United States Attorney General William Barr recused himself from the federal review of T-Mobile and Sprint's proposed merger, leaving the final decision on the matter to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, the head of the agency's antitrust unit.
The DOJ chief who returned from retirement in order to replace Jeff Sessions in one of the most important roles in the Trump administration is understood to have made the decision due to potential conflicts of interest, the New York Post reports, citing an insider said to have first-have knowledge of the development. Mr. Barr is a shareholder of AT&T whose stock it acquired following the wireless carrier's purchase of Time Warner, a media conglomerate on whose board he served for many years prior to the $85.6 billion acquisition which the agency he now helms unsuccessfully attempted to stop via a lawsuit.
The move comes amid a set of controversies stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report into what is now proven to be a high-level Russian scheme aiming to meddle with the U.S. democratic process in 2016 with the goal of influencing the outcome of the last presidential election. The four-page memo authored by Barr that summarized the findings of the investigation several weeks back now appears to have been heavily skewed in favor of President Trump and his campaign to the point it misrepresented the findings of the investigation and confused the general public regarding its ultimate conclusions, something the role of a Special Counsel is specifically meant to avoid.
Mr. Mueller himself believes as much, according to a late March letter he sent to the DOJ in order to acknowledge the advice of his superior but note he strongly disagrees with the manner wherein Mr. Barr's memo shaped the media narrative of the report which has been publicized last month with redactions.
While his potential conflicts of interest stemming from his personal investments might have pushed him to decide against greenlighting the proposed consolidation valued at some $25.6 billion that T-Mobile and Sprint packaged as an all-stock deal, his replacement previously signaled he doesn't necessarily see any fundamental issues with the pitch, especially given the 5G prism the two network operators are using to frame it, arguing that they'll use their combined powers to make the next generation of wireless connectivity more competitive.
On the other hand, industry analysts are losing confidence in the merger's chances of success, pointing to T-Mobile's recent hail-Mary promises as evidence that the DOJ's review isn't developing in favor of the consolidation. The federal antitrust regulator so far made no public concession requests but reportedly isn't planning to do so at all as it believes the tie-up to be unviable in its current shape and form.
While T-Mobile and Sprint previously said they're confident their merger will be wrapped up by the end of the first half of 2019, its deadline has now been moved to late July by the DOJ, with the agency's antitrust unit stating it's still pursuing certain leads and isn't prepared to make a decision on the matter just yet.