DID PRESIDENT TRUMP seek to block a huge media merger because he was peeved at CNN? The allegation that the president threw his executive power around to punish a news media outlet he detests is at the core of an article this week in the New Yorker. While the Justice Department’s antitrust chief has denied any pressure from the Oval Office, the circumstances are so fishy and the substance of the charge so grave that Congress must investigate.
At issue is the $85.4 billion AT&T purchase of Time Warner, which includes CNN, a deal announced in late October 2016. In November 2017, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division brought suit to block the merger, saying it would harm competition. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled in June 2018 that the department’s concerns were unfounded. A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld his ruling, rejecting the Justice Department’s case and giving the deal a green light.
Mr. Trump had spoken out against the merger in the final days of his presidential campaign, saying Oct. 22, 2016, that the combined companies would represent “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that in the late summer of 2017, the president ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to get the Justice Department to file suit. Ms. Mayer reports that Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohn into the Oval Office along with John F. Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said to Mr. 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!” Ms. Mayer reports that Mr. Cohn “evidently understood” it would be highly improper, and as he walked out of the meeting told Mr. Kelly not to do as the president asked, saying, “We are not going to do business that way.” It is not known whether Mr. Trump found another channel for his demand, but the department did file the suit.
Ms. Mayer relates this as part of a larger story about Mr. Trump’s intense courting of Fox News, owned by media titan Rupert Murdoch, and a fierce competitor of CNN for audience and advertising. Had the deal been blocked, it certainly could have harmed CNN and benefited Fox and Mr. Murdoch. But this episode is about much more than Mr. Trump’s playing favorites with televison coverage. Putting his thumb on the scale at the Justice Department to financially and legally punish CNN would be an insult to the First Amendment’s guarantee of an unfettered free press and a totally improper political intervention into law enforcement decisions.
Around the world in recent years, authoritarian leaders who fear democracy have subverted the news media by wresting ownership out of independent hands and serving it up to friendly oligarchs. The practice has deadened journalism in Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and elsewhere. Fortunately, in the AT&T case, U.S. courts turned aside the Justice Department’s suit. But Ms. Mayer describes a president who appears eager to abuse his power to destroy his enemies. Congress ought to investigate every last bit of it.