U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, during questioning at a congressional hearing Tuesday, sidestepped questions about whether President Trump’s vitriol toward CNN was factoring into the Department of Justice’s review of a mammoth media merger.
AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner Inc. — which owns CNN, HBO, TNT, Cartoon Network and the Warner Bros. movie and television studio — for $85 billion. Justice Department antitrust division officials met last week with AT&T executives to discuss their concerns about the merger.
Trump’s disdain for CNN — he calls the network “fake news” — has become an issue in the federal government’s review of the proposed merger, raising questions about whether the Justice Department is bowing to political pressure.
During Tuesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) pointedly asked Sessions whether the White House has gotten involved in what is supposed to be a legal review of the merits of AT&T’s proposed merger.
“I am not able to comment on conversations or communications that Department of Justice top people have with top people at the White House,” Sessions said.
The Justice Department’s antitrust division, now led by Makan Delrahim, has suggested that it might sue to block the merger. Sources familiar with the matter have told various news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, that the Justice Department has suggested that AT&T sell either Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, or its El Segundo-based satellite TV unit, DirecTV, to win government approval of the deal.
Earlier in the day, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) wanted to know whether the Justice Department had ordered AT&T to sell CNN, noting that Trump’s ire toward the news network is well-documented.
Johnson asked whether anyone at the White House had contacted Sessions or other Justice Department officials in an effort to influence their decision on the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Sessions did not directly answer the question.
“First, I would say that I don’t accept, and cannot accept, the accuracy of that news report,” Sessions said. “We have a professional team —”
Johnson interrupted to ask whether the Justice Department had ordered AT&T to shed CNN.
“Our work is professional. They do meet with the —” Sessions said before being interrupted a second time by Johnson, who asked about the validity of news reports.
“I would just tell you that I’m not able to accept as accurate news reports that have come out on that,” Sessions said.
Johnson then switched his attention to another topic.
AT&T Chairman and Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, during an appearance last week at the New York Times Dealbook conference, said he had not been directly ordered to sell CNN.
However, questions remain about whether Stephenson was asked to sell Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, or whether he would have to divest DirecTV, which the Dallas phone giant acquired in 2015.
Stephenson also said he would not sell CNN.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Cicilline’s questioning on the issue was most pointed. He referenced news reports that 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch, an informal advisor to Trump, has involved himself in the transaction, calling Stephenson on two occasions to ask about CNN. Murdoch’s company owns Fox News, which is a competitor of CNN, and Murdoch’s company tried — and failed — to buy Time Warner three years ago.
“Mr. Sessions, are you not going to answer the question about whether any White House officials have attempted to interfere or speak to the Justice Department about this transaction?” Cicilline asked.
Sessions responded: “According to a long-standing Justice Department policy, the Justice Department does not reveal privileged conversations or conversations with the White House.”
In addition, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), asked Sessions whether the antitrust division’s position on mergers had changed. In the past, the Justice Department has found acceptable “vertical” mergers, which don’t eliminate any direct competitors. The more problematic mergers have been those defined as “horizontal,” because they consolidate similar businesses and thus reduce competition.
AT&T has classified its proposed takeover of Time Warner as a vertical merger because it wouldn’t wipe out any direct competitors. Some Republicans have expressed concern that the Justice Department might be taking a more restrictive view of mergers rather than allowing market conditions to prevail.
“Antitrust policy is important. I have never been an expert at it,” Sessions said. “We have an experienced team at the Department of Justice. We do try to handle each case professionally. I’m not able to announce any new policies at this time, congressman.”
11:10 a.m.: This article was updated to include questions from Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ responses.
This article was first published at 10:20 a.m.