FCC chair Ajit Pai told a Senate panel Thursday (Aug. 16) that White House counsel Don McGahn had contacted him personally last month to ask about the status of the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
He said that came in mid-July in a phone call. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had asked during an FCC oversight hearing whether the White House had contacted Pai about the deal prior to or after the July decision to designate it for hearing.
The President had backed the deal, and tweeted his displeasure when Pai and the other commissioners voted to designate the deal for hearing over allegations of lack of candor on the part of Sinclair.
Pai said no one from the White House had called to express a view, but that McGahn called with a "status inquiry." Pressed by Blumenthal, Pai said that call had come from the counsel to the President to follow up on something he had seen in the news and "just wanted" to know what the FCC's proposed action was. He did not specify the action, but said the call came July 16 or 17--the FCC's order designating the deal for hearing came July 16.
Pai agreed to supply Blumenthal with a written summary of that conversation.
Sinclair last spring hired former Trump staffer Boris Epshteyn to deliver conservative commentary and the company has contributed overwhelmingly to Republican candidates over the past quarter century, according to OpenSecrets.org. which tracks political contributions, not surprising since Republican's deregulatory philosophy dovetails with Sinclair's goal of expanding its reach and scope to compete with alternative video distributors with fewer regulations.
More than a year ago August, House Democrats in top FCC oversight positions wrote Pai to express their concern that he may have taken a series of deregulatory actions to benefit Sinclair that could show a "pattern" of preferential treatment and may have been inappropriately coordinated with the Trump White House and the company.
And exactly a year ago today (July 25, 2017) Pai told a House Communications Subcommittee hearing audience that no one in the White House or Administration generally had "made any representations" to him about the deal or asked him "to take any particular action or expressed views on the merits..."
The chairman had committed to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee, and others, that he would inform the committee if the White House attempted to influence his decisionmaking.