Is Trump's AT&T Merger Roadblock A Return To Sensible Antitrust, Or Just More Cronyism?

Given that the Trump administration has been tripping over itself to obliterate popular consumer protections (net neutrality, broadband privacy) and most media consolidation rules (largely to benefit Sinclair broadcasting), many analysts assumed that the administration would see absolutely no problem with AT&T's latest $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner. After all, such vertical integration mergers -- while they can cause very serious market harms -- are often more difficult to make a case for than mergers where direct competitors are eliminated.

Supporting that position was the fact that Makan Delrahim, Trump's new antitrust boss at the DOJ, had been on record previously stating that he saw no serious problems with the deal. That's why it was a bit of a surprise last week when reports emerged that Trump's DOJ was considering a lawsuit to block the megamerger, and may not approve the deal unless AT&T either sold off DirecTV (acquired last year) or Turner Broadcasting, owner of channels like Cartoon Network, TBS, and CNN.

Given Trump's disdain for CNN's coverage of his Presidency, many began to immediately speculate that Trump was using the merger for leverage. After all, that's what one administration official told the New York Times was on the table in a story back in July:

"White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card."

So the idea that Trump would use the merger as leverage to take aim at CNN was clearly something that was on the table. But when asked about the decision while on Air Force One last week, Trump insisted that the decision wasn't his, but was made by "a very respected person," presumably Delrahim:

"Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump said he “didn’t make that decision — it was made by a man who’s a very respected person, a very, very respected person..."I did make a comment as to what I think,” Trump also acknowledged. Previously, the president has blasted AT&T and Time Warner’s merger plans — and during the 2016 election, he threatened to block the companies from combining under his watch.

"I do feel you should have as many news outlets as you can — especially since so many are fake," Trump continued, according to a pool report. Then, he concluded: “I didn't make a statement, but I did make a statement long before. So we’ll see — that probably ends up being litigation, maybe not, we’ll see how it all plays out."

Granted, forcing AT&T to divest either DirecTV or Turner Broadcasting makes sense from a regulatory perspective. Consumer advocates worry that AT&T's greater size, leverage, and control over broadcast content (particularly HBO) will make it harder for streaming providers to license the content they need to compete. They're also worried that AT&T will leverage this advantage -- in concert with its monopoly in broadband and stranglehold over tower backhaul -- to engage in more of the anti-competitive behavior it's well known for (zero rating, etc.).

But it's hard to square this return to sensible antitrust enforcement with an administration that has been taking a mindless hatchet to media consolidation and consumer protection rules. What kind of thought process involves seeing no problem with gutting media consolidation rules (which devastates smaller news outlets and media diversity), yet suddenly having a strong disdain for the often more-murky negative impact of vertical integration? One possible explanation for the policy asymmetry may reside with Rupert Murdoch, who has apparently been trying to get AT&T to offload CNN to News Corporation for much of the year:

"Rupert Murdoch telephoned AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson twice in the last six months and talked about cable network CNN, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters on Friday. According to one of the sources, the 86-year-old executive chairman of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc offered to buy CNN in both conversations.

And again, if you head back to media reports from January, Murdoch had been pressuring the Trump administration to make life harder on AT&T Time Warner, a News Corp. competitor:

"If Fox News’ politics ultimately solidify as more pro-Trump than they were during the campaign, that might be to the benefit of Murdoch’s business interests. According to a well-placed source, Trump has asked Murdoch to submit names for FCC Chairman. Murdoch, another source said, also wants conditions put on the AT&T-Time Warner merger, and he could lobby Trump to make that happen."

Again, it's entirely within the realm of possibility that an administration that has been protecting monoplists and gutting consolidation protections is having an uncharacterstic flirtation with sensible antitrust enforcement under Delrahim. But it's also entirely possible, especially when looking at the administration's behavior in full context, that Trump's DOJ is giving AT&T a hard time simply to aid a political ally and to quash a critical media outlet.

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