The media today: Concerns about independence at the Justice Department

Through 10 months of the Trump presidency, journalists have adapted, at least somewhat, to the precedent-shattering behavior of a president who rose to power on a promise to upend the status quo. But a pair of stories unfolding this week threaten the independence of the Department of Justice and have broken through the noise. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions headed to Capitol Hill today, expect tough questions from House Judiciary members.

After the Financial Times reported that the Department of Justice demanded that AT&T sell CNN to get its purchase of Time Warner approved, many saw the hand of a president who has consistently battled with the cable network. Republican administrations have traditionally been more lenient in enforcing antitrust regulations, and a move to block the AT&T-Time Warner agreement raises concerns about political payback. In the event of a trial over the deal, Bloomberg reports that “AT&T intends to seek court permission for access to communications between the White House and the Justice Department about the takeover.”

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The administration has denied any pressuring of the DOJ, but if that proves not to be the case CJR’s Jonathan Peters notes that this wouldn’t be the first time a White House has attempted to leverage antitrust principles in response to critical coverage. Citing ignominious examples from the Richard Nixon and FDR years, Peters writes that in this instance, Trump’s actions wouldn’t actually be unprecedented.

Concerns about White House influence on the DOJ aren’t limited to the CNN issue. On Monday night, The New York Times’s Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman reported that the Justice Department is weighing whether to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether the Clinton Foundation influenced a 2010 sale of a uranium mining company, Uranium One, to a Russian nuclear agency. Despite a complete lack of evidence of impropriety, the deal has become a talking point for right-wing media figures intent on alleging that Hillary Clinton is the real Russia-colluder, and President Trump urged action on the issue earlier this month.

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As Schmidt and Haberman write, “Any such investigation would raise questions about the independence of federal investigations under Mr. Trump.” No action has yet occurred, but if the Attorney General moves ahead with an investigation, the administration will be hard-pressed to explain how this is anything other than the president has ordering his chief law enforcement officer to investigate a political rival.

Below, more on concerns about independence at the DOJ.

  • Two birds, one stone: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argues that any move to block the AT&T-Time Warner deal would “diminish public trust in the media and the government at once.
  • Trump’s antitrust chief: CNN’s Brian Stelter and Jackie Wattles look at Makan Delrahim, the Justice Department’s antitrust point man, who has only been on the job for six weeks.
  • Right decision, wrong reasons?: LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik argues that there’s a valid case for blocking the deal, but that Trump’s actions have muddied the waters.
  • What to expect from Sessions: The New York Times’s Nicholas Fandos previews Sessions’s testimony. He expects questions about Russia to dominate the hearing.
  • Cold water on concerns: Lawfare Editor in Chief Benjamin Wittes makes the case that the Sessions letter to Congress about the possibility of investigating the Uranium One deal might not be as bad as it seems.


Other notable stories

  • Politico’s Jason Schwartz examines how Trump’s attacks on the media have created room for Roy Moore to cast doubt on mounting allegations of sexual misconduct and child molestation.
  • In a crowded news landscape, international stories have a difficult time breaking through, but Sunday’s earthquake along the Iran-Iraq border has killed more than 400 and left 7,000 injured, according to the BBC.
  • WikiLeaks, which bills itself as a transparency organization, communicated with Donald Trump Jr. throughout the 2016 campaign and early month of the Trump presidency, according to The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe. The largely one-sided correspondence shows the organization offering strategy tips and lobbying for Trump to ask Australia to appoint Julian Assange ambassador to the US.
  • Thoughtful, excellent analysis from New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister on her complicated feelings in the post-Weinstein world.
  • The New Republic’s Jeet Heer uses examples from Trump’s foreign trip to argue that liberals and their media allies are in danger of becoming knee-jerk anti-Trumpists.
  • In the final installment of CJR’s climate coverage series, North Carolina meteorologist Greg Fishel explains how he abandoned his climate change skepticism.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.