A group of former Justice Department officials is raising concerns about whether President Trump had any improper influence over the agency’s decision to sue to block the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger.
In a federal court filing submitted late Thursday, the group urged the judge to explore whether the White House had pressured the Justice Department to file the lawsuit as retaliation for critical coverage from CNN, an outlet that Trump often criticizes and a subsidiary of Time Warner.
“President Trump has urged a criminal investigation of his political rivals; he has suggested that he can instruct the Department to halt investigations into his associates; and he has claimed an ‘absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,’ ” the filing reads.
“Indeed, this case is being pursued under a cloud, with a perception — at least by some — that DOJ brought this case at the behest of President Trump in order to punish CNN for what he viewed as unfavorable coverage of his administration.”
The group of officials includes Preet Bharara , the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was fired in the early days of Trump’s presidency, and John Dean, who served as President Nixon’s White House counsel after a stint as attorney general. Dean, who served a brief prison sentence for his role in the Watergate scandal, is a CNN contributor.
The group noted the president’s long history of clashing with CNN and his pledge on the campaign trail to block the merger. They also argued that his record of threatening to use his regulatory authority to retaliate against media outlets is a major red flag for the lawsuit.
While the former officials urged the judge to explore the possibility of political interference in the lawsuit, they stressed that they are not trying to disparage career Justice Department officials involved in the case. They said they were confident officials would “push back against efforts to improperly interfere.”
They also emphasized that they were not taking a position on the merits of the government’s case against the merger.
The White House declined to comment on the filing, and a Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond when asked about it, but both parties have repeatedly denied any political interference in the case.
Last month, Judge Richard Leon denied AT&T’s request for additional communication logs between the White House and the Justice Department to determine Trump’s influence over the case. The decision was a major win for the Justice Department, which has been arguing that the massive consolidation will hurt competitors and consumers and hamper innovation.
The former officials wrote that Trump’s frequent attacks on CNN are cause for alarm. The president often takes to Twitter to lash out at the network, which he sometimes refers to as “Fake News CNN.”
He’s also singled out CNN President Jeff Zucker for criticism over the network’s coverage of him and suggested that he should lose his job.
Prior to the election, Trump promised that his administration would block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, calling it “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”
The case will go to trial on March 19 and is expected to last a few weeks.