The Justice Department on Monday moved to stop the blockbuster merger of AT&T and Time Warner.
This means one of two things:
A) The Justice Department believes the merger would amount to a dangerous consolidation of communications and media companies, diminishing healthy competition.
B) President Donald Trump is behaving again like a tin-pot dictator, trying to punish a media company that has dared to cover him honestly, aggressively and accurately. Trump just hates CNN.
We’re taking no position today on the legitimate merits of the merger, but we worry that this has little to do with that. Our money is on explanation “B.”
It is entirely reasonable to fear that Trump is politicizing the Justice Department, using the power of his office to subvert the rule of the law, as he has tried before.
The president is looking for payback against CNN, we fear, something he has been threatening since before he was elected. And he’d love to send a message, we believe, to every other media company in America that he will not tolerate tough and honest coverage of him and his administration, that good stuff that he calls “fake news.”
Could we be wrong? Of course. The Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions might sincerely be of the view that it would not be in the best interests of the nation for AT&T to acquire Time Warner. The $85.4 billion deal would combine the country’s largest provider of paid television with the owner of Warner Bros. film studio, HBO and CNN.
It is not far-fetched to argue, as the Justice Department did in a suit filed Monday, that the merger could unfairly raise prices for rivals and pay-TV subscribers. It is not a stretch to believe the deal would slow the pay-TV industry’s transition to online video.
But here’s the rub. When an aspiring authoritarian like Trump shows his hand so shamelessly, who can believe anything is on the up and up?
Sessions has shown little political independence from Trump, other than when he properly recused himself from investigating the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. The president, meanwhile, has shown plenty of willingness to put self-interest above the national interest, regardless of the law, as when he pressed Sessions to fire then-FBI Director James Comey to kill the Russia investigation.
Trump’s eagerness to abuse the levers of government to punish his perceived political enemies is not even subtle.
The president has called on the Justice Department to open an investigation into bogus scandals involving Hillary Clinton, his opponent in last year’s election. As a candidate, Trump threatened Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post, with”such problems” once he got elected.
Just last month, Trump threatened to look into pulling NBC’s broadcasting license after the network reported that the president was contemplating a dramatic increase in the nation’s nuclear arsenal. And Trump repeatedly — before and after taking office — has lashed out at CNN for reporting “fake news” while, in the same breath, he has vowed to block the AT&T and Time Warner merger.
We are reminded of Richard Nixon, which is not comforting. It was Nixon who forced the firing of a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, when the slime of Watergate seeped too close to the Oval Office.
“When the president does it, it means it’s not illegal,” Nixon famously said three years later, referring to the rule of law.
Yeah, but the Watergate scandal was a basket of illegalities.
When Trump threatens to use the powers of government against his critics and foes, as if a federal agency were just a weapon for his personal use, he makes it tough for anybody to believe that any major policy decision by his administration is being judged on its merits.
“Blocking this merger is the right thing to do — and we hope the Justice Department is doing it for the right reasons,” Craig Aaron, president of the advocacy group Free Press, said Monday.
Which is precisely the problem. We can’t know — we can only hope.
We have a president who would trash the rule of law to settle a score.
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