WASHINGTON — The White House is refusing to turn over records of communications related to the AT&T-Time Warner merger after House Democrats demanded such information, prompted by New Yorker report that President Trump had ordered advisers to pressure the Justice Department to block the deal.
Pat Cipollone, the counsel to the president, wrote that such communications were covered under executive privilege.
“It has long been recognized that robust confidentiality protections are essential for the proper functioning of the presidency, as the President must be able to consult with and receive candid advice from his advisers, particularly his most senior advisers such as the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy,” Cipollone wrote in a letter to Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, and House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.)
They had written to Cipollone requesting records after a report in the New Yorker that in the summer of 2017, 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.
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The story added fuel to Democrats’ suspicions that Trump may have attempted to interfere with the Justice Department’s review of the AT&T-Time Warner transaction because of his animosity toward Time Warner unit CNN.
In his letter, Cipollone also suggests that it is within Trump’s authority to take an interest in how antitrust law is carried out. He wrote that the president “has an important role in the antitrust area. The Constitution imposes on the President the duty to ensure the laws are faithfully executed.”
He added, “Executive branch discretion flowing from the Take Care Clause applies in all contexts, including antitrust matters.”
The Justice Department sued to block the deal in November, 2017, but the companies prevailed in a district court trial and on appeal.
Nadler and Cicilline are also seeking records from the Justice Department. Cipollone said the DOJ would be “responding in due course.”
After the White House response, the lawmakers issued a statement saying that “in what has become a troubling pattern for the Trump administration, the White House has made a blanket claim that all White House communications — regardless of whether they contain evidence of improper or even unlawful activities — are protected by a code of secrecy.
“It appears the White House counsel believes that the President has unfettered discretion to use law enforcement as a political weapon,” they added. “That view of presidential power not only disregards well-established policies and norms that prohibit the White House from interfering in law enforcement activities, but it is also incompatible with our democracy.”
Before the AT&T-Time Warner trial started, the companies’ legal team attempted to gather information to pursue a claim that they were unfairly singled out for antitrust enforcement because of Trump’s animosity toward CNN, but the district judge, Richard J. Leon, rejected that line of defense.
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 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.