President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Justice previously challenged the integrity and motivation of the agency’s current antitrust chief, according to recently published court documents, offering a conflicting account of a meeting the two attended about the merger of AT&T and Time Warner.
Before the companies merged, Time Warner board member William Barr, whom Trump will likely nominate for attorney general, attended a meeting with the company’s general counsel and officials from the Justice Department’s antitrust division to discuss the mega-merger. While the clashing accounts of what took place at the meeting have been previously reported, the likelihood that Barr may become the nation’s top law enforcement officer renews the significance of the quarrel and raises questions about the future of the antitrust division and its personnel.
Makan Delrahim, whom Trump chose to lead the agency’s antitrust enforcement, said that during the November 2017 meeting, Time Warner general counsel Paul Cappuccio threatened to "employ personal attacks to denigrate the integrity of the Antitrust Division and myself” if the government moved to block the deal. According to a sworn statement filed in federal court, Delrahim said that Cappuccio stood up, waved his finger at him and said that if the government tried to prevent the merger, the case would be “a sh*tshow like you’ve never seen,” resembling “Jimmy Hoffa and the firing of Jim Comey.”
Delrahim’s deputy, Andrew Finch, attended the same meeting and corroborated Delrahim’s account in his own affidavit.
But Barr, who sat in the meeting on behalf of Time Warner, said in a sworn statement that the accounts given my 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, 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."
Barr said the finger-pointing did not happen and that he could not recall any reference to Hoffa or Comey. He said that Delrahim and Finch’s statements about Cappuccio were “incorrect.”
Barr also disputed Delrahim’s interpretation of his own behavior at the meeting.
According to Delrahim, Barr “appeared uncomfortable and pushed his chair back from the table” after Cappuccio delivered his threat.
But Barr said that statement is “wrong.” He continued: “The discomfort I felt at the end of the meeting was the result of my concern that Mr. Delrahim’s position about the alleged harm from the merger ... [was] the product not of a well-versed substantive analysis, but rather political or other motivation. As the former Attorney General that is disturbing to me.”
The Justice Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Barr, 68, served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. He was the executive vice president and general counsel of Verizon from 1994 to 2008 and currently sits on the board of WarnerMedia, the entity created after Time Warner merged with AT&T.
“The Department has very strict conflict-of-interest rules which prevent the attorney general and other high-level officials from participating in matters where there could even be an appearance of a conflict,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust official who now leads the consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge. “Past business relationships would certainly prevent participation in any decisions involving the relevant companies.”
Less than two weeks after the November 2017 merger meeting, the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit to block the deal. But after a closely followed trial, a federal judge sided with AT&T, ruling that the government failed to show that the merger would harm competition or consumers. The agency delivered oral arguments Thursday as part of its appeal. The three-judge panel appeared skeptical of the government’s case.