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Trump faces new scrutiny over AT&T-Time Warner merger

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Congressional Democrats are intensifying their investigation into whether President Trump sought to block the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger due to his longtime feud with CNN.

Democrats in the House and Senate in recent days have demanded administration documents related to the deal while pressing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to open its own investigation into how the White House handled the merger process.

{mosads}Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said over the weekend that Congress has “a responsibility to call in witnesses” about the issue, hinting at a possible hearing in the future.

“If we are compelled to, we’ll issue subpoenas, we’ll certainly bring witnesses in,” Cicilline said on CNN on Sunday.

The increased scrutiny comes after The New Yorker reported last week that Trump encouraged Gary Cohn, his former top economic adviser, to push DOJ lawyers to sue to block the merger.

Though Cohn reportedly said he would not allow Trump to influence the merger, the DOJ did sue to block it in 2017, a case the government lost in court and on appeal last month.

The DOJ has repeatedly denied that Trump’s dislike of CNN influenced its handling of the case. Trump has feuded with the cable channel owned by Time Warner, arguing that its coverage of his administration is unfair.

On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was “not aware” of any conversation in which Trump directed Cohn to try to block the merger.

Democrats, though, intend to revisit the allegations of potential interference by the White House.

“This latest revelation — that [the president] instructed senior White House officials to ‘get this lawsuit filed’ against the AT&T-Time Warner merger — follow a series of reports suggesting that the president seeks to wield the antitrust laws as a political weapon, to reward friends and punish enemies,” Cicilline and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. 

{mosads}A spokesman for Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee, told The Hill that scrutiny of the AT&T-Time Warner merger will be “on the agenda” but that there are no further actions planned as of now.

WarnerMedia, the company formed when AT&T and Time Warner merged last year, declined to comment to The Hill.

Cicilline and Nadler, in letters to the White House and DOJ last week, requested documents and communications between 2016 and 2019 about the proposed merger. They made a similar request of the DOJ last year, when House Democrats were in the minority. The DOJ did not respond to that request.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also weighed in on Friday, pressing the head of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim, for answers to a series of questions about potential interference in the merger by the White House.

“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,” Klobuchar and Blumenthal, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked the DOJ to open an investigation into the White House’s potential involvement and make its findings public.

“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 a letter to Attorney General William Barr.

He also used the opportunity to raise questions about another heavily scrutinized merger: Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of some 21st Century Fox assets, which the DOJ approved in 2018. The New York Times editorial board in 2018 raised questions about the merger’s approval, pointing out that Trump is a longtime friend of the executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, Rupert Murdoch.

“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 Friday.

Democrats and watchdogs have questioned the government’s handling of the merger for years, raising allegations of political bias since then-candidate Trump in 2016 slammed the AT&T-Time Warner deal as “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

Critics said Trump’s targeting of the merger stemmed from his larger feud with the media, and Time Warner’s CNN in particular.

Jeff Zucker, the new chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, as well as president of CNN, over the weekend also alleged the DOJ’s lawsuit against the merger “came from the president.”

“There was absolutely no basis to be doing what they were doing and clearly there was a political agenda at work,” he said at an event at South by Southwest, but he did not provide evidence for his assertion.

During the lawsuit to block the merger last year, AT&T sought to allege that the government was selectively using antitrust laws out of political bias. But the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found the company did not provide adequate evidence for that claim.

The DOJ this week confirmed that it had received the letters from Democrats revisiting how the agency handled the merger. It pointed The Hill to previous statements Delrahim has made, denying political interference.

“I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the Antitrust Division,” Delrahim said in November 2017.

The new scrutiny is putting some consumer advocates in a difficult position. Many consumer groups had resisted the merger and cheered the DOJ lawsuit.

They are pushing back on the idea that the DOJ was politically motivated and say the government raised serious concerns about competition and price increases.

“I think there was a strong legal basis for this case,” Charlotte Staiman, competition policy counsel with consumer group Public Knowledge, told The Hill. “Political influence on these types of decisions would be inappropriate if it was happening,”

“This is a case that we were really glad that the DOJ brought,” Staiman said.

The companies have already completed their merger, with AT&T rebranding Time Warner as WarnerMedia.

But the controversy over the deal shows no signs of fading.

“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,” Klobuchar and Blumenthal wrote in their letter.

Updated at 4:35 p.m.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Chris Van Hollen David Cicilline Donald Trump Gary Cohn Jerrold Nadler
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