On the campaign trail, you might recall that Donald Trump threatened to block AT&T's $89 billion acquisition of Time Warner, insisting that the deal was "an example of the power structure" he was fighting, because it would deliver "too much concentration of power in the hands of too few." Granted he subsequently appointed an FCC chairman in Ajit Pai who's little more than a rubber stamp for companies like AT&T, and nominated an antitrust boss already on record stating he has no real problems with the merger, leading most analysts to believe the deal will be approved anyway.
There are of course a number of legitimate reasons to block the deal, including concerns that AT&T will make licensing access to necessary programming more difficult than ever for streaming video competitors. Or the fact that AT&T's using its dominance in wireless to give Time Warner content an unfair advantage over competitors via usage caps and overage fees (aka "zero rating"). It would be foolish to think a company with such a rich history of anti-competitive and anti-consumer behavior wouldn't use this greater size and leverage anti-competitively.
But these are complicated nuances it's not-terribly-likely the current President actually understands. Instead, his focus in recent months has been the fact that he doesn't like Time Warner-owned CNN's critical coverage of his administration, and, according to the New York Times, hopes to use the deal as "leverage" to force CNN to soften its critcism of the President as part of his broader assault on the media:
"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."
Other news outlets noted that the Trump administration is also contemplating demanding the ouster of current CNN boss Jeff Zucker in exchange for approving the deal. The news was quick to result in letters to the DOJ from several Senators who claimed Trump was "interfering" in an approval process that should be left up to regulators and the DOJ to decide:
"Any political interference in antitrust enforcement is unacceptable," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "Even more concerning, in this instance, is that it appears that some advisers to the President may believe that it is appropriate for the government to use its law enforcement authority to alter or censor the press. Such an action would violate the First Amendment."
If you're at all familiar with the ethical behavior over at AT&T (like the times it ripped off a program for the hearing impaired or made bills harder to understand to help criminals scam its own customers), it would certainly be in character for AT&T to agree to trample the editorial firewall between itself and CNN to get the deal done -- it just wouldn't be stupid enough to put any such agreement in writing. As the net neutrality fight makes clear, telecom giants aren't particularly concerned about the whole free speech thing (check out Verizon's first foray into tech content, for example).
AT&T's also a world-class expert at making utterly bogus claims when it comes to its latest megamergers, consistently claiming such deals will lower prices, expand broadband coverage and create oceans of new jobs (telecom megamerger history makes it abundantly clear the exact opposite almost always occurs). Given some similar expertise over at the Trump camp, there's an incredible opportunity for some amazing bullshit here; an opportunity Trump likely won't want to waste by continuing what's become an arguably unhealthy fixation on CNN.
The likely outcome is that we'll get to have our rotten cake and eat it too: a torrent of bogus job and broadband expansion promises the likes of which we've never seen before -- and a CNN left bridled by a meddling new corporate parent focused exclusively on currying favor in the Trump administration to anti-competitive benefit. Just think of the incredible potential for synergies...and bullshit.