Trump Says FCC’s Refusal to Approve Sinclair’s Acquisition of Tribune Is ‘Sad and Unfair’

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as
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WASHINGTON — President Trump weighed in on Sinclair Broadcast Group’s controversial acquisition of Tribune Media, calling the FCC’s refusal to approve the deal “sad and unfair.”

“So sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!”

Last week, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that he had “serious concerns” about the $3.9 billion transaction, and proposed sending the merger to an administrative law judge for review. The FCC’s three other commissioners also agreed to take such a step. The FCC said that there were “material questions” of whether Sinclair Broadcast Group engaged in “a potential element of misrepresentation or lack of candor” in its effort to secure government approval.

The move of the merger review to an administrative judge will add (at least) months of further delay to complete the transaction, and Wall Street analysts now wonder if it will be scuttled altogether.

Trump appointed Pai to serve as chairman of the FCC, and later nominated him for another term. The commission now has a Republican majority.

The merger, first inked in May 2017, would combine two of the largest station groups in the country. It has triggered an outcry from public interest groups and cable industry associations, as well as scrutiny of Trump’s potential influence on the review process as he is friends with Sinclair’s executive chairman, David Smith. But the President also is friends with Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, which has been among the most vocal opponents of the merger. Ruddy told the New York Post last week that he brought up his opposition to the deal to Trump.

Sinclair’s plan to buy Tribune also has raised hackles among some critics on the left, who point to Sinclair’s mandates to run conservative commentaries across its outlets as a sign that the company will move its local newscasts further in a partisan direction. One of Trump’s former communications spokespersons, Boris Epshteyn, is chief political analyst at Sinclair.

Sinclair has pushed back against criticism that such program mandates threaten localism, but Trump’s tweet certainly will add to the speculation that the broadcast group’s ambitions are to launch some kind of conservative news network. Newsmax would be a potential rival to the conservative audience.

Trump’s reference to Comcast was for its merger with NBC Universal, which the FCC approved in 2011, when the commission had a Democratic majority.

This was his first comment on the FCC’s decision.

Sinclair denies that it misrepresented details of the merger to the FCC.

Among other things, the FCC zeroed in on the business ties between Smith and businessman Steven Fader in connection with the plan to sell Tribune’s WGN-TV Chicago to a new entity controlled by Fader for $60 million. That plan sparked concern from merger opponents because the purchase price was so far below fair market value for a Chicago TV station. Fader is CEO of Atlantic Automotive Group, in which Smith has an equity interest and also sits on its board. The commission’s order noted that Fader had no prior broadcast TV experience, and the transaction was structured as to give Sinclair sway over the station’s operations.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, wrote a one-word response to Trump’s tweet: “Disagree.”

All four FCC commissioners will appear before a House oversight hearing on Wednesday.