The acrimony between President Trump and CNN is showing no signs of de-escalating, but the White House could be in a strategy position to strike a decisive blow.
The pending $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger is in need of a thumbs-up from the Justice Department, and Trump could use that as leverage in his war against CNN, according to The New York Times.
Though it’s unclear how or if the Trump administration could block the merger, one report suggests that the White House could insist on CNN boss Jeff Zucker being fired before final regulatory approval is granted. Zucker, who was chief executive at NBCUniversal before taking over at CNN, a key piece of Time Warner’s media empire, has history with Trump. According to the Times report, Zucker hired Trump to host “The Apprentice” and after Zucker lost his job following NBCU’s acquisition by Comcast, Trump claimed he got Zucker his position with CNN.
The AT&T-Time Warner deal is expected to skirt around a public-interest review from the FCC but will still be subject to the Justice Department’s antitrust review. Though it’s clear that Trump and CNN are at odds—and Trump has previously voiced concerns about the merger consolidating too much power within one media company—the White House may have few options for actually intervening.
Analysts have predicted that the vertical merger—similar to the marriage of service provider Comcast and media conglomerate NBCU—is likely to be approved regardless of Trump’s feelings, though approval may be contingent on certain conditions.
One possible condition might be the spinoff of CNN or other major Time Warner media brands, wrote Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche said in a research note earlier this year.
“While we expect there likely will be concessions (possibly a CNN spin-off, and continued infrastructure investment by T), from a legal standpoint, we note that if denied this deal would be precedent setting given the fact that no vertical merger in the TMT space has been denied,” wrote Fritzsche, adding that, while many mergers cut jobs, the small amount of overlap in core business and expertise for AT&T and Time Warner likely means no major headcount reductions.
Any potential conditions could have to present themselves soon though as reports indicate the merger could be finalized before the end of summer.
According to CNBC, the AT&T-Time Warner deal may close in as few as 60 days.