The richest man in modern history is caught in a bizarre sexual blackmail plot with geopolitical implications.
Yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail” involving a story published last month. Bezos had announced an investigation into how the Enquirer had obtained texts and photos revealing he’d had an affair. According to emails he posted, the tabloid then threatened to reveal compromising photos if Bezos didn’t drop his complaint and state that the National Enquirer wasn’t working on behalf of President Donald Trump or any other political agent.
It’s a wild and intricate story, playing off deep and long-standing rivalries between Trump and Bezos. And if you haven’t been following it from the start, it’s easy to get lost. So we’ve laid out the big questions — and some answers — below.
The immediate backstory starts on January 9th, when Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos announced that after 25 years of marriage, they would be getting divorced. The announcement came in an early morning tweet with a longer statement attached. “After a long period of loving exploration and trial separation, we have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends,” the statement read, printed in the Kindle-friendly Bookerly typeface.
It soon became clear why the couple had chosen to announce the split publicly. The following day, a story in the National Enquirer detailed Bezos’ ongoing relationship with a woman named Lauren Sanchez. The exposé was well-sourced, quoting extensively from Bezos’ texts to Sanchez and making reference to “a cache of lewd selfies” that he sent. The Enquirer claimed to have seen the selfies, but did not publish any of them or describe them in detail. Subsequent reporting by TMZ suggested the affair happened after Bezos and his wife had separated.
In many ways, it was a standard tabloid exposé, but given the Enquirer’s close ties to President Trump (more on that later), some wondered if the story was politically motivated — potentially a retaliation for various Trump investigations by The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos. Trump gloated over the story on Twitter, which only added fuel to the fire.
So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2019
In January, The Daily Beast broke the news that Bezos had hired a team of investigators, who were looking into how the Enquirer had obtained the texts and whether Trump allies had been involved in the story. There was still no firm link to Trump, but Bezos at least found the link plausible enough to spend a lot of money getting to the bottom of it.
Then, on Thursday, the dam broke. According to Bezos’ Medium post, the Enquirer responded to his investigation with an outright threat. Unless Bezos called off the investigators and declared there had been no political influence, the Enquirer would publish the photos sent to Sanchez, embarrassing the Amazon CEO even further. Bezos refused the offer and published the correspondence, calling out the Enquirer for what he saw as an extortion attempt. The result puts more pressure than ever on the Enquirer to justify its story and dispel any possible political motivations.
It’s hard to say what happens next. So far, no evidence has turned up linking Trump to the Enquirer story, although Bezos’ investigation is ongoing, and the Enquirer’s actions certainly make it seem like they had something to hide. Enquirer parent company AMI has said it is investigating Bezos’ allegations, but it seems unlikely the tabloid will face any significant blowback internally.
It’s also unclear whether the Enquirer broke the law in threatening Bezos. In its statement, AMI presented the effort as a “negotiation” over alleged defamation by Bezos, combined with a journalistic interest in publishing the photos. The legal precedents around this kind of extortion are ambiguous and it’s unclear whether AMI’s defense would hold up in court. So far, no charges have been brought, although federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating the matter.
One of the biggest lingering questions from the affair is how the National Enquirer ended up with Bezos’ private texts and photos. In theory, only Bezos and Sanchez should have had those, and neither one would have leaked them to the Enquirer. As paranoia spreads over Trump’s possible involvement, there’s been speculation that it could even have come from a sophisticated hacking campaign by intelligence services.
The most basic answer, however, is that we don’t know. The Enquirer has naturally protected its sources, and Bezos’ investigation hasn’t turned up any firm evidence, aside from casting doubt on conventional hacking claims. The most convincing theory has come from The Daily Beast’s reporting, which showed investigators had questioned Lauren Sanchez’s brother Michael Sanchez as part of the probe. A vocal Trump supporter, Michael Sanchez has ties to both Roger Stone and Carter Page. If he were able to get access to his sister’s phone, it’s plausible that he could have leaked the texts and photos to the Enquirer for political reasons, although there is still no direct evidence to that effect.
It’s also plausible that the National Enquirer got the texts through less savory means. If Bezos backed up the texts and photos to the cloud, they may have been accessible through an account compromise, which would have been difficult but entirely possible for a dedicated attacker. That would be illegal and wildly unethical in the context of journalism, but it’s not unheard of for tabloids to resort to such means in pursuit of a story. Still, the records of that compromise would likely be accessible to investigators.
The most outlandish theory is that Bezos’ phone was hacked by a US intelligence agency and then leaked directly by Trump. That possibility has been discussed prominently on cable news in the wake of the recent letter, seemingly promoted by the Bezos camp. The NSA certainly has the capabilities for such an operation, but it would be highly unusual and strain an already tense relationship between Trump and US intelligence agencies.
Others have suggested the operation could have been carried out by Saudi or UAE intelligence, which have been documented to use phone-hacking tools in recent months and have alleged ties to the Enquirer. But given how often the National Enquirer reports on high-profile infidelity, it seems unlikely such extreme tactics would be necessary.
The National Enquirer helped Trump cover up extramarital affairs during his presidential campaign. Journalist Ronan Farrow and others have reported on a quid pro quo deal between AMI CEO David Pecker and Donald Trump, whom Pecker has described as a close friend. AMI would “catch and kill” stories that might derail Trump’s campaign, buying the rights from sources with no intention of running a story. Trump allegedly returned the favor by introducing Pecker to potential investors, including a French businessman who connected Pecker with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The tabloid allegedly paid off at least two sources for stories it never planned to publish — a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed Trump secretly fathered a child in the 1980s, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said she’d had a nine-month affair with Trump in 2006. (There’s no substantial evidence for the former claim.) The Enquirer also allegedly tipped off Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen about adult actor Stormy Daniels, who was planning to talk about her own affair with Trump — resulting in Cohen paying Daniels $130,000 for her silence.
The Enquirer initially claimed it simply couldn’t substantiate these stories. But after Cohen was charged with crimes relating to his hush money payments, AMI escaped the threat of prosecution by admitting that it had been helping Trump since 2015.
Incidentally, the Enquirer allegedly also tried to blackmail reporters investigating its links with Trump. Farrow tweeted yesterday that AMI had sent “similar ‘stop digging or we’ll ruin you’ blackmail efforts” to him and another prominent journalist. Former Associated Press editor Ted Bridis corroborated the claim, saying he’d been “warned explicitly by insiders” that AMI had hired private investigators to find dirt on journalists covering the story.
For lots of reasons — both personal and political.
On the political side, Trump has railed against Amazon as part of his larger feud with Silicon Valley. Axios reported that he’s “obsessed with Amazon” even more than Facebook, Twitter, or Google, apparently because it’s undercutting his rich friends’ businesses, as well as hurting the real estate market by making brick-and-mortar stores less important.
Trump has publicly complained about Amazon being too powerful, not paying taxes, and taking advantage of the US Postal Service to deliver its packages — all complaints that are at least partially legitimate. He ordered a review of USPS finances that was clearly directed at Amazon, and he’s raised the specter of antitrust action against it and other tech companies.
Amazon isn’t the only problem, either. Bezos owns The Washington Post, which has posted numerous embarrassing stories about Trump. After the Enquirer’s story, Trump tweeted that the paper was “far more accurate” than the “Amazon Washington Post,” saying he hoped the Post would “soon be placed in better and more responsible hands.” Vanity Fair has reported that Trump assumes Bezos is directly weaponizing The Washington Post, because Pecker did the same thing with the National Enquirer.
But Trump supposedly loathes Jeff Bezos as a person, too. The Vanity Fair report calls him “obsessed” with Bezos as well as Amazon, looking for ways to “fuck with him.” Political commentator Michael D’Antonio has described Bezos as “everything that Trump hates,” and comedian Jimmy Kimmel joked that “Trump is jealous because Jeff Bezos is actually a billionaire,” referring to Trump’s notoriously sketchy claims about his own net worth. Also, Bezos once tweeted about shooting Trump into space.
Would the National Enquirer publish dirt about Bezos to make Amazon more vulnerable, or to give Trump the personal gratification of tweeting about the fall of “Jeff Bozo”? There’s not enough evidence to say. But Bezos and the Enquirer are both deeply invested in the answer.