The ripple effect of the AT&T merger lawsuit - Axios
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The ripple effect of the AT&T merger lawsuit

Assistant Attorney General nominee Makan Delrahim testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on his nomination in May 2017. Cliff Owens / AP

The Justice Department's move to block AT&T's proposed $85 billion bid for Time Warner puts on hold a slew of media and telecom transactions that may have been in the works. And it could upend the antitrust precedent that has created some of today's biggest media companies.

Why it matters: The lawsuit is not only a blow to AT&T, but also to other companies hoping that similarly structured deals that combine content producers and distributors have a shot with the current administration. It could also bring new scrutiny to the size and power of Google and Facebook, which have become media powerhouses in their own right.

The lawsuit is also a surprise. Despite President Trump's campaign-trail criticism of the deal, it was widely expected to win government approval from a Republican Justice Department. Rumblings that regulators had serious concerns about the deal only surfaced in the past couple of weeks.

"It creates vast uncertainty," said former FTC policy director and antitrust expert David Balto, who doesn't think the DoJ will win its case in court. "You have to go back half a century to find a DoJ victory in this area."

Why DoJ's move came as a shock to AT&T:

  • "Vertical" mergers that combine companies in two different industries (AT&T is considered a telecom company and Time Warner is a content provider) are seen as less of an antitrust threat than "horizontal" mergers that combine two competing companies (such as AT&T's unsuccessful attempt to purchase T-Mobile).
  • Before joining the administration, DoJ Antitrust chief Makan Delrahim had said he didn't see problems with the proposed merger. He also said at his confirmation hearing that he would not allow political interference in merger reviews.
  • In a similarly structured deal, Comcast was allowed to buy NBCUniversal in 2011, albeit with conditions designed to prevent Comcast from using its market leverage to hamstring competitors.

The big picture: A number of telecom providers want to deploy their own streaming services with original programming to keep up with the likes of Netflix and Amazon. To do that, many are exploring entertainment acquisitions to keep up in the cutthroat race for content. AT&T's bid for Time Warner was a litmus test for others who are also eyeing deals.

  • For example, Verizon and Comcast have both expressed interest in 21st Century Fox's entertainment business. This mirrors AT&T's bid, because it would involve the acquisition of studio businesses as well as cable channels.

What to watch: The Justice Department said the combined company "would have the incentive and ability to charge more for Time Warner's popular networks" and that it could keep others out of the streaming video market.

  • A deal may still be on the table if the companies are willing to sell off some assets to address antitrust concerns, according to Justice officials, who also stressed that its move to block this particular merger does not mean others won't pass muster.
  • AT&T plans to fight it court, saying its conclusion is a "radical and inexplicable departure from decades of antitrust precedent."
  • AT&T's Randall Stephenson will continue to raise the possibility of White House interference in the case, given the "abrupt change in the application of antitrust law here."

The impact: If DoJ loses the case, it could spur a flood of consolidation. If it wins, it could set a new precedent that changes the conventional wisdom about the competitive impact of vertical mergers.

The legal fight may also bring a new focus on the question of media competition and the size of the most powerful players — notably Google and Facebook.

  • AT&T and Time Warner execs originally pitched the deal as a way to build a stronger rival to the major platforms companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, which are gobbling up a growing share of programming and have drastically altered distribution models.
  • Stephenson noted that these companies, in addition to Netflix, are also creating original content yet have so far been unchallenged by antitrust cops.
  • Mark Cuban, who testified in favor of the deal at a congressional hearing last year, tweeted that Facebook and Google will be the big losers of DoJ's suit to block the deal. "Their media advertising, content and distribution dominance will be a defense at trial. That could create bigger issues for them."

The bottom line: Despite the intrigue about White House influence, the antitrust case will rest solely on the competitive effects of the deal, said Gene Kimmelman, CEO of Public Knowledge and a former DoJ antitrust official.

"In the end, this is about law enforcement," he said. "Regardless of speculation about political environment surrounding the transaction, the only thing the court will care about is whether the merger is a violation of the Clayton Act."

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BP buys stake in solar company

Photo: Julie Dermansky/Corbis / Getty Images

European oil and natural gas giant BP announced Friday it's investing $200 million over three years in Lightsource, one of Europe's largest solar companies, to acquire a 43% stake in the business.

The big picture: This is another sign of how big oil is slowly and gradually investing in lower-carbon technologies, alongside continued investments in oil and natural gas, driven by a series of overlapping factors, such as the notion of slowing oil demand and investor concern about climate change.

Yes but: This is a drop in the bucket compared to BP's nearly $2 billion net profit it disclosed as its most recent quarterly earnings. BP's renewable-energy assets, which also include wind farms in the U.S. and biofuels in Brazil, aren't "making a material difference to the bottom line," BP CEO Bob Dudley told an oil conference earlier this year.

Go deeper:

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Report: Trump never held a high-level meeting on Russian interference

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

President Trump thinks conceding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election "would give ammunition to his critics," and becomes agitated by the mere mention of the issue by his aides, according to a Washington Post report.

Why it matters: Per WaPo, Trump "has never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference or what to do about it," and his aides think he'd treat it as "an affront" if they were to even raise the matter. A former Russia adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton told the Post: "Putin has to believe this was the most successful intelligence operation in the history of Russian or Soviet intelligence."

  • A former senior intelligence official said raising the issue "takes the [presidential daily briefing] off the rails," so information on the topic is sometimes only included in the written briefing, not in the oral presentation.
  • He was "raging mad" that Congress tied his hands by overwhelmingly passing Russia sanctions; WaPo reports it took four days for him to be persuaded to sign the bill. Aides told him: "If you veto it, they'll override you...and you look like you're weak."
  • Senior advisers abide by a policy of "don't walk that last 5 1/2 feet" when it comes to sensitive Russia issues, meaning not to go into the Oval and give "Trump a chance to erupt or overrule on issues that can be resolved by subordinates."

Go Deeper: Read the full Post report.

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The White House plan to shift Americans' views on immigration

Relatives separated by the border wall betweeen Mexico and the United States meet. Photo: Herika Martinez / AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is planning a push to convince the American public that the current U.S. immigration system is "bad for American workers" and "bad for American security," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told AP.

Between the lines: In exchange for a legislative fix for DACA recipients, the White House wants funding for a border wall and a switch from the existing family-based immigration system to a merit-based one. They plan to use data on chain migration and the number of immigrants in U.S. jails to make the case that the current immigration system is an economic and national security threat.

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Trump has now appointed most ever federal appeals judges in 1st year

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Senate Republicans on Thursday confirmed President Donald Trump's twelfth federal appeals court nominee, setting a record for the most circuit court picks confirmed in a president's first year.

Why this matters: The federal courts carry significant weight in almost every area of policy: gun rights, executive power, LGBT rights, freedom of religion, etc, and have blocked multiple Trump initiatives in his first year. Trump's picks of young, conservatives judges for the lifetime appointments will far outlast his presidency.

Background: Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy successfully appointed 11 appeals court judges in their first year.

  • Former President Barack Obama successfully appointed three appeals court judges in his first year in office in 2009, as well as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. His predecessor, George W. Bush, got six confirmed.

What they're saying: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has spearheaded the effort, said Republicans were having a "historic week."

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, lambasted Republicans, saying that the "speed at which these judges are being rammed through the process is stunning."
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Trump spoke with Putin today

Trump and Putin at the G20 summit over the summer. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke over the phone Thursday. Trump thanked Putin for praising the U.S. economy and the two of them discussed the North Korean nuclear threat, per the White House.

The backdrop: The call came hours after Putin said allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin were "invented" by Trump's enemies at an annual press conference, AP reports. Putin said, “This is all made up by people who oppose Trump to make his work look illegitimate ... Look at the markets, how they went up; that speaks about investors' trust in what he does," echoing Trump.

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Costco continues to hold its own against Amazon

Shares in Costco rose in after-hours trading, following the company's announcement of better-than-expected profits, combined with its 14th-straight month of same-store sales growth.

Costco's secret sauce is a mix of low prices, well-trained staff, and an ever-changing, but limited assortment of products, which have all kept Americans flocking to Costco outlets when other retailers have lost business to the Internet.

The most important number in Thursday's report was a 43.5% increase in e-commerce sales year-over year.

  • Though Costco stock is up more than 18% this year, it has lagged competitors like Amazon and Walmart over fears that the company is clinging too tightly to its profitable retail warehouses—these numbers will assuage some of those concerns.
  • During a call with analysts Thursday, CFO Richard Galanti stressed that Costco is experimenting with e-commerce "in our own way," and also, "pretty cheaply," using experiments like buy online and pick-up in store, which has the added benefit of driving traffic to its warehouses.
  • It's a delicate balancing act that, so far, investors are cheering.
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Trump's "really diverse team" is mostly white

President Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

Omarosa Manigault, who was the only African American woman among President Trump's senior White House staff, drew attention to the Trump administration's lack of diversity when she resigned on Wednesday. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders maintained that the White House has "a really diverse team" across all departments, and are always trying to add to it.

The reality: Manigault, along with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, was one of two black officials among Trump's three dozen-plus team of Cabinet members and senior staffers.

Lack of diversity of Trump's cabinet: Ben Carson; Elaine Chao, who is Asian American; and Nikki Haley, who is Indian American, are the only non-white members of Trump's cabinet.

Omarosa also suggested traces of racial tension within the White House, as she said on "Good Morning America": "

"As the only African-American woman in the White House, I have seen things that have made me uncomfortable, that have upset me, that have affected me deeply and emotionally, that has affected my community and my people."
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Shervin Pishevar leaves his venture capital firm

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar has left Sherpa Ventures, the San Francisco-based firm he co-founded in 2013, following multiple allegations of sexual harassment. He has denied all of the claims, including one made on-the-record to Axios.

Sherpa's statement:

We thank Shervin for his contributions and service in co-founding Sherpa Capital. The Sherpa team remains focused on supporting our founders and portfolio companies, serving the interests of our Limited Partners across all of our funds. We are deeply committed to our culture of integrity, inclusion, and respect and will continue to put these values into action through all of Sherpa Capital's activities, including the founders and companies we support.

Pishevar, who is best-known as an early investor in Uber while with a previous VC firm, already had taken a leave of absence from Sherpa and his portfolio companies boards. He also is pursuing a lawsuit against a political opposition research firm that he claims is behind a "smear campaign" against him.

Pishevar's statement, which he posted via Twitter:

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The most (and least) fuel-efficient U.S. airlines

Fueling manager Jarid Svraka looks on as he fuels an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-800 jet. Photo: Elaine Thompson / AP

For the seventh year in a row, Alaska Airlines was the most fuel-efficient airline among U.S. carriers, according to a study from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

Why it matters: Naya Olmer, the study's author, said Alaska Airlines "burns about 13% less fuel than the industry average, it's a profitable airline, and it's done this for seven years running...So, it's possible." The report also notes that aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, and U.S. carriers make up 30% of that.

  • But, but, but: As U.S. carriers saw a 10% spike in overall revenue passenger miles between 2014 and 2016, energy effienciy fell by the wayside and CO2 emissions jumped by 7%.
  • The other leaders in fuel-efficiency include Frontier and Spirit, which use "cleaner fleets, higher load factors, denser seating configuartions," and more.
  • Virgin America was the least fuel-efficient U.S. carrier in 2016; Jet Blue came second-to-last.

One more thing: Alaska Airlines bought Virgin American last year. Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the ICCT, told Axios that "a back-of-the-envelope suggests that Alaska would have lost its fuel efficiency advantage over Frontier, Spirit, and Southwest in 2016 if the merger had gone ahead then. But Alaska's future efficiency will depend on how it actually operates Virgin's leased A320s, and also for how long."

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Trump: "I think Senator Rubio will be there" on tax bill

Screengrab via White House livestream

President Trump says he's confident the GOP tax bill will get Sen. Marco Rubio's vote despite a Washington Post report that Rubio is threatening to vote against the plan unless it includes the child tax credit expansion he has been advocating for.

Trump made the comments at a White House event where he "cut the red tape" of government regulations and claimed his administration has ended 22 old regulations for every new one created.