AT&T CEO hints that Trump-CNN beef was behind DOJ lawsuit to block Time Warner merger

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. (AT&T)

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is again hinting that President Donald Trump’s dislike for CNN could be at the center of the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit to block AT&T’s $85 billion merger with Time Warner Inc.

During a speaking engagement at Boston College, Stephenson said Trump is “not the biggest fan” of CNN and reiterated the President’s public objections to the deal. Stephenson, like he did on a press call confirming the lawsuit, called Trump’s and CNN’s rocky relationship the “elephant in the room.”

Stephenson also pointed out that, prior to his appointment within Trump’s administration, DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim had publicly stated that he saw no antitrust issues with the deal, which is considered to be a vertical merger similar to the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger that was OK’d with conditions by the DOJ.

“Mr. Delrahim was then hired into the White House after President Trump was put in office, to work as his counsel for a few months, and then was nominated to run the antitrust division, was confirmed and came out after his confirmation and promptly filed suit to block the deal,” said Stephenson, according to the Boston Herald.

RELATED: Turner CEO says government is 'clueless' for trying to block AT&T-Time Warner

Stephenson’s comments arrive amid reports that AT&T has placed Delrahim on its list of potential witnesses during the trial, which is set to begin March 19.

During AT&T’s earnings call earlier this month, Stephenson again expressed his surprise at the DOJ’s lawsuit and reaffirmed AT&T’s confidence in winning the case.

“We were obviously surprised when the government decided to try to block the merger because it is a classic vertical merger between two companies that don’t even compete with one another. With 50 years of legal precedent, this is the type of business combination that the government has consistently approved with appropriate conditions. While we remain open to finding some reasonable solutions to address the government’s concerns, we do expect this case will ultimately be litigated in court … and we remain very confident that we’ll complete this merger,” said Stephenson during his company’s earnings call.

Time Warner executives including Turner CEO John Martin have also recently called out the DOJ lawsuit. During Recode’s Code Media conference this week, Martin said the government was “clueless” to come after a vertical merger.

Both Martin and Stephenson have recently suggested that rapidly growing media competitors like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google are the more immediate threat to antitrust, and that consolidation is necessary for legacy media companies like Time Warner to compete.