According to a new report by The New Yorker, President Donald Trump put the Department of Justice on the hot seat into blocking AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc. Interestingly, White House staff ignored the president’s orders to pressure the DOJ. Currently, it’s unclear if Trump made any direct demands to the DOJ.
In The New Yorker‘s report, there are great details of Trump’s close relationship with Fox and how much Trump dislikes Fox competitors that provide him with less-than-ideal coverage on his presidency.
It should come as a surprise to no one how much Trump dislikes CNN either. During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to block AT&T’s proposed takeover of Tim Warner, the owner of CNN. In November 2017, Trump administration’s DOJ filed a lawsuit to try and block AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner. It wasn’t clear if Trump intervened himself to stop the merger.
Ultimately though, AT&T succeeded in court and completed the merger with Time Warner, even though it failed to prove that Trump meddled in the review of their merger.
Another interesting bit from The New Yorker‘s report suggests that Trump ordered staffers to intervene with the DOJ’s review of the merger, but his staffers did not do it. Here’s what the article says:
In the late summer of 2017, a few months before the Justice Department filed suit, Trump ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the Justice Department to intervene. According to a well-informed source, Trump called Cohn into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exasperation to Kelly, “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, a former president of Goldman Sachs, evidently understood that it would be highly improper for a president to use the Justice Department to undermine two of the most powerful companies in the country as punishment for unfavorable news coverage, and as a reward for a competing news organization that boosted him. According to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting he told Kelly, “Don’t you fucking dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
In December 2017, Trump told The New York Times that “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.” The thing is, if the president interferes with DOJ matters to punish new organizations that give him negative coverage, it could violate the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment prohibits retaliation based on speech, association, or political activity,” Protect Democracy, a watchdog group, wrote last year in a white paper, disputing with Trump’s claims that he can do whatever he likes with the DOJ. “Therefore, it would violate the First Amendment for the White House to intervene in a specific-party matter in order to respond to political participation or discourage First Amendment protected activity.”
According to an article from Variety, in an affidavit last year, DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim said his review of the AT&T/Time Warner merger “took no account of the views of anyone else (including then-candidate or President Trump or anyone else in the White House) as to CNN’s editorial content or exercise of First Amendment rights.” Ultimately, the DOJ failed to prove its case in the US District Court for the District of Columbia and again in federal appeals court, and the judge sided with AT&T/Time Warner to move forward with the merger.