No AT&T deal for Time Warner. Also, Comcast breakup from NBCUniversal?
Let’s get this big caveat out of the way: Donald Trump probably isn’t interested in the minutiae of being president — that is to say the actual, everyday management of the most powerful state on earth.
His cabinet will end up exercising far more power than any unelected body ever has in the U.S. But it’s worth examining what Trump himself has said, since we still believe in the public process of a democracy — if he’s said it out loud, it’s fair game.
It’s clear Trump doesn’t like the media. He certainly doesn’t like media mergers. In the first 100 days of his presidency, he vowed to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner, arguing it “concentrates too much power in the hands of too few.”
That makes Trump come across like a First Amendment evangelist, but more likely there’s a deeper, more personal animus motivating this position.
Time Warner owns CNN, which he’s blamed for negative stories and for being in Clinton’s camp. The network became a prime target among Trump supporters in the last few months of his campaign as chants of “CNN sucks!” became a popular rallying cry at his events. (There was another media chant, too.)
Trump added: “Deals like this destroy democracy.”
He also said he’d break up Comcast and NBCUniversal (an investor in Recode owner Vox Media), with his campaign maligning MSNBC as a “Clinton megaphone.”
To be clear, Trump does not actually have an ideology. He at once comes across as a pro-business outsider favoring lower taxes and less regulation, while also pushing the notion he’s a pro-consumer apparatchik looking out for a free and fair press.
Trump is a vain pragmatist who simultaneously craves and reviles the media’s attention. This great Trump interview from a few years ago reveals just how obsessed he’d become after first seeing his name in print: “I loved it. … I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I thought it was amazing. … It felt good.”
Today, there’s little evidence he’s against the AT&T-Time Warner deal for the sake of democracy.
Still, will it be blocked?
As I outlined at the top, Trump may never actually follow through on anything he’s said in the campaign. If he does, Trump would have to create a new antitrust doctrine to block AT&T’s deal for Time Warner.
Currently, the law and precedent are on AT&T’s side. The deal doesn’t change or limit consumer choice, what’s known as a “vertical merger,” so there isn’t, broadly speaking, a threat of creating a monopoly. The same logic was applied to Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal.
I’ve talked before about why AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner doesn’t make sense, and by that same argument (that it actually doesn’t help AT&T), there shouldn’t be any regulatory reason why it shouldn’t pass.
There is, however, a growing faction in D.C. that does favor a new antitrust standard for mergers: If the combination is too big, regardless of whether it maintains a consumer’s choice, it should still be blocked. James Stewart of the New York Times does a good job of outlining such a possibility.
There are other media deals in the works that could also come under Trump’s gaze. Viacom and CBS are looking at a merger, and it’s likely Disney will look for some kind of deal as well, even if it’s unlikely to buy Vice.
If Trump does go all out on AT&T (and Comcast), he’d be aligning himself with some unusual political bedfellows: Senators Bernie Sanders and Al Franken, both of whom oppose the merger.