Thirteen months before he was picked Friday by President Trump to be attorney general, William P. Barr was sharply at odds with the Justice Department he hopes to oversee.
Barr served on the board of Time Warner, which was seeking to merge with AT&T. He joined other Time Warner officials at a meeting with the antitrust officials at the Justice Department who were seeking to block the merger. A key issue was whether the officials were motivated by Trump’s dislike of Time Warner-owned CNN.
Barr, in an affidavit filed as part of litigation over the merger, said he was dismayed by the “inexplicable” opposition to the merger expressed by Justice antitrust head Makan Delrahim. Barr highlighted what he called Trump’s “prior public animus towards CNN and this merger.” He then questioned whether the merger was being opposed “to serve a political end” and whether Justice officials had a “political or other motivation.”
“As a former Attorney General,” concluded Barr, who served in that position under President George H.W. Bush, “that is disturbing to me.”
In an affidavit, Delrahim said his position took “no account of the views” of Trump and that he never received instructions from the White House.
The fight over the merger highlights conflicts that could arise from Barr’s role working with top corporations in the years since he left government. If Barr is confirmed as attorney general, he would oversee the antitrust department and have to work with the officials he contradicted in his affidavit.
A lower court approved the merger in June, uniting the companies, but the Justice Department appealed the ruling. If the case continues, Barr would almost certainly face calls to recuse himself. If he heeds those calls, he would not be involved in one of the biggest matters before the Justice Department.
Barr declined to comment for this story. In a statement to The Washington Post, Delrahim did not address the dispute that the clashing affidavits revealed, but he said he has known and admired Barr for many years, adding that Barr “is a friend and an excellent choice by the President to continue the strong law and order policies of this Administration.”
While prior attorneys general have also represented corporations, Barr’s ties are particularly extensive, ranging over the past 25 years for companies from Verizon to Caterpillar.
“This is somebody who has been very much entrenched in the Washington environment,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust official who leads the consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge. “Past business relationships would certainly prevent participation in any decisions involving the relevant companies.”
After leaving the Justice Department at the end of the Bush administration in January 1993, Barr served in a number of corporate positions at GTE, a telecom company, and Verizon Communications. Much of his work revolved around the consolidation of companies, including the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic that led to the creation of Verizon. He also worked on Verizon’s acquisition of MCI and Alltel.
Barr, who joined the Time Warner board in 2009, voted for the merger with AT&T and was a strong advocate for it. The merger was proposed in October 2016 as an $85 billion combination that would create a giant media and telecom enterprise. Trump promptly turned the proposal into an issue on the campaign trail, saying, “We will not approve” the merger “in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”
Trump has been a frequent critic of CNN, deriding the network’s coverage as “fake news” when he disagrees with it. He has often sparred with CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who successfully sued to get back his press pass after the president’s staff revoked it. The Justice Department represented the White House in that suit.
The Trump administration was close to blocking the merger when Barr and other Time Warner officials arrived for a meeting at the Justice Department on Nov. 8, 2017.
If the Trump administration went ahead with the antitrust action, Time Warner general counsel Paul Cappuccio told Justice officials, the case would be “a sh*tshow like you’ve never seen,” comparing it to the disappearance of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, according to an affidavit from Delrahim.
Delrahim said in his affidavit that he interpreted Cappuccio’s comment to mean that he would “employ personal attacks to denigrate the integrity of the Antitrust Division and myself” if the government moved to block the deal. Cappuccio did not respond to a request for comment.
Barr appeared “uncomfortable,” got up from his chair, and the meeting soon ended, according to Delrahim. Andrew C. Finch, the principal deputy assistant attorney general, attended the meeting and, in his affidavit, corroborated the account given by Delrahim.
In response, Barr signed a separate affidavit contradicting the recollection of the two Justice officials. He said he had no memory of Cappuccio referencing Hoffa or Comey.
Barr said the accounts given by Delrahim and Finch were “inaccurate and incomplete.” In addition to stating that Delrahim “would not engage in a meaningful discussion” about potential remedies to avoid a trial regarding the merger, he said that “no reasonable person could have misinterpreted Mr. Cappuccio’s comments as a threat that the companies would personally attack Mr. Delrahim or anyone else in the event of litigation.”
Two weeks after the meeting, the Justice Department filed a suit to block the merger, saying that it was concerned the merger would result in higher prices for consumers.
Barr’s role with Time Warner ended earlier this year, when the company became an entity of AT&T called WarnerMedia, a company spokesman said.
Allen Grunes, an antitrust attorney who has worked with Delrahim, said that their conflict over the merger would be set aside if Barr is confirmed as attorney general.
“Whatever happened during a single meeting on a single case is not likely to be determinative of anything,” Grunes said. “I don’t it see it affecting a relationship going forward if they are both in DOJ. They are both respected lawyers, and my belief is they would work together just fine.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.