Trump Role in Merger Reviews to Be Target of House Panel, Source Says

(Bloomberg) -- A congressional antitrust panel plans to examine whether the White House improperly influenced merger oversight, including the Justice Department’s lawsuit to block AT&T Inc.’s takeover of Time Warner Inc., according to a person familiar with the matter.

Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is taking over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, wants to examine what role, if any, President Donald Trump has played in some of the biggest mergers during his administration, said the person, who declined to identified.

His plans are part of a broader effort by Democrats, who took control of the House this month, to increase congressional oversight of the Trump administration. Cicilline is stepping into the leadership role as economists and policy advocates are pushing for stepped-up antitrust enforcement to combat rising corporate consolidation across the economy.

Cicilline’s other priorities for the panel include examining the cost of prescription drugs, how mergers can reduce workers’ bargaining power and the dominance of technology platforms like Google and Facebook, the person said.

Trump’s frequent criticism of CNN, which is owned by Time Warner, fueled speculation that the Justice Department’s 2017 lawsuit against the AT&T deal was politically motivated. The case, which the government lost and is appealing, was the first time in decades antitrust enforcers had gone to court to stop a deal uniting companies that operate in different parts of a supply chain. Trump said during the 2016 campaign that he would block the deal.

Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, has repeatedly denied that the White House had any role in the decision to bring the case. The department argued that the deal would give AT&T the power to raise prices that rival cable and satellite-TV companies pay for Time Warner programming.

Another antitrust review that raised questions in Washington was the swift approval of Walt Disney Co.’s bid for 21st Century Fox Inc. assets. At the time, Comcast Corp. was pursuing a rival bid for Fox, and Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s chairman and a Trump ally, preferred the Disney bid, which offered tax benefits. While the Justice Department’s review of the AT&T deal took more than a year, it approved Disney’s purchase of Fox after about six months.

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