AT&T Is Said to Want Antitrust Official on Witness List for Trial
By CECILIA KANG
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WASHINGTON — AT&T is seeking to put the head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division on its witness list in a trial over the government’s decision to block the phone giant’s $85 billion merger with Time Warner, according to two people with knowledge of the pretrial activity.
The company is requesting that the antitrust chief, Makan Delrahim, testify in the trial, which is scheduled to begin March 19.
AT&T has also asked for internal communications between the Mr. Delrahim’s office and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, according to two people with knowledge about company’s demands. As part of that request, AT&T has asked for email, phone and other communications between the White House and officials in the Justice Department, the people said.
The deal would create a media and telecom giant with AT&T’s wireless and satellite television service and Time Warner’s movies and television assets. The deal is expected to transform the media landscape and set up the company to have a powerful grip over how consumers get streaming entertainment over mobile devices.
The Justice Department is suing to block the merger because it believes the combination of telecom and media giants will harm competition and lead to higher prices for consumers. But the case has been clouded by politics.
Time Warner owns CNN, and the president has at times taken aim at the news network for its coverage of his administration. During his presidential campaign, he said the merger should be blocked.
Antitrust regulators are required to make decisions independently of the White House. Mr. Delrahim has denied any interference in the decision to block the merger.
AT&T has amassed a considerable army of litigators and more than 100 lobbyists to win its case. Its top litigator, Daniel M. Petrocelli, defended Mr. Trump in a lawsuit involving Trump University. Time Warner has hired Christine A. Varney, the former head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.
The decision by Mr. Delrahim, a former White House counsel to deny a merger of two companies that do not directly compete was unexpected given that similar deals have been approved. The Department of Justice has argued that the merger of two giant companies that both produce content and distribute those shows will lead to higher prices for consumers.
AT&T has claimed, however, that it appeared that Mr. Delrahim had unfairly singled out its deal. As evidence, it pointed to a decision in 2013 by the Department of Justice to approve a similar deal, Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal.
Mr. Delrahim has insisted that Comcast has a much smaller reach into American homes compared with AT&T’s nationwide wireless and satellite television network.
Before he was appointed to the Justice Department, Mr. Delrahim said in an interview with a Canadian broadcaster that he did not see clear problems with the deal.
The strategy of putting Mr. Delrahim on the witness stand has its risks.
“If AT&T’s strategy is to call Delrahim to testify for the purpose of showing political motivation, it could blow up in their face if the assistant attorney general is a credible witness for the legitimate challenge of the merger,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former senior antitrust official in the Justice Department who has been critical of the merger. “Unless they have a smoking gun, I think Delrahim has a convincing argument.”