Attorney General Jeff Sessions was grilled Tuesday by Democratic lawmakers about accusations that the White House played a role in the Justice Department’s reported efforts to require significant changes to the AT&T merger with Time Warner.
Sessions, testifying to the House Judiciary Committee, said in response that he would not comment on any non-public communications with the White House.
The allegation that the merger approval process had been subject to political influence is particularly ironic because it was only five months ago that several Democratic senators penned a letter to Sessions urging the Justice Department to block the merger.
The group of Senators–which was led by Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and included Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and Edward Markey–wrote:
We are writing to urge the Department of Justice (DOJ) to closely scrutinize AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner. We have strong concerns that the combined company’s unmatched control of popular content and distribution of that content will lead to higher prices, fewer choices, and poorer quality services for Americans–substantial harms that cannot be remedied with unreliable, unenforceable, and time-limited conditions.
More recently, Franken wrote an opinion piece arguing that the merger is a “raw deal for the rest of us” that was published just one day before the news broke that the Department of Justice had asked AT&T to divest itself of either DirectTV or its Turner Broadcasting System content, which includes CNN, to win approval of the deal.
In July, a group of public interest organizations asked Sessions to reject the merger.
“The proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner would create a media and telecommunications giant with the ability to use its assets to dominate markets, hold back competition, and harm consumers by inflating prices and impeding new video services,” their letter read.
On Tuesday, however, Democrats seemed mostly interested in exploring the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the Trump White House had somehow corrupted the process of the professional civil servant attorneys in the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Both Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia and Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island focussed on the allegations, with Cicilline calling them “disturbing.”
Sessions said he wouldn’t comment on communications with the White House and questioned the accuracy of media reports about the Justice Department’s position on the merger.
When the deal was announced in the fall of 2016, Trump said he was opposed to it.
“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,” Trump said in October 2016.
Trump has been a frequent critic of CNN, calling it a “fake news” network.