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AT&T hinted at First Amendment issues in saying it’s not willing to sell CNN to acquire Time Warner

The company’s leader, Randall Stephenson, said AT&T is still open to concessions -- but ready to fight.

President Trump attends the American Leadership in Emerging Technology Event Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said Wednesday the wireless giant is “prepared to make concessions” in order to win U.S. government approval for its merger with Time Warner — but it isn’t willing to sell assets like CNN because of the “message it sends.”

In firing that shot, Stephenson didn’t mention President Donald Trump, who has publicly blasted his company’s merger plans and repeatedly criticized CNN’s coverage of his White House.

But, the AT&T executive added: “We’re going to do nothing that would lend credence to an idea that we’re actually making concessions to address somebody’s concerns with CNN.”

“We’re not going to do that,” he said. “That begins to have hints of First Amendment issues.”

Posted by The Economic Club of New York on Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Days before the Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking to scuttle AT&T’s roughly $85 billion deal, reports emerged that the feds wanted AT&T to sell Time Warner’s Turner unit — which includes CNN — in order to proceed with its acquisition.

Given that the DOJ’s new antitrust leader, Makan Delrahim, had previously suggested the deal might not pose major competition concerns, some saw the demand as a sign that Trump had interfered in the agency’s investigation, which is supposed to be independent from the White House.

Delrahim, for his part, has said that the White House never contacted him about the matter. And on Wednesday, Stephenson said he had “no insight” into why Delrahim had opted to sue the company to stop its Time Warner acquisition after initially suggesting it might survive federal scrutiny.

“One can understand why people would raise the question, given the timeline,” Stephenson said.

Otherwise, the AT&T leader said his company had expressed “a willingness to agree to concessions that would address the government’s concerns.”

That includes a commitment — made in the company’s court filing on Tuesday — that it would strike deals with cable competitors to ensure that the channels it stands to gain, like TBS and CNN, cannot go dark in future fee disputes.

For now, though, Stephenson stressed that AT&T has a “darn good case, and we feel like this is one worth taking and pursuing into the courts.”

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