In a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent last week, four top congressional Democrats laid out reams of evidence suggesting that President Trump is improperly using the proposed Time Warner-AT&T merger to pressure Time Warner-owned CNN for gentler coverage.
“[W]e are deeply concerned by reports of inappropriate interference by the White House,” the Democrats wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose department sued to block the deal in November. The Democrats also took Sessions to task for declining to say, during congressional testimony, whether DoJ communicated with the White House on the issue.
The Justice Department’s lawsuit is anything but an easy case. But in the most important sense, the result may not matter: Merely by picking the fight, Trump appears to be putting news organizations on notice that he’s willing to use the powers of the federal government to hurt them if they don’t play nice.
It’s hardly the first time that Trump has appeared to use DOJ to advance his political agenda. But this instance represents a double threat. By sending a message to the corporate owners of leading news outlets that their businesses can expect to pay a price for hard-hitting coverage, the move jeopardizes the independence not just of the U.S. justice system, but of the media, too.
Timothy Karr of the media advocacy group Free Press told TPM he worries that the next step could be charges against reporters for publishing stories that damage the administration — something that would likely have a chilling effect on the media similar to or worse than the DoJ’s lawsuit and something that appeals to Trump, who vowed to “open up our libel laws” as a candidate. The Obama administration, he added, helped lay some of the groundwork, setting a record for prosecutions under the Espionage Act, often of whistleblowers.
“The Trump administration doesn’t like leakers in its midst,” Karr said. “It may only be a matter of time before we see those prosecutions from Trump.”
Successfully neutering CNN would be a major coup for the White House. And it almost certainly would be personally satisfying to Trump, who is notoriously sensitive to his image on cable news.
In June, the network retracted a flawed story about the Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund, and cut ties with three journalists involved. Trump celebrated on Twitter that CNN “got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories.”
“He’s trying to bully us, and we’re not going to let him intimidate us,” CNN president Jeff Zucker reportedly told employees in response. “You can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves.”
Karr and other advocates for tough antitrust policies say it’s legitimate to worry about the impact on consumers of the AT&T-Time Warner merger. In its lawsuit, the Justice Department alleged that the deal would lead to less innovation and higher costs for consumers.
But there are reasons to think that’s not what’s driving the Trump administration’s actions — not least the administration’s broad anti-regulatory stance elsewhere.
Trump has put outspoken foes of excessive regulation in charge of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. And in December, he stood next to giant stacks of paper as he celebrated what he called the “most far-reaching regulatory reform” in U.S. history.
Even the Justice Department official who brought the case against the AT&T-Time Warner merger, Makan Delrahim, who leads the department’s antitrust division, was on a different side of the issue in 2016, when he was a conservative law professor.
“Just the sheer size of it and the fact that it’s media will get a lot of attention, but I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem,” Delrahim told Canadian network BNN two weeks before the election.
AT&T is reportedly seeking to put Delrahim on its witness list. And the company is suggesting that his apparent change of heart was the result of inappropriate political pressure.
“[W]e do not have to prove why Makan Delrahim decided to pursue this case, but if evidence does emerge that it was pursued for some improper purpose, that’s not going to obviously help the DOJ,” Dan Petrocelli, AT&T’s general counsel said on an earnings call last month.
Trump’s opposition to the merger didn’t come after a careful look at the impact on consumers. By his own admission, his mind was made up as soon as he heard about the potential deal.
“As an example of the power structure I am fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN — a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” he told rally-goers in Gettysburg, Penn. in October 2016, the day the planned merger was announced.
Then the week before the inauguration, Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson (the merger didn’t come up, Stephenson has said). Trump also met the same week with the CEOs of Monsanto and Bayer, which also had a proposed merger on the table. The meetings provoked criticism from anti-trust experts, who said it was troubling that Trump was departing with the usual White House practice of steering clear of companies with merger plans that might require Justice Department approval.
Less than a month into Trump’s administration, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, complained to Gary Ginsberg, a Time Warner exec, about CNN’s coverage, which Kushner viewed as hostile.
In July, a senior administration official told the New York Times that the White House had discussed the merger as “a potential point of leverage over their adversary,” in the paper’s words. The admission received little scrutiny at the time, but it was a remarkably brazen effort by the White House to publicly warn that it recognizes how its power over the merger proposal might be used to bend CNN to its will.
That same month, Trump tweeted a gif of himself tackling a wrestler with the CNN logo superimposed over his head—something the Democrats noted in their letter to Sessions. Other Trump tweets have attacked CNN as ‘fake news.”
The legal push to block the merger began in earnest in November. A year to the day after the election, DOJ officials quietly tried to pressure AT&T and Time Warner to commit to selling CNN as a condition of the transaction, an idea Stephenson publicly rejected the same day. Two days later, Kushner met with Ginsberg again to tell him he thought CNN should fire 20% of its staff.
The following week, Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee where Rep. David Cicilline asked him whether he’d discussed the merger with Trump. In response, Sessions refused to answer, though he didn’t assert executive privilege.
“I am not able to comment on conversations or communications that Department of Justice top people have with top people at the White House,” Sessions said.
Six days later, the Justice Department filed suit to block the merger.
“Personally, I’ve always felt that that was a deal that’s not good for the country,” Trump told reporters at a White House press conference soon afterward.