Will anti-Trump CNN Boss Jeff Zucker kill $84.5 billion deal?

CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker’s programming strategy to attack President Donald Trump could end up killing an $84.5 billion deal between AT&T and Time Warner.

Multiple outlets, including CNBC and the Financial Times, have reported that the Department of Justice told AT&T that Time Warner must sell CNN in order to approve the $84.5 billion acquisition. However, DOJ sources tell Fox News the parties offered to divest CNN and the DOJ Antitrust Division flatly rejected it. Further, DOJ sources say there has been no final decision and talks are ongoing.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson put out a statement saying he "never offered to sell CNN,” but Fox News sources dispute that claim and say he was in the room on Monday when the conversation took place. The same DOJ sources tell Fox News in theory, that Turner Broadcasting, in its entirety, could be divested as part of the merger.

If Time Warner must sell the cable news channel before the U.S. antitrust authority signs off on the deal, it won’t be the first time Zucker has complicated a massive media deal. Zucker was a lightning rod when Comcast acquired NBC, of which he was then president and CEO, back in 2010. He got fired -- now he's a lightning rod again as AT&T looks to take over CNN’s parent, Time Warner, because of a personal feud with President Trump.

Liberal CNN is considered the crown jewel of the Time Warner portfolio, despite an ongoing beef with President Trump, who mocks the network as “fake news” on a regular basis. CNN has long been extremely profitable. Trump has opposed the potential deal between AT&T and Time Warner, implying that it would result in a monopoly while others have speculated the president could block a deal just to punish CNN.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to questions about the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia while speaking at his Trump Tower residence in New York, U.S., August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC1F0ED931C0

The beef between Zucker and Trump goes way back. Zucker was in charge of NBC when Trump’s “The Apprentice” became a hit for the network. At one point when NBC's prime time lineup was flailing (due to, critics argue, decisions by Zucker), "The Apprentice" was NBC's most successful show and Trump was NBC's biggest star.

Zucker has acknowledged in the past that his decision to greenlight “The Apprentice” helped increase Trump’s star power. But since his firing at NBC and ascension at CNN, he has installed an anti-Trump programming strategy at CNN. So the real estate tycoon-turned-president helped ratings at both of Zucker’s gigs in some capacity. Zucker’s anti-Trump game plan has helped both TV ratings and digital traffic at CNN.

Meanwhile, Trump claims he's the reason Zucker got the top NBC job (something Zucker gently refutes) and the president has been clear that he resents CNN's constant attacks on him, considering what he feels he did for its boss.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta has emerged as one of the faces of anti-Trump liberal media, regularly interrupting press briefings with grandstanding and providing personal opinions about the administration on a consistent basis. The network’s primetime programming is littered with large panel discussions, often featuring numerous liberal analysts against a single quasi-Trump supporter. CNN’s morning show, “New Day,” has made news because erratic co-host Chris Cuomo seems to enjoy sparring with Kellyanne Conway.

CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta prepares to go on the air after the daily press briefing, during which he had a contentious exchanges with White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 2, 2017.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC1693D7B420

The deal was initially expected to become official before the end of the year but AT&T CFO John Stephens said “the closing of the deal is now uncertain” when speaking at the Wells Fargo Media & Telecom Conference in New York City on Wednesday.

“We are in active discussions with the [Department of Justice]. Those are continuing on. I can't comment on those discussions, but with those discussions, I can now say that the timing of the closing of the deal is now uncertain," Stephens said. "With regards to the transaction, everything continues as we've expressed in the past."

Everyone involved is waiting on the Justice Department approving the deal, which would make AT&T the nation’s largest media company – but it is unclear how the deal would be impacted if Time Warner is forced to sell off CNN.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) participates in a town hall event with presenter Chris Cuomo hosted by CNN in Columbia, South Carolina February 23, 2016.   REUTERS/Rainier Ehrhardt - GF10000320912

“AT&T is opposed to selling the TV network and is preparing to take the Trump administration to court, arguing the deal with Time Warner does not pose any competition violations,” the Financial Times reported.

Nobody at the White House weighed in on the talks, a DOJ official said. “I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division,” Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Makan Delrahim responded.

While the current boss of the liberal CNN is no stranger to stalling major cooperate takeovers, things are different this time around. At NBC, Zucker worked his way up from entry-level researcher to president and CEO of NBC Universal over a 24-year period. Despite the rise, Zucker was widely criticized for nearly running NBC into the ground once he landed the top job. 

In January 2010, the Los Angeles Times said Zucker “has made several costly miscalculations that have led to a spectacular fall by the country's premier television network.” The Times called Zucker’s handling of the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien fiasco “one of the biggest debacles in television history” and said his legacy could be “the guy who plucked the peacock.”

That same month, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked, “How does Jeff Zucker keep rising and rising while the fortunes of NBC keep falling and falling?” It should come as no surprise that Zucker stepped down roughly eight months after the disastrous headlines when the takeover of NBC by Comcast become official.

“He acknowledged [leaving NBC] was not his own choice,” the Times reported when it broke the news seven years ago. Zucker said that Comcast Executive Vice president Steve Burke “made it clear that they wanted to move on” and he stepped down, eventually landing at CNN.

Meanwhile, Zucker is a success at CNN by most measures but he's staked the network's strategy on being a merry foil to Donald Trump. CNN, once famously known for Ted Turner's bare bones "just-the-facts" approach to journalism, has careened hard left, with its strident anchors and correspondents sometimes going to the left even of MSNBC.

Zucker has focused on programming distractions to what was once the key to CNN's success -- hard news coverage. Before the Trump phenomenon, he was criticized for seeking a ratings boost by focusing obsessively first on the story of the stranded 2014 "poop cruise" in which a cruise ship was stalled in the middle of the ocean with faulty bathrooms; and then on the disappearance of a Malaysian jetliner, which CNN anchor Don Lemon notoriously speculated may have flown into a black hole.

“The Department is committed to carrying out its duties in accordance with the laws and the facts. Beyond that, the Department does not comment on any pending investigation,” a Justice Department spokesman told Fox News.

Fox News’ Jake Gibson contributed to this report.

Brian Flood covers the media for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter at @briansflood.