WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ordered then-economic adviser Gary Cohn in the summer of 2017 to put pressure on the Justice Department to sue to block the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger, according to a story posted in the New Yorker.
Cohn, then serving as director of the National Economic Council, was called into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, according to the story, written by from Jane Mayer. She cites a well-informed source. Trump said to Kelly, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”
Cohn refused to carry out the order, and told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
The possibility of White House interference in DOJ merger decisions has for some time raised concerns among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the new chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, recently told Variety that he wants to look into the possibility of White House interference in DOJ merger decisions, including the AT&T-Time Warner transaction.
The Justice Department filed a lawsuit to block the merger in November, 2017, but a federal judge ruled in favor of the companies after a six-week trial. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision last week.
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AT&T and Time Warner executives have held suspicions that they were targeted because of Trump’s hatred of CNN, then a unit of Time Warner’s Turner networks. Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, called it the “elephant in the room” at the time that the lawsuit was filed. In a pre-trial hearing, the companies’ legal team sought to start discovery on the potential for White House interference, but the judge rejected that effort.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the New Yorker story. A Justice Department spokesman declined comment.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, a White House spokesman said that Trump “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 denied that the White House influenced the decision to file suit. He said in a statement on Nov. 8, 2017, that he has “never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division.”
He also said in a sworn declaration in February of 2018, that “my consideration of this transaction took no account of the views of anyone else (including then-candidate or President Trump or anyone at the White House) as to CNN’s editorial content or exercise of First Amendment rights. Those were not factors that played any role in my consideration of the Transaction and any suggestions to the contrary are false.”
Delrahim served as deputy White House counsel before he was confirmed in September, 2017, as the assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division.
Trump announced his opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner merger shortly after the transaction was announced in October, 2016.
Attorney George Conway, a critic of Trump and the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, wrote on Twitter that if proven, “such an attempt to use presidential authority to seek retribution for the exercise of First Amendment rights would unquestionably be grounds for impeachment.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that congressional investigation is warranted.
“I’ve long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the “enemy of the people,” he wrote on Twitter. “Congress must find out whether Trump did just that by seeking to interfere in a merger or raising postal rates on Amazon.” Trump has raised against Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, another target of the president’s media criticism.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN that the incident in the story would be an “abuse of power.”
Mayer’s story focuses on Fox News and the role of Rupert Murdoch in the Trump presidency. She noted that Murdoch sought to buy Time Warner in 2014, but the bid was unsuccessful. Last year, the Justice Department approved the merger of The Walt Disney Co. with many of the assets of 21st Century Fox. The transaction got the greenlight about seven months after it was announced, a relatively short time frame for a major media transaction. Amid antitrust concerns, the companies quickly agreed to divest Fox’s regional sports networks, according to sources.
Mayer also reported that in the fall of 2016, FoxNews.com reporter Diana Falzone obtained proof of a relationship between Trump and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, as well as emails between Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen and Daniels’ lawyer in which settlement payments and a non-disclosure agreement were discussed. According to Mayer’s report, the editors were unresponsive to the story, and Falzone claimed to colleagues that the FoxNews.com head, Ken LaCorte, told her, “Good reporting, kiddo. But Rupert wants Donald Trump to win. So just let it go.”