The difficulty of covering the Trump administration is that the scandals are so numerous and frequent that it is nearly impossible to focus on one before being overtaken by another. On Monday, I wrote a column focusing on allegations of collusion and obstruction of justice. At virtually the same time, the New Yorker was posting a long, investigative article by Jane Mayer adding fresh information to a long-rumored scandal — President Trump’s alleged attempt to use the antitrust process to punish one of his favorite media targets, “Fake News CNN.”
According to Mayer, Trump was determined to stop the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which owned CNN:
Trump ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the Justice Department to intervene. According to a well-informed source, Trump called Cohn into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exasperation to Kelly, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”
Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, evidently understood that it would be highly improper for a President to use the Justice Department to undermine two of the most powerful companies in the country as punishment for unfavorable news coverage, and as a reward for a competing news organization that boosted him. According to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting he told Kelly, “Don’t you [f------] dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
A few months later, according to a New York Times article from Nov. 8, 2017, senior Justice Department officials called in AT&T executives and told them they could receive antitrust approval if they sold assets such as Turner Broadcasting, a group of cable channels owned by Time Warner that included CNN, or DirecTV, a satellite-television provider that AT&T had bought two years earlier for $49 billion. AT&T refused those terms, and the Justice Department filed suit to block the merger. In June 2018, a federal judge dismissed the case, ruling that the merger could proceed without any conditions.
The White House and the Justice Department have long denied that the president had any involvement in the lawsuit, which he publicly endorsed. Mayer’s reporting calls those denials into question. Even if Cohn didn’t contact the Justice Department on the president’s behalf, perhaps someone else did? Or maybe the Justice Department just knew how to please the boss?
By an interesting coincidence, it has been reported that Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the relentlessly pro-Trump Fox News and Trump’s favorite media tycoon, had called AT&T’s chief executive to discuss his interest in buying CNN. It seems likely that if Murdoch had engineered this deal, CNN would have become much friendlier to Trump. It also seems likely that the sale would have received regulatory approval despite the obvious antitrust issues of having one company in possession of two of the three cable-news channels.
As Mayer notes, the Justice Department raised no antitrust concerns when Disney bought most of Fox’s entertainment assets in a deal that will pay the Murdoch family more than $2 billion. Trump blessed the deal on Twitter even before the Justice Department gave its formal approval. By contrast, she writes, “the F.C.C. blocked Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative rival to Fox, from combining with the Tribune Media Company. The F.C.C. argued that the deal would violate limits on the number of TV stations one entity can own, upending Sinclair’s hope of becoming the next Fox.”
Perhaps the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission were deciding these cases on the merits. But T-Mobile executives seem to have gotten the message that they can influence antitrust proceedings by currying favor with the president: They dramatically increased their patronage at the Trump hotel in Washington as soon as they announced a merger with Sprint. If Trump misused his authority to reward his friends in the media and punish his enemies, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein argues, that would be an impeachable offense.
There are numerous other instances of Trump striking back against media outlets that have offended him. Trump briefly banned CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House after aggressive questioning. Trump also reportedly pressured the Postal Service to double shipping rates for Amazon, whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post. And after the pro-Trump National Enquirer published an embarrassing article about Bezos’s private life, Trump expressed his hope that “the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands,” suggesting that the president is hoping to force a sale to someone who will deliver more positive news coverage of the administration.
This is banana republic stuff — the kind of thing that routinely happens in countries without the rule of law. Yet Trump’s attempts to manipulate the news media have never received the kind of intensive scrutiny they deserve, because so many other scandals have jostled for attention. Now, at last, there is a chance for a long-overdue reckoning. With House Democrats beginning to exercise their powers to compel the production of documents and witnesses, who knows how many other scandals they will uncover? The end of the Mueller probe could mark only the beginning of the probing investigation that this deeply corrupt administration deserves.