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AT&T, antitrust officials have discussed shedding CNN in mega-deal for Time Warner

An AT&T store in New York, Oct. 27, 2016. The Justice Department has called on AT&T and Time Warner to sell Turner Broadcasting, the group of cable channels that includes CNN, as a potential requirement for approving the companies’ pending $85.4 billion merger, the New York Times reported on Nov. 8, 2017. (Christian Hansen/copyright 2017 The New York Times)

AT&T could sell off CNN and its parent, Turner Broadcasting, as part of the telecom giant's proposed mega-deal for the entertainment company Time Warner, three people briefed on the matter said Wednesday.

But the people provided contradictory accounts over who first proposed shedding the Turner assets. Two people familiar with the matter said AT&T had volunteered the idea -- and that the Justice Department's anti-trust division had flatly rejected the proposal. But another person said the idea came from the Department of Justice. All three people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private negotiations freely.

The revelation Wednesday about AT&T's antitrust discussions came hours after a top executive told investors he is no longer confident that a deal will be completed this year.

AT&T is seeking federal approval for an $85 billion purchase of Time Warner, one of the nation's largest entertainment conglomerates that, in addition to Turner, also owns HBO and Warner Bros, which produces films such as the upcoming "Justice League" movie and the Harry Potter series.

But it is the fate of CNN that could prove the most explosive element of the deal.

If CNN is divested, the White House could face questions about whether it influenced the deal for political reasons. Trump has repeatedly criticized CNN for biased coverage of his campaign and administration. He also said at a rally before the inauguration that the AT&T-Time Warner tie-up would be "too much concentration of power in the hands of too few."

The jab at AT&T and Time Warner shocked policy experts who said presidents and candidates for office generally avoid commenting on pending deals for fear of influencing - or appearing to influence - the process.

Trump recently appointed Makan Delrahim to head the anti-trust division at the Justice Department. Delrahim is regarded in Washington as a politically savvy antitrust expert, and was a vocal supporter of Trump's in 2016.