Jeff Sessions ducks questions about White House influence on AT&T-Time Warner merger

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 Justice Department’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 government’s review of the proposed merger, raising questions about whether the Justice Department is bowing to political pressure.

During the 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 acquisition.

"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 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. He asked whether anyone at the White House had contacted Sessions or other Justice Department officials. Sessions did not answer the question and instead disputed the accuracy of news reports.

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 his company would have to divest DirecTV, which the Dallas phone giant acquired in 2015.

Stephenson also said he would not sell CNN.

On Capitol Hill, Cicilline 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. Cicilline pressed Sessions for an answer.

“The Justice Department does not reveal privileged conversations or conversations with the White House," Sessions said.

Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), asked whether the antitrust division’s position on mergers had changed. In the past, the Justice Department has found acceptable so-called “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.

“We have an experienced team at the Department of Justice,” Sessions said. “We do try to handle each case professionally. I’m not able to announce any new policies at this time, congressman.”

meg.james@latimes.com

Twiter: @MegJamesLAT


UPDATES:

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.

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