FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a Senate committee today that he has not spoken to the White House about its criticisms of CNN and would “follow appropriate protocols” if administration officials tried to influence the agency’s review of AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

At a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing today, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) challenged the administration’s “bully tactics” against journalists, for example by calling them an “enemy of the American people.”

Associated Press

Asked if he agreed with that view, Pai said that he believes “every American enjoys First Amendment protections.” He said that he’s “not at liberty” to say whether he discussed the news media or any specific companies with the president in private meetings.

But he says that the FCC “absolutely” will act independently of the White House and resist efforts to use his agency to intimidate journalists, including through rulings affecting the businesses that employ them.

During the election campaign, President Trump said that he opposed AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner.

“We are an independent agency and for any matter that is placed before me I will take a sober look at the facts” and “render a decision based on the law and precedents applied to those facts and I will make a determination based on what I and my colleagues believe is in the public interest,” Pai says.

In response to other questions Pai said that he believes his agency “would not have the legal authority” to review the AT&T-Time Warner deal, but will ask lawyers to weigh in. He also reiterated his “concerns” with the FCC’s net neutrality rules and his plan to review them with an eye to balance “a free and open Internet” while encouraging and incentivizing web entrepreneurs.

Time Warner appeared to take the FCC out of the picture in reviewing the deal last month when it agreed to sell its only TV station, Atlanta’s WPCH, to Meredith for $70 million. Without a license transfer, Pai says, the FCC would have no jurisdiction to determine whether the deal would serve the public —  a judgment that can be broadly defined.

The deal still must pass muster with the Justice Department, which could oppose it only if it finds an antitrust problem.

The AT&T-Time Warner deal also came up in a discussion about the FCC’s net neutrality enforcement policies – which Pai, for the most part, believes overstepped its authority.

That could result in an imbalance: Comcast agreed not to throttle some content providers, but not others, as a condition for FCC approval of its purchase of NBCUniversal in 2011. But AT&T might not face the same condition if the FCC doesn’t review its deal with Time Warner.

Pai says he wants to “act within our authority to protect the public interest,” but can’t give “a simple answer” to the question.

Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-NE) opened the proceeding saying that he was a “vocal critic” of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s “hyper-partisan leadership style” adding that it “will not be an easy task to rectify some of the agency’s biggest missteps” including its net neutrality enforcement.

But Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) said that “the FCC has a responsibility to put the public interest ahead of powerful special interests.”

He and other committee members criticized President Trump’s decision last week not to renominate Jessica Rosenworcel to the FCC. There are two openings on the commission, one for a Democrat and another for a Republican. The Republican-controlled Senate did not confirm her late last year when President Obama renominated her.

Nelson called that “a black mark on the Senate.”