A federal judge has ruled against AT&T in its effort to force the Justice Department to reveal whether President Trump inappropriately interfered with a regulatory review of the telecom giant's $85 billion Time Warner merger.
The ruling on Tuesday from Judge Richard Leon rejects AT&T's argument that the government has singled out the company for special scrutiny. The move blocks an attempt by AT&T to draw Trump into the legal battle by raising questions as to what, if any, pressure he may have placed on antitrust regulators to stop the acquisition.
AT&T had requested that Leon compel the Justice Department to provide a log of any communications that may have transpired between the White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as communications that could have taken place between Sessions and the department's antitrust team. If Trump did pressure the Justice Department, that could be a potentially illegal exercise of executive authority over an independent investigation, experts say. Agency lawyers argued in court Friday the Justice Department had already provided more than enough evidence to disprove Trump's involvement, beginning with a log of direct communications between the White House and the department's antitrust division.
Additional disclosures are not warranted, said Leon, because AT&T had failed to provide enough evidence of “selective enforcement.”
“While it may, indeed, be a rare breed of horse,” Leon wrote of the deal, “it is not exactly a unicorn!” Leon added that many similar mergers have come under scrutiny before, even if they did not necessarily result in the government blocking them.
AT&T is seeking to build an advertising empire by joining its massive distribution facilities — its telecom network — with Time Warner, an entertainment giant that controls CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. and other highly valued content. The Justice Department's antitrust chief, Trump appointee Makan Delrahim, has charged in the suit that the AT&T deal could hurt competition and slow innovation in the online video industry.
“We respect the judge’s decision and look forward to the upcoming trial,” said Dan Petrocelli, lead trial attorney for both Time Warner and AT&T.
"We are pleased with and respect today’s decision," said DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec, "which will permit the parties and court to focus on the case at hand. This case has always been about protecting consumers from competitive harms, and we look forward to presenting our case at trial on March 19."