President Trump on Saturday sought to distance himself from the Justice Department's negotiations with AT&T over its $85 billion bid for Time Warner, responding to reports this week that the department had asked the telecom giant to sell off CNN's parent company, Turner Broadcasting.
“I didn’t make that decision,” Trump told reporters. “It was made by a man who’s a very respected person, a very, very respected person.”
The “person” in Trump's remarks is probably Makan Delrahim, the Justice Department's recently confirmed antitrust chief. Delrahim, who supported Trump during the campaign and served nine months as a White House lawyer, is responsible for overseeing the AT&T transaction. This week, Delrahim and other agency officials told AT&T that the deal as it currently stands raises anti-competition concerns and that the company will need to shed some assets, perhaps either Turner or DirecTV. In light of Trump's frequent critiques of CNN, the move raised questions about Trump's possible political interference in what is supposed to be an impartial economic analysis.
“I did make a comment as to what I think,” Trump acknowledged, appearing to reference previous remarks he had made on the campaign trail criticizing the AT&T deal. Then he added: “I do feel you should have as many news outlets as you can — especially since so many are fake.”
The president has frequently referred to CNN as “fake news.”
Delrahim has said he was never given instructions by the White House on how to conduct his analysis. The White House has also said that Trump has not spoken to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the matter, nor were any White House officials authorized to speak to the Justice Department on it.
AT&T's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, said this week he has no intention of selling CNN or making any other major divestments. Those remarks put AT&T and the Justice Department on a collision course, policy analysts said, which may lead to the department suing to block the deal.
“We're prepared to litigate now,” Stephenson said at a conference this week hosted by the New York Times.