U.S. Fights AT&T Efforts to Unearth Trump Role in Merger Review

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Justice Department is fighting AT&T Inc.’s search for evidence that President Donald Trump is behind the agency’s antitrust challenge to the takeover of Time Warner Inc.

Trump’s criticism of Time Warner’s CNN doesn’t justify AT&T’s “fishing expedition” for communications between the White House and the Justice Department, government lawyer Craig Conrath told U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington Friday. While the president dislikes the news channel, Conrath said, “AT&T wants to turn that into a get-out-of-jail-free card for their illegal merger.”

AT&T is trying to learn if there was any political tampering in the department’s November lawsuit to stop the $85.4 billion merger, which the agency has said would harm consumers. The government has rejected the company’s request for a list of communications between the White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s office and between Sessions and the antitrust division, AT&T lawyer Daniel Petrocelli said.

Petrocelli complained to the judge that the Justice Department won’t expressly rule out the existence of the communications. If the government produces the list, the judge can look “and that will be the end of it, unless there’s something there,” he said.

“We don’t know whether there are three documents. We don’t know whether there are 30 documents,” Petrocelli said. “Ostensibly there shouldn’t be any.”

Ruling Tuesday

Leon said he would rule on Tuesday whether the Justice Department must identify any communications.

During Friday’s hearing, AT&T’s lawyer complained that Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson and his Time Warner counterpart, Jeff Bewkes, had been questioned under oath about their belief that the president was behind the lawsuit, while the companies’ efforts to obtain information about the same subject had been stymied.

On Friday, Conrath produced a written statement from Makan Delrahim, the head of Justice’s antitrust division, attesting that he hadn’t been directed by Trump.

Conrath also argued the lawsuit couldn’t have been motivated by a desire to harm CNN because the network would have continued operating under the settlements the government was willing to accept, such as a sale of Turner Broadcasting.

“CNN doesn’t matter,” the government’s lawyer said. “We know we’re here to be judged on the facts and the law.”

If approved, the merger would hand AT&T, the largest U.S. pay-TV provider, ownership of some of the most popular providers of film and TV programming, including CNN, Warner Bros., TNT, TBS and HBO.

Earlier Friday at an event in Paris, Delrahim said he didn’t discuss the merger with Trump before suing to block the deal.

“It is not something I’ve discussed with President Trump. I’ve commented on that before. I don’t even want an insinuation by me not commenting,” Delrahim said. He declined to say more, citing the litigation.

Trump has had an open feud with CNN and repeatedly called it a fake news source. During a campaign appearance in 2016 he called the merger “an example of the power structure I’m fighting” and called it “a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

In public appearances, Stephenson pointed to a flip-flop in Delrahim’s stance on the deal once he joined the department. After the deal was announced, Delrahim said in a Canadian TV interview it wasn’t a major antitrust problem. Then he was picked by the White House to lead the antitrust division and soon after he was confirmed as antitrust chief, the U.S. sued to block the deal.

“That’s an elephant in the room and will probably have to be dealt with in some context,” Stephenson said Thursday at the Boston College Chief Executives Club.

The case is U.S. v. AT&T Inc., 17-cv-2511, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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