WASHINGTON — A year ago, Makan Delrahim predicted that AT&T’s $85.4 billion purchase of Time Warner would be approved by regulators. “I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem,” Mr. Delrahim, then a law professor, said to a Canadian television network.
Now, five weeks into his job as the top antitrust regulator at the Justice Department, Mr. Delrahim has taken a different position. The department has threatened to block the deal in court unless AT&T sells off major assets.
Mr. Delrahim’s position has thrown a surprising twist into a blockbuster deal, which has been watched for signs about how the Trump administration would handle giant mergers. On Wednesday, the dispute spilled into the public with conflicting versions about what the Justice Department wants.
In one account, the agency offered two paths: Sell Turner Broadcasting, including CNN, or offload DirecTV, according to several people at the companies. In another, AT&T offered to sell CNN, according to two officials at the agency.
Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, said on Wednesday that he had never offered to sell CNN. On Thursday, appearing at The New York Times’s DealBook conference, he said the company was ready to go to court against the Justice Department.
“To suggest that selling some of the key franchises of the business that are the most desired for your business plan makes no business sense,” Mr. Stephenson said.
The public spat has put a political cloud over the deal. President Trump has been critical of CNN and the deal. Several Democratic lawmakers have called for hearings to determine whether politics played a role in what is supposed to be an independent process.