WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump tried to distance himself from the Justice Department’s review of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner, after reports surfaced this week that government lawyers were requesting that major assets be sold off if the transaction is to go through.
Trump told reports traveling with him on his Asia trip that he “didn’t make that decision. That was made by a man who is actually a very respected person, a very, very respected person.” Trump was apparently referring to Makan Delrahim, the chief of the Justice Department’s antitrust division.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the DOJ had told AT&T officials that they would like the company to divest DirecTV or Time Warner’s Turner networks to secure approval. The suggestion of sale of Turner networks immediately raised suspicions that it was a way for the White House to punish CNN, which falls under that division and has been a frequent target of the president.
Trump did again raise the issue of news media consolidation.
“I do feel that you should have as many news outlets as you can, especially since so many of them are fake,” Trump told reporters en route to Hanoi. “This way, at least you can get your word out. But I do believe you should have as many news outlets as you can.”
Trump noted that he hasn’t made a recent statement on the transaction, but acknowledged speaking out about it earlier. He said during the campaign that he would block the merger, citing the concentration of media.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson denied that AT&T has offered to sell CNN or that it was on the table.
“I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN, period. And likewise I have never offered to sell CNN,” he said, adding that there was “absolutely no intention” that the company would sell the network. But he did acknowledge getting calls from other people about the possibility of a sale.
On Friday, Reuters reported that Rupert Murdoch called Stephenson twice in the past six months to discuss a CNN sale, but Stephenson told him the network was not for sale. Murdoch reportedly has had numerous contacts with Trump.
Trump told reporters that when it comes to the Antitrust Division review, that “it will probably end up being maybe litigation, maybe not. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
At a USC event on Friday, Delrahim again said that he has not had any communication about the transaction with the White House. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, he did challenge the idea that the DOJ rarely sees a problem with “vertical mergers,” the type of deal that AT&T is seeking with Time Warner.
He also seemed to challenge one of AT&T’s arguments in favor of the transaction: that it now faces a competition landscape made up of large Silicon Valley companies. Delrahim first noted Ronald Reagan’s quip that the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” He added that there should be fear “when an incumbent company, in whatever industry, says, ‘I’m here to help you against the evils of dynamic competition from Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook.'”