The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats seek records from Trump over reports of possible interference in AT&T-Time Warner deal

(Mark Lennihan/AP)

House Democrats pressed the Trump administration on Thursday over its handling of the AT&T-Time Warner merger, requesting information from the White House and the Justice Department that could shed light on whether President Trump or his allies interfered in regulators’ review of the $85 billion deal.

In a pair of letters sent to Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee requested documents and communications logs between Trump and senior officials — including Gary Cohn, the former director of the National Economic Council.

The letters come days after the New Yorker reported that Trump had asked Cohn to reach out to the Justice Department to try to block the deal, which Cohn reportedly refused to do.

The mere perception of White House interference “undermines public trust,” the lawmakers said. "The reports of attempted political intervention into antitrust enforcement harkens to similar allegations during the Nixon Administration,” wrote Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.).

“The fact of actual interference would constitute a serious abuse of power,” they added.

Nadler and Cicilline are focusing their request on the period from November 2016, just after Election Day, to Feb. 26 of this year. In addition to seeking communications between Trump and top aides, the lawmakers asked for records documenting contact between the Justice Department and Trump or Cohn, or any other White House employee.

The White House and the Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The letters underscore how exposed the White House remains to a deeper investigation of Trump’s interest in the AT&T-Time Warner deal, even as the two companies have completed their merger and survived court challenges by the government. Last week, a federal appeals court upheld the merger over Justice Department objections. Administration officials said they do not intend to continue fighting the case.

Trump has been outspoken in his distaste for the AT&T deal. On the campaign trail in 2016, he slammed the proposed merger as an “example of the power structure I’m fighting.”

“AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” Trump said.

The remark raised eyebrows over Trump’s apparent willingness to violate long-standing norms discouraging presidents from influencing the outcome of impartial merger reviews. And it sparked speculation that Trump’s opposition to the deal may have been rooted in CNN’s critical coverage of him.

The possibility of White House interference surfaced briefly during the Justice Department’s initial case against the merger, when AT&T demanded that the administration hand over additional evidence that could prove whether Trump had tampered with the merger review. But the company’s request was quashed by a federal judge, refocusing the case on the deal’s economic merits.

AT&T’s merger with Time Warner created an entertainment behemoth, giving the merged company control over a wide range of television, film and video game material. Time Warner — now renamed WarnerMedia — owns not only CNN, but also HBO and Warner Bros.