Could President Trump Really Break Up Comcast?

Despite Donald Trump's stated wish to break up Comcast, it’s incredibly unlikely he could make that happen.

Donald Trump in the Comcast Center lobby

Photo illustration, obviously

Donald Trump went to Gettysburg on Saturday for a big speech, having reached the part of the campaign where he wanted to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln. His speech was supposed to lay out what the first 100 days of a Trump presidency would be like, but the main news he made during it was that he’d sue the women accusing him of sexual misconduct after the election. Four score and seven accusations ago … well, you get the idea.

Trump also commented on the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger, saying his administration would block the deal.

“As an example of the power structure I’m fighting,” he said, “AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” But Trump also took aim at Comcast, and said his administration would look into breaking up the company due to its 2011 purchase of NBCUniversal. It was not the first time Trump has painted himself as a 21st-century trustbuster.

Comcast is not a popular company, and The Verge wrote on Tuesday that its purchase of NBCU “seems to have been good for the financial health of both companies, but has produced little of note for consumers.” This ignores the wonderful The Good Place on NBC, but, yeah, OK.

Comcast declined to comment to Philadelphia magazine on the Donald’s comments. Could a President Trump administration really break up the company? Technically, yes, but it would be a long shot.

“The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division could in fact seek to break up a monopoly,” Temple law professor and anti-trust law expert Salil Mehra tells Philadelphia magazine. “I’m not saying that Comcast necessarily qualifies as a monopoly, but the DOJ does have that ability.” Well, at least Donald Trump is giving a specific, achievable goal that he’d attempt to do as president.

Some see Trump’s comments as out of line, though. “It is wholly inappropriate for a president (or a candidate) to tell the attorney general how to decide a case before the Justice Department has a chance to make a recommendation,” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, an attorney who specializes in telecommunications and media policy, told CNNMoney.

Mehra says the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division doesn’t do things rashly. “The antitrust division has a bunch of career people,” Mehra says. “It has sort of a long history of grounding its actions in economic theory going back decades. So, ideally, there’s enough institutional memory and processes there that it’s not simply if the president orders you to do it just sort of do it, regardless of the facts of the case or the economics of the case.”

But a Comcast breakup would be a long shot even if Trump were to become president, direct the Justice Department to try to break up Comcast, and get its staffers on board. Mehra explained that no company has been broken up since the dissolution of the Bell System in the early 1980s. And while the Justice Department and 20 states won the antitrust lawsuit they filed against Microsoft in 1998, the breakup order was overturned on appeal. The DOJ eventually stopped attempting to split Microsoft into separate companies that made the operating software and software components.

“Even though the appeals court upheld that Microsoft had been engaged in a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, monopolization,” Mehra said, “tt didn’t think that the that the foundation was there to order a breakup as the district court had. It’s seen as a drastic remedy and it’s not automatic.”

It goes further than that. According to Mehra, the Supreme Court has made it clear it’s not enough for a company to just be a monopoly — they have to exploit that monopoly in a way that hurts competition. And, in order for the government to force a breakup, there has to be proof that a breakup of the company would actually address the problem. Forcing Comcast to divest itself of NBC doesn’t seem to meet that standard.

In short: The breakup of Comcast isn’t going to be a campaign promise Donald Trump will be able to fulfill. Who would’ve guessed?