Gary Cohn ordered White House chief of staff John Kelly to ignore President Donald Trump’s demand to get the Justice Department to block the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner, according to a story by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker.
Mayer reports, citing “a well-informed source,” that in the summer of 2017, Trump summoned Kelly and Cohn, who was then serving as the Director of the White House’s National Economic Council, to the Oval Office.
Supposedly, Trump was seeking to block the Time Warner and AT&T merger to help out his friends at Fox and because of his animus against Time Warner’s CNN.
From the New Yorker:
According to a well-informed source, Trump called Cohn into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exasperation to Kelly, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”
Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, evidently understood that it would be highly improper for a President to use the Justice Department to undermine two of the most powerful companies in the country as punishment for unfavorable news coverage, and as a reward for a competing news organization that boosted him. According to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting he told Kelly, “Don’t you fucking dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
Justice Department officials, including the head of its antitrust division, have repeatedly denied that the President’s opposition to the merger had any influence on their decision to sue AT&T in an attempt to block that merger. Mayer’s story supports those denials because it shows White House officials colluding not to carry out the orders of the president to attempt to encourage the Justice Department to block the deal.
Mayer inaccurately reports that “Presidents have traditionally avoided expressing opinions about legal matters pending before the judicial branch.” But Trump’s predecessors repeatedly expressed opinions about pending legal matters.
Most recently, in the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama “expressed deep frustration with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, questioning why justices even took up a case that imperils his signature health insurance reform plan,” Politico reported at the time. Obama also commented on the case against George Zimmerman, the Florida man accused and later acquited in the shooting 17-year-old Travon Martin.
And Obama weighed in personally on a then-pending proposal at the Federal Communications Commission, “having his administration file comments that applauded the effort to loosen cable companies’ grip on the boxes,” according to the New York Times.
From the New York Times:
The announcements are the newest moves by Mr. Obama to push back against the forces of consolidation and monopoly, and to shift power away from large corporations in an array of industries.
They are also the latest to place the president squarely on the side of technology companies — some led by executives who have contributed to Mr. Obama’s campaigns, hired his former aides and spoken to him often. Among the supporters of the set-top box proposal are companies like Google, Amazon and Apple, which are eager to establish a broader foothold in the TV market.
“An industry that had previously been considered untouchable — the cable guys — is now subject to criticism from the president,” said Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law School professor who is a former aide to Mr. Obama.
Notably, Mayer does not point to anything Trump said or did to interfere with the judicial branch. Instead, he was urging his top aides to communicate with lesser officers of the executive branch, the branch which acts on behalf of the U.S. President.