Antitrust Nominee Assured Senator He Wasn't Lobbied by White House on AT&T Deal

President Donald Trump's nominee to lead antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department recently agreed to tell lawmakers if the White House tries to improperly influence any decision he makes on whether to allow AT&T Inc.'s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc.

The commitment came in a meeting between the nominee, Makan Delrahim, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), who wrote a July 24 letter memorializing the discussion.

"I particularly appreciated your commitment that you will brief me, in an appropriate setting, any time the White House initiates an inappropriate communication with you or anybody in the Antitrust Division," the senator wrote to Mr. Delrahim after the meeting.

People familiar with the meeting, which also included Senate and Justice Department staffers, confirmed the exchange and said the men also generally discussed the importance of the department's independence. They said Mr. Delrahim additionally provided assurances that officials at the White House have not sought to lobby him on AT&T.

The White House and the Justice Department communicate with one another, but protocols governing those discussions seek to assure that the department can operate free from improper political intervention.

The White House didn't respond to requests for comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. Trump during last year's presidential campaign said AT&T shouldn't be allowed to buy Time Warner, which owns CNN, because it would allow too much concentration of power in one company.

The president at times has been sharply critical of coverage he has received from the cable network.

While Mr. Blumenthal and other Senate Democrats are attempting to head off any White House interference in the Justice Department's review of the AT&T deal, they -- like Mr. Trump -- have raised objections to the transaction, arguing it could lessen competition and reduce programming choices for customers.

In an interview, the senator said that while he would like to see the deal blocked, he would want the Justice Department to do it for the right reasons, after a thorough antitrust review.

It's not clear where the president currently stands on the AT&T transaction, Mr. Blumenthal added.

Mr. Blumenthal's meeting with Mr. Delrahim comes amid broader concerns expressed by senators of both parties about Mr. Trump's relations with the Justice Department. Mr. Trump in recent weeks has criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions, faulting his recusal from a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized Mr. Trump's remarks.

AT&T has rejected criticism of its Time Warner acquisition. The company says combining the media brands with its wireless, satellite and broadband networks would create a stronger competitor to offerings from other cable and video providers.

AT&T last week said it still expects the deal to close by the end of this year. The company on Tuesday declined to comment on the Justice Department review, though a spokesman said Chief Executive Randall Stephenson has never discussed the Time Warner acquisition with Mr. Trump.

The Justice Department's decision on whether to approve the AT&T deal, and under what conditions, will be one of Mr. Delrahim's earliest high-profile tasks if he is confirmed by the Senate.

At his confirmation hearing in May, Mr. Delrahim, who currently serves as a deputy White House counsel, pledged that politics would not play a role in his antitrust enforcement decisions.

Mr. Trump selected Mr. Delrahim in March. The nominee previously worked as a Justice Department antitrust lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.

Mr. Delrahim is one of dozens of nominees waiting for Senate votes while lawmakers battled over health-care legislation. As part of that tussle, Democrats forced a considerable slowdown of confirmation votes. With that battle over, confirmation votes are picking up, but no date has yet been set for Mr. Delrahim.

While Mr. Delrahim has been on the sidelines, the Justice Department has been deep into its investigation of the effects of the AT&T deal, which would combine a top wireless and cable provider with a major U.S. media and entertainment company.

Mr. Delrahim enjoys bipartisan support, with the Senate Judiciary Committee voting 19-1 in June to send his nomination to the Senate floor.

Mr. Blumenthal, who voted for Mr. Delrahim in committee, said he sought the meeting after a New York Times report last month said White House advisers had discussed using the government merger review of the AT&T-Time Warner deal as a potential point of leverage against CNN. The senator said that after the meeting, he continues to support Mr. Delrahim for the job.

Mr. Delrahim, in answers to senators during the confirmation process, left himself room to maneuver in various directions on AT&T. The deal is a vertical merger -- a transaction that combines firms at different parts of the supply chain -- and those types of deals don't usually attract outright opposition from the Justice Department.

Mr. Delrahim told the Senate that antitrust scholars generally believe vertical mergers raise less-serious concerns than combinations of head-to-head competitors. But he also said there can be times when a vertical merger could have anticompetitive effects.

Write to Brent Kendall at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 02, 2017 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)