WASHINGTON — Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said President Donald Trump made a “shameful attempt” to interfere in the review of the AT&T-Time Warner merger, as he and Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) seek records of contacts between the White House and the Justice Department over the transaction.
Cicilline’s comments came during his opening remarks at a hearing over the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint merger, which would combine the two wireless carriers into a bigger rival to compete with AT&T and Verizon.
He noted how the AT&T-Time Warner transaction was one of the few major mergers to be challenged recently by the Antitrust Division, and “not only did the Justice Department lose this challenge, but this case has been mired in controversy since day one due to the president’s shameful attempt to interfere in antitrust enforcement.”
Cicilline’s stronger rhetoric about the review of the AT&T-Time Warner merger came after the New Yorker reported that Trump ordered his economic adviser Gary Cohn and chief of staff John Kelly to put pressure on the DOJ to file a lawsuit to block the deal. Cohn never carried out the order, and told Kelly not to, either.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday that she was not aware of any such conversation taking place. But Cicilline and Nadler sent letters to the White House and Justice Department last week seeking records and documents related to the merger. They asked for a response by March 20.
“We must get to the bottom of whether the White House has weaponized antitrust laws to punish enemies or reward friends,” Cicilline said.
The Justice Department sued to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger in November 2017, but a federal judge and then an appellate court sided with the companies.
Makan Delrahim, the chief of the Antitrust Division, has denied in a sworn statement and elsewhere that the decision to sue had to do with Trump’s opposition to the deal or disdain for Time Warner unit CNN.
“I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division,” he said shortly before the lawsuit was filed.
Cicilline and Nadler expressed skepticism over the $26.5 billion Sprint-T-Mobile merger. Nadler said it would further concentrate a market for mobile wireless that is already “highly concentrated,” as it would reduce the number of major carriers from four to three.
Nadler said “the combined Sprint and T-Mobile may no longer have any market-based incentive to lower prices and to offer pro-consumer policies once it becomes as large as the other two carriers.”
Cicilline said the Sprint-T-Mobile merger would be a “critical test” for the Justice Department. “Is the Antitrust Division genuinely dedicated to promoting competition, or does it only oppose mergers when the White House tells it to do so.”
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the ranking member of the committee, chided Cicilline for “putting a partisan spin on the proposed merger before we have even heard from the witnesses.” The companies say the merger will make them a stronger competitor to AT&T and Verizon, which are dominant, as the industry moves toward 5G service.
The question of White House influence came up again later in the hearing, as Democrats queried T-Mobile CEO John Legere on why top officials of the company spent so much money staying at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, based on reports in The Washington Post.
“There is actually a reason to look at this question of what happened at the Trump hotels because it has been clear from quite a bit of reporting that President Trump appears to have involved himself in the AT&T-Time Warner merger, and we want to make sure that is not happening today,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Legere said that the company spent $194,000 staying at the hotel since the merger was announced in April, 2018, out of a total of $1.4 million spent by the company in the DC area. He said that it was “my decision, and it was consistent with where I stayed and how I chose hotels in the past.”
Jayapal brought up a Twitter fight that Legere had with Trump in 2015, in which Legere appears to have had it with staying at Trump properties. But Legere said that he had stayed at more Trump hotels after that dispute and before the announcement of the merger.