AT&T Says CEO Didn’t Discuss Time Warner Merger With Trump

  • Stephenson discussed jobs, investment with president-elect
  • Trump has opposed combination of telecom, media powerhouses

Trump and the Future for AT&T, Time Warner Deal

AT&T Inc. said Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson’s meeting with President-elect Donald Trump touched on job creation, investment and competition, but the elephant in the room -- the telecommunications giant’s merger with Time Warner Inc. -- didn’t come up.

“Mr. Stephenson had a very good meeting with President-Elect Trump earlier today covering a wide-range of topics,” AT&T said Thursday in a statement. “AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner was not a topic of discussion. Rather, as the country’s leading investor of capital for each of the last five years, the conversation focused on how AT&T can work with the Trump administration to increase investment in the U.S., stimulate job creation in America, and make American companies more competitive globally.”

Stephenson at Trump Tower, Jan. 12.

Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

That portrayal was at odds with a description given ahead of the meeting by people familiar with the agenda, who said the transaction was set to be discussed with Trump, who opposes the $85.4 billion deal. Those people asked not to be identified because the details weren’t public.

Stephenson showed up at Trump Tower at about 9:20 a.m. New York time along with Robert Quinn, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, and left shortly after 10:30 a.m., ignoring shouted questions from reporters. Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, confirmed the meeting took place but didn’t disclose specific topics.

Winning approval for the transaction is essential for Stephenson’s plan to turn Dallas-based AT&T, the largest U.S. pay-TV provider, into a media powerhouse, producing some of the world’s most popular shows and movies. One of Stephenson’s previous megamerger attempts, a 2011 deal to acquire T-Mobile USA Inc., now T-Mobile US Inc., was derailed by the Obama administration.

CEOs Visit

Trump has hosted CEOs and business leaders across many industries in the run-up to his Jan. 20 inauguration, including Masayoshi Son, the Japanese tycoon who controls AT&T rival Sprint Corp.

Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, was asked by reporters on a conference call Thursday whether Trump still favors scuttling the deal.

“His primary focus is how companies will continue to create jobs” when he meets with CEOs, Spicer said. “That’s generally been the subject of all of his meetings when he meets with these CEOs.”

It would be very unusual for a president to weigh in on what is essentially an enforcement matter, since potential antitrust concerns in this deal would be handled by the Justice Department. While the agency is part of the executive branch, the White House has typically stayed at arm’s length from the antitrust division’s merger reviews. Even the appearance of trying to influence this type of legal matter is extremely rare.

In October, before the election, Trump said his administration wouldn’t approve the merger, saying, “It’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” He cited the deal as “an example of the power structure I’m fighting.”

Trump’s Options

His options as president to block the merger are limited, especially if AT&T can avoid a review by the Federal Communications Commission by not acquiring wireless licenses Time Warner holds. The Justice Department could sue to stop the transaction, but it would have to convince the courts that the deal would threaten competition. That could be tough because AT&T isn’t buying a direct competitor.

It’s unclear whether Trump’s opposition to the deal is influenced by his animosity toward CNN, controlled by Time Warner. Trump said in a Twitterposting Thursday that “@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!”

Trump’s message followed an angry tirade against the cable news network and a news website, BuzzFeed, during a press conference Wednesday for propagating what he called “fake news.”

AT&T didn’t say whether CNN was discussed in Stephenson’s meeting with Trump.

Trump has said little publicly about the AT&T deal since the election. He told a friend in the last few weeks that he remains opposed to the megamerger because he believes it would concentrate too much power in the media industry, according to people close to the president-elect.

Attorney General

Trump’s cabinet pick for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, didn’t discuss the merger in his meetings with Trump ahead of his confirmation, a spokesman for Sessions said earlier this week.

As head of Justice, Sessions would supervise the department’s antitrust division.

During Sessions’s confirmation hearing on Thursday, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has “no hesitation to enforce antitrust law.”

“I have no hesitation to say certain mergers should not occur,” Sessions testified.

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