Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appearing before a House hearing on Tuesday, declined to say whether President Trump or White House officials have contacted the Department of Justice as it reviews the pending merger of AT&T-Time Warner.
That question has been on the minds of some Democratic lawmakers after reports last week that the Justice Department asked AT&T officials to either divest Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, or DirecTV, as a condition for getting the deal approved. That triggered suspicions that the Antitrust Division, led by Makan Delrahim, is being influenced by the Trump White House, which has been highly critical of CNN’s coverage of the administration.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) asked Sessions whether any White House employee or official, including Trump, contacted the DOJ “regarding the AT&T-Time Warner transaction or any other transaction.”
“I’m not able to comment on conversations or communications the Department of Justice top people have with the top people at the White House,” Sessions said, citing a policy of not revealing “privileged conversations” with the White House.
Last week, Delrahim issued a statement in which he said that “no one from the White House instructed me as to this or any other transaction within the Antitrust Division’s authority.” A White House official also denied that Trump spoke to Sessions about the pending merger.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) asked Sessions whether the reports about Antitrust Division’s review of the merger were correct. Sessions said he was not able to “accept as accurate” the reports of the request that AT&T shed Turner Broadcasting, but he did not elaborate.
The reports have surprised a number of lobbyists in Washington who predicted that the merger would gain acceptance by antitrust regulators, who have been more likely to greenlight so-called “vertical mergers” like the AT&T-Time Warner transaction over “horizontal” deals. The latter tend to remove competition from the marketplace.
Sessions defended the review, calling the Justice Department’s work “professional.” He seemed to suggest that the Antitrust Division was not changing its policy toward merger reviews should it take a stricter look at AT&T-Time Warner.
The latest news about the merger has put some Democrats in the position of questioning the independence of the Justice Department, even as they raise issues about a transaction they dislike or even want to see blocked.
Conyers and Cicilline sent a letter to Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asking for a hearing that would touch on political interference in merger review. They also wrote that there has been “disparate” treatment of the pending merger of AT&T-Time Warner and that of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plans to acquire Tribune Media. Sinclair, they noted, “has reportedly forced the promotion of conservative political views on its local television stations, and its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, was the communications director for President Trump’s inauguration committee.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), ranking member of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, said that she is hoping to meet with Delrahim.
“We clearly don’t want to have any political interference in this decision,” she said. “A lot of it has just been rumor, so I have not had a briefing on it.”
She noted that during Delrahim’s confirmation hearings, he said would not have any political interference. “So I want to follow up,” Klobuchar said.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that the company was preparing for litigation, should it reach that point. Antitrust experts say that the company could seek access to any communications between the Justice Department and the White House as part of the discovery process.