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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

House cancels Thursday session as FBI, Homeland Security warn of threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

43 mins ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).