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Defying the Odds

Defying the Odds
New book about the 2016 election.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Trump and Antitrust

In Defying the Odds, we discuss Trump's approach to the media -- which is Nixonian.  The update  -- just published --includes a chapter on the 2018 midterms.
As the Washington Post reported in 1997, Nixon talked to Chuck Colson in 1971 about using antitrust threats: "`If the threat of screwing them is going to help us more with their programming than doing it, then keep the threat,' Nixon told a White House aide in a tape-recorded Oval Office conversation recently transcribed for the first time. `Don't screw them now. [Otherwise] they'll figure that we're done.'"

Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:
The Justice Department, meanwhile, went to court in an effort to stop A. T. & T.’s acquisition of Time Warner, which owns CNN. Time Warner saw the deal as essential to its survival at a time when the media business is increasingly dominated by giant competitors such as Google and Facebook. Murdoch understood this impulse: in 2014, 21st Century Fox had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Time Warner. For him, opposing his rivals’ deal was a matter of shrewd business. Trump also opposed the deal, but many people suspected that his objection was a matter of petty retaliation against CNN. Although Presidents have traditionally avoided expressing opinions about legal matters pending before the judicial branch, Trump has bluntly criticized the plan. The day after the Justice Department filed suit to stop it, he declared the proposed merger “not good for the country.” Trump also claimed that he was “not going to get involved,” and the Justice Department has repeatedly assured the public that he hasn’t done so.
However, in the late summer of 2017, a few months before the Justice Department filed suit, Trump ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the Justice Department to intervene. According to a well-informed source, Trump called Cohn into the Oval Office along with John Kelly, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exasperation to Kelly, “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened! I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”
Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, evidently understood that it would be highly improper for a President to use the Justice Department to undermine two of the most powerful companies in the country as punishment for unfavorable news coverage, and as a reward for a competing news organization that boosted him. According to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting he told Kelly, “Don’t you fucking dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
A spokesperson for Cohn declined to comment, and Kelly did not respond to inquiries from The New Yorker, but a former White House official confirmed that Trump often “vented” in “frustration” about wanting to block the A. T. & T.-Time Warner merger. “The President does not understand the nuances of antitrust law or policy,” the former official says. “But he wanted to bring down the hammer.” (Last month, a federal court ruled against the Justice Department.)