AT&T Ready to Probe the White House’s Role in Time Warner Deal

Updated on
  • Company will seek evidence of Trump influence if U.S. sues
  • Murdoch’s possible role in review also said to be AT&T target
Jones Day’s Bob Profusek looks at the regulatory battle over AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner.

AT&T Inc. will try to dig into whether the White House influenced the Justice Department’s review of the company’s planned takeover of Time Warner Inc. if the government sues to block the deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the event of a trial over the $85.4 billion deal, AT&T intends to seek court permission for access to communications between the White House and the Justice Department about the takeover, said the people, who asked not to be named because the deliberations are private.

The Justice Department’s antitrust division is poised to file a lawsuit to stop the deal if it can’t reach an agreement with the companies. That has sparked speculation that President Donald Trump, a relentless critic of Time Warner’s CNN, is pushing the department’s leadership to oppose the combination, which had been expected to win conditional approval by the end of the month.

The White House and the Justice Department have denied Trump had any involvement in the review. The president said during his trip to Asia that the merger may go to litigation.

“I do feel that you should have as many news outlets as you can, especially since so many of them are fake,” Trump said. “This way, at least you can get your word out. But I do believe you should have as many news outlets as you can.”

Sessions Questioned

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked during a House hearing Tuesday whether the White House or anyone on behalf of the Trump administration had contacted him about the proposed merger and asked for the sale of Turner, the Time Warner unit that owns CNN, as a condition for approval.

"I cannot accept the accuracy of that news report," Sessions responded. "Our work is professional." 

When asked again later in the hearing whether any White House employee has contacted the Justice Department to interfere with or discuss the AT&T deal, he said he was unable to comment on "conversations or communications that Department of Justice top people have with top people in the White House."

If the government sues and the case proceeds to trial, AT&T plans to ask for communications between the White House and the Justice Department as part of the routine exchange of evidence between the two sides, according to the people.

Government’s Case

The government may argue that communications between the White House and the Justice Department are protected either by attorney-client privilege or under executive privilege, said Spencer Weber Waller, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago and a former Justice Department lawyer. 

Convincing a court to make that information available if it exists will be a “long, hard road,” he said.

AT&T will also try to get any evidence about whether Rupert Murdoch tried to influence the review, according to one of the people. Murdoch, a Trump confidant, controls 21st Century Fox Inc., the parent of Fox News. The president has praised Fox News’s coverage of his administration.

Fair Game

Those communications or any with another third party are probably fair game, Waller said.

“They can take a deposition under oath and ask him, ‘Did you meet with X,’ and I can’t think how you would object to that question,” he said.

AT&T and Time Warner declined to comment while the Justice Department referred to earlier statements by the department and the White House. Fox didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Time Warner shares have fallen about 14 percent since the beginning of October as the talks drag on. Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser raised his rating to buy from hold, indicating that the decline has created a buying opportunity.  “We expect that some kind of transaction will eventually occur,” he wrote in a note.

AT&T shares were down less than 1 percent at 1:30 p.m. in New York, while Time Warner shares were down 1.15 percent to $87.48.

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