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AT&T clashes with Justice Department over Time Warner asset sales

Gerry Smith, Scott Moritz, David McLaughlin and Sara Forden, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

NEW YORK -- AT&T Inc. won't sell CNN and never proposed such a deal, Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said as a battle escalated with antitrust officials over the $85.4 billion acquisition of the network's owner, Time Warner Inc.

Discussions of individual assets, including the division that includes CNN, have come up in conversations between the companies and Justice Department officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Justice Department brought up the idea of divesting either DirecTV, the satellite provider, or Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, TNT and TBS, one of the people said. Another person said AT&T floated the idea of selling CNN and was rejected.

"Throughout this process, I have never offered to sell CNN and have no intention of doing so," Stephenson said.

The fight over the deal was unexpected and is exploding over CNN, which has come under fire from President Donald Trump. While lawmakers are calling the uproar political, the Justice Department's new leadership is taking a different view of the anticompetitive issues surrounding the deal than its predecessors under Barack Obama. The previous administration settled a similar tie-up between a pay-TV company and an entertainment giant, the acquisition of NBCUniversal by Comcast Corp., by imposing conditions.

Makan Delrahim, who took up the reins at the antitrust division in September after he was confirmed by the Senate, has signaled he isn't a fan of settlements that force the Justice Department into ongoing monitoring of companies' behavior.

The two sides are far apart in getting a deal done, increasing the risk that talks could hit an impasse. Without an agreement, the Justice Department would sue to block the merger -- with a lawsuit possibly coming as soon as next week, one of the people said. The agency is concerned that AT&T's ownership of Time Warner content could raise the costs of its pay-TV rivals, according to one of the people.

The Justice Department said it's "committed to carrying out its duties in accordance with the laws and the facts," according to a statement. "Beyond that, the Department does not comment on any pending investigation."

AT&T is ramping up preparations to fight the Justice Department in court if it comes to that, instructing its legal team to prepare for battle, some of the people said. The timing of the deal, originally expected to close by the end of the year, is now uncertain, AT&T Chief Financial Officer John Stephens said Wednesday.

Time Warner shares fell 6.5 percent to $88.50 at the close in New York, compared with the $107.50 offer price. AT&T shares were up 1.1 percent to $33.44.

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