WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was “not aware” of a conversation in which President Trump ordered his then-economic adviser Gary Cohn to pressure the Justice Department to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger.
Her statement, at a rare formal White House press briefing on Monday, did not deny a New Yorker story, in which Trump is said to have called Cohn and Chief of Staff John Kelly into his office in summer, 2017, and told them, “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!” Cohn did not carry out the order, but told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
“I’m not aware of any conversations around that matter,” Sanders said in response to a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta.
The White House has previously denied that it interfered in the Justice Department’s review of the transaction. In November, 2017, around the time that the Justice Department filed suit to block the merger, White House spokesman Ray Shah said “the President did not speak with the Attorney General about this matter, and no White House official was authorized to speak with the Department of Justice on this matter.” Makan Delrahim, the chief of the Antitrust Division, has also denied that the decision to challenge the merger was influenced by the White House.
But the New Yorker story, written by Jane Mayer, has triggered a new round of questioning from Capitol Hill Democrats on potential White House interference and whether it was politically motivated because of Trump’s disdain for CNN, a unit of Time Warner.
On Friday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), sent a letter to Delrahim, asking for more information on contacts between the White House and antitrust officials as the merger was under review.
“Like many of our colleagues we were encouraged that the Department took enforcement action against the merger, and we have appreciated your assurances that the Division’s activities are conducted ‘without regard to political considerations.’ But these latest revelations are extremely disturbing,” they wrote.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the antitrust subcommittee, also sent letters to the DOJ and the White House last week, asking for any records of contacts or communications on the merger. A Justice Department spokesman said they had received the request and are reviewing it. Cicilline told CNN on Sunday that they will issue subpoenas “if we are compelled to,” and would also call witnesses.
A district court judge sided with AT&T-Time Warner last June, following a six week trial, and an appellate court upheld the decision last month. AT&T has since started the process of reorganizing units of Time Warner, which is now named WarnerMedia. AT&T’s DirecTV Now also is implementing a $10-per-month price increase for subscribers and a reformat of two of its packages.