• Letter to Attorney General Sessions asks about “inappropriate interference”
• AT&T is seeking similar documents in discovery
House Democrats are demanding to see any communications between the Justice Department and the White House related to the agency’s suit to block AT&T Inc.’s $85.4 billion proposed merger with Time Warner Inc.
The lawmakers said in a Feb. 8 letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that they’re “deeply concerned” about the possibility of inappropriate White House interference with the DOJ in reviewing the deal.
The letter seeks all documents and communications, including email, identifying any contact between White House employees and the DOJ staff regarding the AT&T-Time Warner transaction.
The DOJ isn’t obligated to comply with the Democrats’ request, but AT&T has said in court filings that it is seeking the same information in discovery, which the agency is required to turn over. The DOJ didn’t respond to a request for comment.
AT&T’s proposed tie-up with Time Warner has drawn public opposition from President Donald Trump. The transaction involves Time Warner property CNN, which is frequently criticized by Trump because of its coverage. But Trump also met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson at Trump Tower before he was elected, and both men characterized the meeting as positive.
Trump’s activities put the DOJ in “a very difficult position,” said Joshua Stager, policy counsel for the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “They could be conducting a totally impartial, above-board investigation, and just one presidential tweet can throw all of that into disarray,” he told Bloomberg Law.
The DOJ has “well-established” guidelines that forbid communications with the White House on pending criminal or civil enforcement matters, except in limited circumstances, the Democrats’ letter said. It criticized Sessions for “refusing” to respond to questions about any communications with the White House during a Nov. 14 oversight hearing.
Sessions said he wasn’t able to comment on communications between the department and the White House. But the letter said Sessions didn’t assert executive privilege or “any other valid privilege.”
The DOJ sued in November to stop the AT&T-Time Warner deal, saying it would give AT&T too much control over must-have content such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and CNN. The suit is unusual because it’s the government’s first effort in decades to stop a “vertical” merger involving companies that aren’t direct competitors. Vertical deals typically get approved by U.S. regulators.
In the days leading up to the DOJ’s official announcement, some initial news reports said the companies were pressured by the department to give up CNN to avoid a government action. The DOJ has denied that claim, although multiple sources have said the discussion of Time Warner divesting Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, did come up.
The DOJ complaint doesn’t address CNN’s coverage but refers to the news channel as part of Time Warner’s must-have content.
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