Investigation of Trump Administration Actions and the AT&T-Time Warner Merger

American Oversight Calls for Congressional Investigation

Trump Administration Official Bragged About Using Merger to Pressure CNN

Updated: July 11, 2017 – Non-partisan ethics watchdog American Oversight today called on Congressional leaders to investigate the Trump administration’s handling of the proposed merger between Time Warner and AT&T.

In a letter to the heads of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, American Oversight requested that Congress “investigate any efforts by Mr. Trump or White House staff to threaten Time Warner or CNN or to influence DOJ’s review of the proposed Time Warner-AT&T merger.”

American Oversight had previously launched its own investigation into the matter following reports that Trump administration officials had considered using the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) antitrust authority to retaliate against Time Warner as part of the president’s ongoing feud with its subsidiary, CNN.

Final approval for the merger between the two media companies would have to be granted by officials at the DOJ, including senior political appointees in the Office of the Attorney General as well as the Antitrust Division.

“The idea that the president would subvert antitrust laws to attempt to control the media is a stunning abuse of power. It not only strikes at the core of our constitutional right to free speech, it also undermines our system of free enterprise,” said American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers. “Even if the White House has not contacted DOJ directly to interfere with the merger, Trump’s advisers are clearly trying to influence the outcome.”

On July 7, American Oversight submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to DOJ, requesting communications, documents and records related to the Time Warner-AT&T merger, as well as any attempts by administration officials to use the merger for political purposes.

President Trump has a long track record of attacking both media outlets as well as individual reporters, and has repeatedly threatened to use his authority to weaken First Amendment protections. It is not clear whether White House officials have explicitly asked DOJ to delay approval of merger, but advisers to the president apparently told the New York Times they viewed the merger as leverage against CNN.

Evers continued, “It should go without saying that regulatory decisions can’t be made in response to presidential tantrums. Congress should exercise its oversight jurisdiction to ensure the Department of Justice evaluates the proposed merger in accordance with the law – and nothing else.” 

The full text of American Oversight’s letter to Congress is below, and it can be downloaded here.

July 11, 2017

Dear Chairmen Grassley and Goodlatte and Ranking Members Feinstein and Conyers:

The United States Constitution establishes a system of government designed to check power, curb the potential for abuse, and protect individual rights and free enterprise. When an individual in power misuses authority for improper ends, the Constitution empowers and obligates the countervailing branches of government to act. Recent reports that the White House is considering tampering with a corporate merger to exact political revenge—and at minimum is sending threats to do so through the media—demand congressional scrutiny.

In October 2016, AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc. announced that they had reached a merger agreement. If the merger proceeds, it will have substantial impacts on American consumers, uniting  two “powerhouse companies”: (1) “the nation’s largest pay TV provider, the second-largest wireless provider, and the third-largest home Internet provider” and (2) a major entertainment company that “owns a dizzying array of media properties, including HBO, CNN, Warner Brothers, DC Comics, TBS, TNT, the Cartoon Network and broadcast rights to many live sporting events.” The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is reviewing the proposed merger and must approve the deal before the merger can be completed.

The DOJ review should be conducted according to the law, immune from political or other improper influences. Unfortunately, it appears the DOJ’s independence is being threatened, or even directly undermined.

Time Warner owns CNN, a network President Trump routinely and aggressively maligns. These attacks, which were common during the 2016 election, have persisted and grown more aggressive. As president, Mr. Trump has used his personal Twitter account to deride the network as “fake news” and “fraud news” and even as an enemy of the public. In recent days, Mr. Trump even went so far as to post a video clip edited so that he appeared to wrestle a man with a CNN logo covering his face to the ground.

Media reports suggest that Mr. Trump may now be misusing his office to escalate his attacks on CNN by interfering in the DOJ’s review of the proposed Time Warner-AT&T merger. On July 5, 2017, the New York Times reported that a senior Trump administration official said that “White House advisers have discussed” the pending merger as a “potential point of leverage” over CNN. Further reporting indicates the White House may condition the merger on the termination of CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker. Mr. Trump has suggested publicly that he has information that Mr. Zucker’s removal is imminent. These reports raise substantial concerns about the integrity of DOJ’s antitrust review.

Subverting antitrust laws and co-opting DOJ’s antitrust oversight authority in a war against a news network would be a stunning abuse of power, a troubling intrusion on the rights of private enterprise, and a disturbing assault on the freedom of the press, as several reporters and media outlets quickly observed. Communications between White House staff and DOJ officials regarding the proposed merger—or factors or conditions necessary for its approval—may also violate longstanding policies restricting contacts between the White House and DOJ regarding open matters. And even if neither Mr. Trump nor White House staff has yet contacted DOJ regarding the merger, the White House has already exerted improper pressure on DOJ, Time Warner, and CNN simply by transmitting a threat to do so through the New York Times.

DOJ’s exercise of its antitrust oversight authority must be fair and impartial, and its decisions must reflect only the law—not the president’s bias or influence. American companies and business leaders must be confident that political prejudices will not distort the free enterprise system or undermine their legal rights. And the American people must be reassured that government agencies will not abuse their regulatory powers to punish or silence the press.

American Oversight—a non-partisan organization dedicated to accountability and ethics in government—requests that you utilize your oversight jurisdiction to investigate any efforts by Mr. Trump or White House staff to threaten Time Warner or CNN or to influence DOJ’s review of the proposed Time Warner-AT&T merger. Among other things, Congress should investigate, and seek documents related to:

  • Who in the White House has considered using the merger as “leverage” against CNN, as reported by The New York Times?
  • What contacts have occurred between the White House and the DOJ regarding the Time Warner-AT&T merger?
  • What contacts have occurred between the administration, including the DOJ and the White House, and Time Warner, AT&T, or CNN, regarding the merger?
  • What steps has the DOJ taken to protect the integrity of its merger review, including what corrective actions have been taken or guidance issued to admonish investigators to ignore the White House’s statements to the media?

While these important questions are pending, the Senate should not confirm Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim. Indeed, Mr. Delrahim should be recalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee to obtain his assurances that his nomination was not conditioned on reaching a particular outcome in Time Warner-AT&T merger and that he will take steps to protect the Division from improper influence.


Austin R. Evers
Executive Director
American Oversight

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