Inspector General: Trump Queried FCC’s Ajit Pai on ‘Legal Framework’ of AT&T-Time Warner Merger

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he answers questions during a news conference before departing the NATO Summit in Brussels, BelgiumTrump NATO Summit, Brussels, Belgium - 12 Jul 2018
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WASHINGTON — Just days before he took office, President Trump met with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai at Trump Tower, but did not ask him any specific policy questions or about his regulatory philosophy.

Trump was interested in the “legal framework” of the AT&T-Time Warner merger.

That is one of the details in an inspector general’s report, released on Monday, into whether Pai showed favoritism toward Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has ties to the Trump administration. The report found “no evidence, nor even the suggestion, of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism towards Sinclair,” but it also provided some details of Pai’s meetings with Trump and contacts with other White House officials.

At the time of the Jan. 16, 2017 meeting, Trump already had expressed his opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner transaction. In the fall of last year, the Justice Department sued to block the transaction, but a federal judge ruled in favor of AT&T and Time Warner, clearing the way for the completion of the merger. The government is appealing the decision.

The inspector general, David Hunt, interviewed Pai earlier this month, and based his report on that conversation, emails, phone records and other sources. He wrote in his report that Pai referred to the Trump tower meeting as a “job interview,” as Trump asked him if he was interested in becoming chairman of the FCC. Pai said yes.

Also in attendance at the meeting were Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

“Mr. Trump then asked Commissioner Pai to explain ‘what I had been doing.’ He had his (Pai’s) resume in front of him. Pai detailed his telecommunications experience and explained his vision for the future that included broadband infrastructure advancements and his personal dedication to making the internet accessible and affordable throughout rural America,” Hunt wrote in the report.

“The President-elect did not ask any specific policy-related questions, nor did he question him about his regulatory philosophy, although he was interested in the legal framework of the AT&T/Time Warner merger,” he wrote. “There was no discussion about Sinclair or any specific FCC proceeding.”

The FCC did not review the AT&T-Time Warner merger. They did review another media merger, that of Sinclair with Tribune Media. Democrats requested an inspector general investigation of Pai’s contacts with the company, as well as any contacts with the administration. Tribune called off the merger earlier this month and sued Sinclair, claiming that they botched the regulatory review process.

Pai met with Trump a second time on March 6, 2017. Pai said in a Sept. 15 letter to Congress that no issues pending before the FCC were discussed, nor was the Sinclair transaction.

“The Chairman noted he nothing to add about that meeting that was not contained in the letter and reiterated there were no discussions pertaining to any FCC proceedings at that meeting.

Pai also attended an Oct. 17 event for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and a Feb. 16 event for the signing of the Kari’s Law Act in the Oval Office.

“Other than engaging in formalities, Chairman Pai did not speak to the President on these occasions,” Hunt wrote.

The inspector general also reported on two other contacts with White House officials.

Kushner, who is Trump’s senior adviser, called and then emailed Pai with the message, “Just tried you – had a quick thing to run by you.”

Hunt’s report said that “phone records for that date show a call from a blocked number at 10:03 am. Chairman Pai did not recall the conversation with Jared Kushner.” He did not provide any other information on what the call was about.

Pai also had a phone call from White House Counsel Don McGahn on July 16. Pai told a Senate hearing earlier this month that the call was a status inquiry on Sinclair, as Pai had just announced his decision to send the Sinclair-Tribune merger to an administrative hearing. Hunt noted that Pai and McGahn are “long-time acquaintances.”