The Trump administration's Justice Department says it was not behind the idea of forcing AT&T and Time Warner to sell off a division that includes CNN as a condition of their merger, and instead said the idea came from AT&T.
A Justice Department official said late Wednesday that AT&T proposed selling off CNN and other properties in a meeting with officials on Monday.
The official also said Justice Department officials didn't favor the idea.
"The parties offered to divest CNN and the DOJ Antitrust Division flatly rejected it," the official said, adding conversations are still "ongoing."
That claim, if true, would likely cool speculation that pressure to sell off CNN came from President Trump, who has railed against CNN as "fake news" since his 2016 campaign, as during his first year as president.
The Justice Department's Antitrust Division head Makan Delrahim pushed back against the notion his division has consulted with the Trump administration about the merger.
"I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division," Delrahim said in a statement late Wednesday.
Deputy Assistant to Trump and Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah added: “The President did not speak with the Attorney General about this matter, and no White House official was authorized to speak with the Department of Justice on this matter.”
The Financial Times first reported Wednesday that the Justice Department told the media giants CNN needed to be sold in order for the merger to be approved, and other press reports of the delayed merger indicated that Trump or his aides may have been behind the demand.
AT&T said in a statement Wednesday following the initial Financial Times report that it was not behind the proposal, which would involve selling off Turner Broadcasting, the entity that owns CNN and other cable channels.
“[I]t’s important to set the record straight. Throughout this process, I have never offered to sell CNN and have no intention of doing so,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said.
Stephenson later spoke at the Dealbreak conference in New York City early Thursday, and disputed the Justice Department's claims again.
"I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN. Period. And likewise I have never offered to sell CNN," Stephenson said. "There is absolutely no intention that we would ever sell CNN. So take those two off the table."
AT&T is attempting to merge with Time Warner at a cost of $84.5 billion — a deal that could completely reshape the entertainment industry.
A Justice Department official said Wednesday Antitrust Division officials made it clear there are “many ways” to resolve their concerns about the merger, and that selling CNN or its parent company wouldn’t necessarily “solve the harm to the public.”
Last year, Delrahim said before being confirmed he didn’t see the merger as a “major antitrust problem.”
AT&T’s Chief Financial Officer John Stephens had previously said he expected the deal to be done by Thanksgiving, but allegedly told investors Wednesday in private there is no more timeline.
A “vertical merger like this hasn't been blocked for over 40 years,” Stephens lamented Wednesday.