PRESIDENT TRUMP'S disdain for CNN is no secret. He has repeatedly called it "fake news," and he tweeted a video of himself attacking a CNN stand-in. Now, reports suggest the Justice Department may be pushing CNN's owner Time Warner to sell the network as a condition of a corporate merger. The acquisition may pose legitimate antitrust concerns — but Mr. Trump's behavior raises the specter of political retaliation, which in turn increases the need for transparency in the antitrust decision-making process.
AT&T's proposed purchase of Time Warner would place the telecommunications company in control of a portion of the entertainment it delivers, following in the footsteps of Comcast's acquisition of NBC. Despite criticism that the deal would hand too much power to a single corporation, AT&T's prospects seemed decent in recent months. The Federal Communications Commission allowed the proposal to move forward without lengthy review. Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, stated before taking office that the merger likely fell within the law.
But Mr. Delrahim appears to have changed his mind. The Financial Times and the New York Times each report multiple versions of a tense meeting between representatives of AT&T and the Justice Department. By some accounts, government lawyers informed AT&T that it would need to divest CNN's parent company, Turner Broadcasting, or AT&T's satellite broadcaster DirecTV. It's not clear to what extent the government was concerned about CNN specifically or Turner Broadcasting as a whole: "It's all about CNN," one anonymous source told the Financial Times. Other sources say that AT&T offered to sell CNN but was told by the Justice Department that this wouldn't be enough to quell antitrust concerns. Meanwhile, AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson denies that the company ever suggested spinning off the network or that "the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN."
Yet it's hard to forget Mr. Trump's harsh words for CNN or the opposition to the merger he voiced on the campaign trail, declaring: "Deals like this destroy democracy." In July, the New York Times reported that "White House advisers have discussed [the merger as] a potential point of leverage" over CNN.
To be sure, no reports have shown any evidence of White House interference with the Justice Department's antitrust division. Mr. Trump said on Sunday that he "didn't make [the] decision" to request CNN's sale, pointing to Mr. Delrahim instead. It may be that Mr. Delrahim altered his view on the merger after heeding the good-faith assessment of apolitical Justice Department attorneys. But it is an unavoidable fact that the president's behavior has cast a cloud of doubt over the work of these honorable civil servants.
The Senate subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights should exercise its oversight responsibility and convene a hearing on the matter. If the White House exerted improper influence over the Justice Department in the interest of punishing a political enemy, the public has a right to know. If suspicions are unfounded, then a hearing will work to dispel them. The White House has put itself in a position where the nation may reasonably presume bad faith. If it wants trust, it must now earn it.