The Department of Justice may finally be getting tough on corporate mergers. But it picked a politically explosive case to bring back the forgotten art of trust-busting.
On Wednesday afternoon, The New York Times reported that AT&T and Time Warner, in order to win government approval of their $85 billion merger, are under pressure from the Justice Department to sell off either DirecTV or Turner Broadcasting, the group of cable networks that includes CNN. A different report in the Financial Times, however, claimed that the Trump administration is focused on the sale of CNN specifically.
The latter news sparked concerns that President Trump, who has long berated CNN as “fake news,” was punishing the company for its critical coverage of his administration. Indeed, for any president to use the Department of Justice to punish enemies—either individuals or companies—would be the stuff of authoritarians.
There are two fishy details about the DOJ’s objections. First, Makan Delrahim, Trump’s handpicked head of antitrust at the Justice Department, had previously announced that this merger would be acceptable. The fact that he has changed his mind while working for this White House suggests to some that the administration may have inspired the policy change. Peter Kafka, a media reporter at Recode, called the possibility “chilling.” Second, it’s doubly startling for a Republican administration to suddenly reverse several decades of party leniency on just these sort of mergers, particularly with the president’s favorite target, CNN, hanging in the balance.