President Donald Trump, in comments to reporters on Saturday on Air Force One, said that he had not pressured the Justice Department to make selling CNN and other assets a condition for regulatory approval of a proposed $85.4 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner.
Instead, Trump attributed the decision to “a man who’s a very respected person,” in remarks, which Recode interprets as referring to Makan Delrahim, head of antitrust regulation at the Justice Department. Earlier this week, conflicting reports emerged about negotiations on the deal, with one version of events saying the Justice Department has made divesting Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, a condition of regulatory approval. A conflicting account had AT&T offering to sell the news unit in response to more general Justice Department reservations about the deal.
Delrahim and other DOJ officials have denied that the President was in any way involved in the negotiations, but Trump’s previous comments on the deal have invited speculation to that effect. Trump has deep personal animus against CNN, which he has called “fake news” numerous times in response to reporting on matters including the probe into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. During the Presidential campaign, Trump also cited the proposed merger as an example of the concentration of power that he stood against.
(Fortune is a unit of Time, Inc., which was spun off from Time-Warner in 2014).
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However, Delrahim at the time said he didn’t see the merger as “a major antitrust problem,” and his shifting position has added fuel to the sense that Trump’s finger is now on the scale. The President’s direct intervention could amount to a weakening of DOJ’s independence on this and other issues.
Whether pressured by Trump or not, DOJ’s reported position on the merger represents a break not only with Delrahim’s own past opinions, but with a Republican orthodoxy hesitant to flex regulatory power. Instead, the demand to divest media properties aligns with longtime left-wing positions critical of the concentration of media power. Even as AT&T and Time Warner are on the docket, those arguments are finding new life with regard to Facebook and Google, which are increasingly seen as powerful media monopolies in their own right — including by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Trump now seems to be blurring the distinction between those criticisms and his personal animosities, telling reporters again this morning that “I do feel you should have as many news outlets as you can — especially since so many are fake.”