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Trump reportedly tried to order a lawsuit to block the AT&T/Time Warner merger

“I want that deal blocked!”

President Donald Trump with his mouth open.
President Donald Trump.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

After years of court battles, the AT&T/Time Warner deal is now really, totally a done deal — which is why AT&T is finally starting to reshape the media giant it bought for some $85 billion.

And this is happening despite the wishes of the president of the United States — and, perhaps, the will of Rupert Murdoch.

President Trump campaigned against the AT&T/Time Warner deal when it was first announced, in the closing days of the 2016 election. He also complained about it publicly when he was in office.

Officials at the Department of Justice — including Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who led the DOJ’s suit against the merger — insist that Trump’s opposition to the deal had no effect on their decision to oppose it. But it’s always been tempting to assume that the president has influence.

Trump certainly believed he should have had influence on his DOJ. In a New Yorker story out Monday, February 4, about the connection between the White House and Murdoch’s Fox News, Jane Mayer reports that Trump specifically told two of his top advisers to bend the DOJ to his will and file suit against AT&T:

... a few months before the Justice Department filed suit, Trump ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the Justice Department to intervene. According to a well-informed source, Trump called Cohn into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exasperation to Kelly, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”

Like other stories about top Trump administration officials being told to do questionable things, this story ends with top Trump administration officials ignoring the president’s wishes:

Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, evidently understood that it would be highly improper for a President to use the Justice Department to undermine two of the most powerful companies in the country as punishment for unfavorable news coverage, and as a reward for a competing news organization that boosted him. According to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting he told Kelly, “Don’t you fucking dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”

Mayer and others believe that Trump wanted to block the deal as some sort of punishment for CNN, one of Time Warner’s more valuable assets, and to benefit Murdoch. It’s not exactly clear why AT&T not owning CNN would be good for Murdoch and Fox News.

But as we already knew, and Mayer documents comprehensively, Murdoch and Fox News have enormous influence over Trump’s worldview. Mayer also notes that federal regulators have made other moves that have benefited Murdoch: The DOJ blessed his sale of much of his 21st Century Fox empire to Disney, and the FCC stopped Sinclair Broadcast Group’s attempt to buy Tribune Media, which could have created a rival to Fox News.

It is still entirely possible to believe that federal regulators are approving or trying to stop giant corporate mergers based on their own opinions, which might be quite reasonable: In the AT&T/Time Warner scenario, for instance, it’s certainly worth wondering what happens when a giant distributor buys a giant content company.

And for what it’s worth, Trump also undercut the idea that he wanted the Sinclair/Tribune deal killed, via Twitter: “Sad and unfair ... disgraceful!”

But Mayer’s reporting — along with Trump’s own words — underscores the idea that Trump thinks he can and should block corporate mergers he doesn’t like.

And, of course, Trump frequently attacks media companies he doesn’t like — like Comcast (which is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site) — and calls for them to be regulated, “tested in courts,” “looked into,” etc.:

There’s no sign that any regulator has taken action because of Trump’s anti-Comcast tweets. But Trump did reportedly try to get the US Postal Service to punish Amazon by raising rates on its packages, and then got the US Treasury to assemble a task force to look into the USPS.

This would be a good time to note that the Federal Trade Commission — run by five commissioners whom Trump appointed — now is looking at giant tech companies, and has floated the idea that it might be interested in undoing previous mega-mergers. (And to note that regulating Silicon Valley — or at least talking about regulating Silicon Valley — is now a bipartisan idea.)

So if you’re a giant corporation thinking about buying another giant corporation — particularly one that makes media the president pays attention to — you need to factor that into your thinking.

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