&T-Time Warner merger. 

"Any effort to use the antitrust laws to censor, undermine or retaliate against the press is a threat to the First Amendment and a vibrant democracy," Nadler and Cicilline wrote.

—Updated at 4:49 p.m.