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Talking Points

Why AT&T’s CEO was smiling at his Boston appearance today

Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, spoke at the Boston College Chief Executives Club luncheon at the Boston Harbor Hotel.
Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, spoke at the Boston College Chief Executives Club luncheon at the Boston Harbor Hotel. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Randall Stephenson’s “elephant in the room” takes on new meaning now.

Speaking to the Boston College Chief Executives Club today, the AT&T CEO offered color and context about the fight of his professional life. AT&T’s proposed Time Warner acquisition will likely be decided by a trial due to start March 19, as Stephenson’s team faces off against the US Department of Justice in a widely watched antitrust case.

Stephenson’s Boston visit coincides with news reports that the Dallas-based company took the unusual step of putting DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim on its witness list. Delrahim declared in a 2016 TV interview that he didn’t see any major antitrust problems with the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Of course, that was before the Trump administration tapped him for the DOJ job. Now, he leads the charge against the merger.

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Stephenson referenced the latest reports about the case: He described Delrahim’s change of heart, alongside President Trump’s antipathy toward Time Warner-owned CNN, as “an elephant in the room, and it’s probably going to have to be dealt with in that context.” Stephenson has mentioned this particular elephant before — except now we know more about how he plans to address it.

Fidelity Investments CEO Abby Johnson shared the stage with Stephenson, and asked him about the case. He jokingly called the tangle with DOJ “a little speed bump.” This is what’s known as a vertical merger -- AT&T and Time Warner aren’t direct competitors. Stephenson says no one has successfully challenged this kind of deal in 50 years.

Johnson noted that she’s never heard of somebody talking about going to court with a smile on their face. But Stephenson came across as someone who is confident about the outcome.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com and on Twitter @jonchesto.