- Palestinian billionaire Masri released by Saudis, to leave country soo
- U.S., Russian, Japanese crew blasts off for space station
- NY Times: Pentagon study of UFOs revealed
- Tens of thousands of Indonesians rally over Trump's Jerusalem stance
- Second prototype of China's C919 jet conducts test flight: state TV
- North Korea threat on agenda when South Korean foreign minister visits
- Pentagon study of UFOs revealed
- Australia arrests man accused of trying to sell missile parts for Nort
- How Australia's PM went swimming 50 years ago and vanished forever
- Hundreds come down with stomach illness during Royal Caribbean cruise
- Australian police accuse man of acting as North Korean economic agent
- Hoping to extend maritime reach, China lavishes aid on Pakistan town
- Mudslide in southern Chile kills five, at least 15 missing
- Honduran helicopter crash kills six, including president's sister
- Brazil's Workers Party formalizes support for ex-president Lula
- Foreign minister warns UK cannot become 'vassal state' of EU
- More than half of Britons now want to stay in EU - poll
- An update on winners and losers on the U.S. tax scorecard
- Uber accused of espionage, hacking and bribery in bombshell letter
- Christian Bale and more to salute CNN Heroes
Justice Department set to sue to block AT&T-Time Warner deal
The lawsuit is an unusual challenge to the $85 billion deal, which was announced by the two companies more than a year ago.
AT&T has been preparing for a potential legal challenge. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said last week that if the DOJ sued, the company would seek an expedited hearing.
If AT&T (Tech30) prevails in court, it will be able to go ahead with the acquisition. Some experts believe the case could be resolved in a matter of months. But a lengthy, drawn-out court battle could cause AT&T and , Time Warner ( to give up on the deal. )
When the government reviews megamergers, it seeks to determine whether the transaction will cause harm to customers. In most cases, government lawyers negotiate with the companies to reach an agreement that staves off a lawsuit.
That's what AT&T and Time Warner anticipated -- that the DOJ would apply conditions to the deal, much as the Obama-era DOJ did when Comcast acquired NBCUniversal. One potential condition would ensure that AT&T played fair with its rivals while negotiating for other cable and satellite providers to carry channels like CNN and TNT.
The deal was announced in October 2016. But President Trump's election a few weeks later was a curveball. While Republican administrations have historically been business-friendly, Trump vowed to block the deal while campaigning, and vociferously criticized CNN after taking office.
President Trump fired off more shots at the network the week before the lawsuit was filed.
He tweeted one morning last week: "While in the Philippines I was forced to watch @CNN, which I have not done in months, and again realized how bad, and FAKE, it is. Loser!"
His tweets could potentially now be cited by AT&T as circumstantial evidence of presidential interference.
Amid all the "fake news" tweets, DOJ staffers began reviewing the deal earlier this year. There was rampant speculation that Trump might try to hold up the deal to punish CNN for what he saw as unfair reporting. But there was little concrete evidence to back up this theory.
After a lengthy delay, the president's pick to run the DOJ's antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, took charge in September. When the deal was first announced, Delrahim had said he saw no major antitrust issues with it, but he has apparently since changed his mind.
Delrahim is a proponent of structural remedies to protect consumers, rather than requiring so-called behavioral conditions like the ones used in the Comcast-NBCUniversal deal, on which Delrahim had worked as a lobbyist for Comcast. In the case of AT&T, a structural remedy could be a sale of Time Warner's Turner division of cable channels, including CNN, or the sale of its DirecTV arm.
The government's likely rationale? Owning a bundle of channels and a big distributor of channels would give AT&T an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
Liberal advocacy groups and some of AT&T's competitors agree -- and that's one of the reasons why they lodged complaints about the deal. But they never expected a GOP-led Justice Department to side with them. They thought the deal was a layup for AT&T.
So now there are two competing narratives about what's going on. The first point of view is that the Justice Department is intervening to protect consumers. The countervailing point of view is that political games are being played.
Lawyers in the DOJ are typically insulated from political pressure, but the Trump administration is atypical. Trump has been critical of the DOJ and Attorney General Jeff Sessions all year long. He has recently urged the department to investigate his political rivals, including Hillary Clinton.
Several prominent Democratic lawmakers have questioned whether Trump's hatred of critical news coverage has trickled down into departmental decision-making.
AT&T may raise similar questions during the looming court fight, according to a recent report by Bloomberg.
"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," Bloomberg reported.
Delrahim has denied being influenced by Trump.
At a House hearing last Tuesday, Sessions was asked if any White House official has contacted the DOJ regarding the AT&T deal.
Sessions demurred. "I am not able to comment on conversations or communications the Department of Justice top people have with top people at the White House," he said.
All of this uncertainty has caused some press advocacy groups to ring alarm bells about the appearance of political pressure.
"The president's behavior has cast a cloud of doubt over the work of these honorable civil servants," the Washington Post editorial board wrote last Monday.
The editorial urged the Senate subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights to "exercise its oversight responsibility and convene a hearing on the matter."
This situation is also unusual because it spilled into public view. Earlier this month there were news reports about the prospect of a DOJ lawsuit. Then there were leaks about a private meeting between Delrahim and Stephenson.
At a November 6 meeting, the two men discussed divestitures that might satisfy the government's concerns. By all accounts, the meeting did not go well.
Some sources said Stephenson floated the possibility of selling CNN or other assets. Other sources said the DOJ demanded more -- just not the spinoff of CNN, but the sale of the entire Turner division, or DirecTV.
AT&T viewed these demands as nonstarters and began to see a courtroom battle as a more serious possibility.
Speaking at the Dealbook conference a few days after the meeting, Stephenson disputed claims that he offered to sell CNN to win government approval of the deal.
"I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN. Period. And likewise I have never offered to sell CNN," Stephenson said. "There is absolutely no intention that we would ever sell CNN. So take those two off the table."
Stephenson said at the time that AT&T was continuing to talk with the DOJ "to see if we can get to a negotiated settlement."
But as the days dragged on, that looked less and less likely.
The big question now, as BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield said in a note to investors, is "whether the DOJ's case is strong enough to win in court."