The Department of Justice's antitrust division on Monday, Nov. 20, filed a lawsuit against AT&T in federal court seeking to block his company's $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc. (TWX) . For Stephenson, the DOJ's investigation into the deal had not only dragged on for more than a year, it had come as a rude surprise.
At a press conference held in Dallas on Monday, Stephenson wasn't simply angry about an apparent disagreement with the department on antitrust grounds -- he smelled a skunk.
When asked whether he was concerned that President Trump's long-running, often-pot-boiling battle with CNN had played a role in the department's decision to sue AT&T, Stephenson only sort of wavered.
"Frankly, I don't know," he said. "But nobody should be surprised that the question keeps coming up, because we've witnessed such an abrupt change in the application of antitrust law here."
That question, Stephenson said, is "the elephant in the room," and it's likely to hang over this case whether it goes to court or is resolved in the coming weeks through negotiations. No matter the merits of the DOJ's argument against the deal, Stephenson intimated that Trump's battles with CNN add fuel to the theory that the lawsuit is retaliation for the network's coverage.
AT&T's hired gun, high-profile court attorney Daniel Petrocelli, emphasized that point on Tuesday on CNBC, exclaiming that if the White House did speak with the DOJ about the case, it likely would emerge through news reports. (Maybe even on CNN.)
"Things have a way of coming out," he said. "And if it does, it will not bode well for the government."
Department of Justice officials have repeatedly denied that the White House or Trump influenced its decision to sue AT&T. Antitrust law aside, Trump's attacks on CNN have been much less equivocal. Just a week ago during a trip through Asia, Trump took to Twitter Inc.'s (TWTR - Get Report) namesake product to assail Time Warner's news network.
As the Republican front-runner and White House occupant, Trump has repeatedly singled out CNN for what he either calls "fake news" or biased reporting. Of course, other publications that have also dared to critically report on the administration have come in for similar rebuke, but CNN has seemingly been the poster child for Trump's acrimony.
While in the Philippines I was forced to watch @CNN, which I have not done in months, and again realized how bad, and FAKE, it is. Loser!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2017
Even a dust-up in October with NBC News, which reported on a White House military briefing that was never disputed, prompted Trump to take a swipe at CNN:
The president's particular preoccupation with CNN took center stage in January at one of Trump's final press conferences just before his inauguration. When White House correspondent Jim Acosta asked whether CNN might be given a chance to ask a question about Trump's Russian connections given a damning report by the network, the president made clear that his network would be all but blacklisted.
"No! Not you. No! Your organization is terrible," said the visibly angry president-elect. When a shouting Acosta repeated his request to ask a question, Trump pointed a finger at him and said: "Don't be rude. No, I'm not going to give you a question."
For many political observers, the irony in Trump's attacks on CNN is that the cable network was roundly criticized for giving Trump so much free, unfettered air time during his unlikely rise from reality-TV star and bankrupted real estate developer to president of the U.S.
For the moment, Stephenson said he's confident that AT&T will succeed in buying all of Time Warner, whether through a settlement with the DOJ or following a decision in federal court.
"Any agreement that results in us losing control [of CNN], either directly or indirectly, is a nonstarter," the CEO said at Monday's press conference.