March 7, 2019 / 8:24 PM / 4 months ago

Democrats probe whether White House interfered in AT&T Time Warner merger

(Reuters) - Two U.S. House Democrats on Thursday asked the White House and Justice Department to turn over documents that could show whether Republican President Donald Trump sought to intervene in the regulatory review of AT&T Inc’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc.

Smartphone with AT&T logo is seen in front of displayed Time Warner logo in this picture illustration taken June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

In letters released on Thursday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Representative David Cicilline, who chairs a panel overseeing antitrust issues, asked them to turn over records after The New Yorker magazine reported this week that Trump directed then-National Economic Council director Gary Cohn to use the Justice Department to block the deal.

The pair wrote that if accurate, Trump’s involvement would “constitute a grave abuse of power.” Last week, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling rejecting a Justice Department challenge to the deal filed in November 2017.

The White House and Justice Department did not immediately comment. AT&T declined to comment.

The letters cited the New Yorker article reporting that 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!’”

Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a declaration last year that he had never received “orders, instructions, or directions relating” to the AT&T Time Warner deal from Trump, Justice Department officials or officials from the Executive Office of the President.

The Justice Department said last week it would not seek further appeals.

In February 2018, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon rejected AT&T’s request to see White House communications that might shed light on whether Trump pressured the Justice Department to try to block the deal.

AT&T lawyers said last year the deal may have been singled out for enforcement, citing as evidence statements by Trump as a candidate and as president that the deal was bad for consumers and the country.

Trump criticized the deal as a candidate in late 2016, saying it would concentrate too much media power in the hands of one owner, and later saying it would raise prices. He has also frequently attacked CNN, a Time Warner property now owned by AT&T, for what he sees as negative coverage of his campaign and administration.

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis and G Crosse

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