WASHINGTON, D.C. — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he does not believe that President Donald Trump or any member of his White House staff has attempted to contact the agency about media coverage in light of Trump’s criticism of CNN and other news outlets as “fake news.”
Pai, appearing at a confirmation hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, was pressed by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Trump’s attacks on the news media and whether that has led to any attempts by the White House to communicate with the FCC, the inference being that members of Trump’s team would try to use the agency’s regulatory authority as leverage.
“I don’t believe so,” Pai said.
Pai said that he has “consistently stated that I believe that First Amendment freedoms are critical,” and that if he “were ever asked by anyone in the administration to take retaliatory action [against a media outlet], I would not do so.”
Later, when he was asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on whether the White House has attempted to contact the FCC on any pending mergers, Pai said that no one “has weighed in with me or indirectly with the staff, as far as I know, on any pending transaction.”
The New York Times reported earlier this month that White House officials had discussed how they could use the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner as leverage over CNN’s news coverage. The report was sourced to a senior administration official.
The Department of Justice is reviewing the merger, but the FCC is not. Other big media deals, like Sinclair’s proposed acquisition of Tribune’s TV stations, are pending before the FCC.
Shortly after the inauguration, Trump appointed Pai as chairman of the FCC and later nominated him to serve a new term.
At March hearing, after Trump tweeted that the “fake news media” was the “enemy of the American people,” Democrats on the committee asked Pai whether he agreed with the statement.
Pai declined to answer the question, saying that he did not want to get into “larger political debates.” In a later letter to Democrats on the committee, he said that he did not agree that the media was the “enemy of the American people,” but noted that Trump had been referring to “fake news.”
Pai was joined at the hearing by two nominees for vacancies on the FCC: Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr.
Rosenworcel served on the FCC from 2012 to 2017. She was required to leave the agency after the Senate failed last year to move her nomination. Trump renominated her to return to the commission in May.
Carr is currently the general counsel of the FCC and previously served as an adviser to Pai.
At the hearing, Carr was pressed on whether he could retain his independence given his close ties to the FCC chairman.