WASHINGTON — Two top House Democrats have dispatched letters to the White House and the Justice Department, seeking documents and communications over the AT&T-Time Warner merger after a report that President Trump attempted to interfere with the review of the transaction.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) sent letters on Thursday to Makan Delrahim, the chief of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
“Even the appearance of White House interference in antitrust law matters undermines public trust in the Department of Justice’s integrity and tarnishes meritorious enforcement by the Antitrust Division,” they wrote. “The fact of actual interference would constitute a serious abuse of power.”
They cited a New Yorker report that in the summer of 2017, Trump called economic adviser Gary Cohn into his office along with new chief of staff John Kelly, and asked them pressure the DOJ to file suit to block the merger.
“I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” Trump said, according to a New Yorker piece written by Jane Mayer. Cohn, though, did not carry out the order and told allegedly Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
The Justice Department did file suit against the merger, in November, 2017, but courts ruled in favor of the companies. The DOJ argued that the transaction would give AT&T undue leverage over its distribution rivals in carriage negotiations for the Turner networks, and that consumers ultimately would see higher prices.
AT&T and Time Warner executives have viewed the motives for the lawsuit with suspicion, and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson even called it the “elephant in the room.” William Barr, who was a Time Warner board member before he became attorney general, said in a sworn declaration last year that Trump’s “prior public animus toward this merger” was a reason many would view the DOJ’s lawsuit as political motivated.
A month before the trial started, in February, 2018, AT&T-Time Warner’s legal team even tried to start discovery on whether they were unfairly targeted because of Trump’s hatred of CNN, then a unit of Time Warner. But the judge in the case, Richard Leon, declined.
Spokespersons for the Justice Department and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Delrahim has also denied that the decision to file suit was influenced by the White House.
“I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division,” he said on Nov. 8, 2017, just before the lawsuit was filed. In a sworn affidavit, he also denied that the decision to file suit had anything to do with CNN’s coverage.
The Washington Post first reported on the Democrats’ letter.
The House Democrats are seeking documents from Nov. 9, 2016 to Feb. 26, 2019, “sent or received by the Department of Justice to or from President Donald Trump or Gary Cohn relating to the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger.”
They also are seeking communications between the Justice Department, the Trump transaction team and White House employees related to the decision to file the merger lawsuit, and other deliberations related to the transaction. They are seeking a response by March 20.
Even before The New Yorker piece, Cicilline had said that he planned to investigate past mergers, including AT&T-Time Warner, and whether White House officials attempted to influence their reviews. He and Nadler noted in their letters that they sought records from the Justice Department last year — on Feb. 8 and May 15 — seeking records of any contacts with the White House.
“The Justice Department did not provide any of the requested documents,” they wrote. In a letter in May, the Justice Department did say in a letter that it was “committed to ensuring” that “political considerations do not influence the handling of particular investigations or cases,” and that “all investigations conducted by the Antitrust Division are initiated and conducted in a fair, professional, and impartial manner, without regard to political considerations.”