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Ajit Pai at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has struggled for over a year to distance himself from President Trump. On Tuesday night, the President did it for him over Sinclair Broadcast Group's ill-fated merger.

Why it matters: Pai gave himself some political cover by moving to block Sinclair's politically contentious acquisition of Tribune stations — especially after Trump tweeted the decision was "disgraceful."

What they’re saying: Pai and his allies used the moment to assert his independence from the White House.

  • "Congressman, I stand by our decision,” he told top House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrat Frank Pallone at a Wednesday hearing, adding later, “We’ve already issued the hearing designation order and my understanding is that it is now within the purview of the administration law judge under our rules.”
  • “For every transaction that is before me I will look at the facts, I will apply the law and I will reach the judgement that is in the public interest," he said. "Nothing more, nothing less."

“Hey people who said @AjitPaiFCC doesn’t have a spine where you at?” tweeted Ashkhen Kazaryan, a fellow at TechFreedom, a group that is supportive of Pai’s agenda.

Context: The FCC is an independent agency. Still, Pai has struggled to push back on the administration. For example:

  • Pai stumbled when asked about Trump’s comments that some media outlets are the “enemy of the American people.”
  • Later last year, he took a noticeably long time to respond directly to a Trump tweet threatening the broadcast licenses of NBC, whose coverage he doesn’t like.

The big picture: While many media mergers draw attention, the Sinclair deal became a unique political nightmare for the FCC. Democrats hammered the agency for appearing poised to allow a deal that would vastly expand the reach of Sinclair’s pro-Trump, must-run content.

  • Pai’s early media ownership reforms paved the way for the Sinclair deal, raising concerns he was directly aiding the broadcaster. And later decisions at the FCC also helped the broadcasting industry.
  • John Oliver’s HBO show aired a critical package on the company. In March, a Deadspin compilation of one of those must-run spots — where anchors decried “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country” — went viral.
  • In December, Pai jokingly showed some of Sinclair’s “must-run” conservative commentary as part of an annual comedic speech to telecom lawyers.
  • Democratic lawmakers triggered an investigation by the FCC’s independent watchdog into Pai’s relationship with the broadcaster.

Pai’s decision to put up major hurdles for the Sinclair-Tribune deal has united him with some of his harshest critics. “Free Press hasn’t seen eye to eye with Chairman Pai since he took over the FCC. But today’s announcement is unequivocally the right thing to do under the law,” said Matt Wood, the policy director of the public interest group, after Pai announced he would send the Sinclair deal to a judge.

The other side: The Sinclair situation doesn’t change the deregulatory direction of his agenda at the commission.

“While the Commission rightfully acknowledged that Sinclair’s proposed merger and related divestiture may violate the law,” Pallone said at Wednesday’s hearing, “the rollback of the media ownership rules opens the door for the next Sinclair."

Go deeper

D.C.-Beijing tensions are shifting markets

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. markets stand to lose $2 trillion in value if D.C. and Beijing drift further apart.

Why it matters: Political chasms are showing up in new securities regulations that put companies and investors in a bind. The rules are also another reflection of how much relations between the world’s largest economies have cooled, even as they remain economically interdependent. 

2 hours ago - Health
Axios Investigates

Documents reveal the secrecy of America's drug pricing matrix

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

American businesses spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on prescription drugs, and the bills keep getting bigger. But some of the companies promising to help rein in those costs prevent employers from looking under the hood.

Why it matters: Documents provided to Axios reveal a new layer of secrecy within the maze of American drug pricing — one in which firms that manage drug coverage for hundreds of employers, representing millions of workers, obscure the details of their work and make it difficult to figure out whether they're actually providing a good deal.

Congress' chip-funding pause raises alarms

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, a plea by the Commerce Secretary and growing desperation from industry officials, Congress still can't get a key bill that funds the U.S. chip business over the finish line.

Why it matters: With the global chip shortage continuing to crimp the economy, the semiconductor industry has ramped up pressure for funding of U.S.-based manufacturing facilities as one remedy.