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Why Bezos’ accusations against the National Enquirer are a ‘big deal’

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is accusing the National Enquirer of extortion and blackmail. Bezos says its parent company, AMI, tried to deter him from investigating how the tabloid obtained intimate photos of his extramarital affair. The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg tells Amna Nawaz about AMI CEO David Pecker's relationship with President Trump and how Bezos' ownership of the Washington Post factors in.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, is going to war with one of the most well-known and criticized tabloids over what he says is blackmail.

    It's an unusual showdown, and set amid a complicated political backdrop involving President Trump.

    Extortion and blackmail, that's what Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man and head of the online retail giant Amazon, says he experienced at the hands of The National Enquirer tabloid.

    In a blog post, Bezos says that The Enquirer threatened to publish nude photos of him unless he stopped investigating how the tabloid obtained his private text messages with a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

    Bezos' post includes e-mails from The Enquirer that warned it may publish the unpublished materials if Bezos spoke out. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, acknowledges in his post that he's come under the ire of President Trump, who is often critical of The Post and claims Amazon is scamming American taxpayers.

  • Donald Trump:

    The Post office is losing billions of dollars, and the taxpayers are paying for that money, because it delivers packages for Amazon at a very below cost.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last month, Mr. Trump even commented on news of Bezos' divorce.

  • Donald Trump:

    I wish him luck. It's going to be a beauty.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Days later, when The Enquirer published some of the Bezos exchanges, President Trump appeared to praise the tabloid on Twitter. He wrote — quote — "So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor."

    Bezos also notes that David Pecker, CEO of The Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., or AMI, recently entered into an immunity deal with the Department of Justice. AMI has told federal prosecutors that the company coordinated with the Trump campaign to buy and then bury a story of a woman who alleges to have an affair with Mr. Trump in 2006.

    It's a practice often referred to as catch and kill and, in this case, AMI says, to influence the 2016 presidential election. In his post, Bezos acknowledges AMI's role in the — quote — "process on behalf of President Trump and his election campaign."

    And he writes — quote — "I also won't participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption."

    Federal prosecutors are now reportedly reviewing whether The Enquirer's handling of the Bezos story violated Pecker's immunity deal. Bezos also says The Washington Post's coverage of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi last October — quote — "seems to have hit a particularly sensitive nerve."

    Bezos adds — quote — "Mr. Pecker and his company have also been investigated for various actions they have taken on behalf of the Saudi government."

    Since Bezos' post, journalists, including Ronan Farrow, say they too have been blackmailed by AMI, after reporting on the president's relationship with AMI.

    In response, AMI says it — quote — "acted lawfully" while reporting the story, and said it would investigate the matter.

    For more on this, I'm joined by Jim Rutenberg, who is following all these developments for The New York Times.

    Jim, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You heard there Jeff Bezos has called this extortion, he's called it blackmail. You have been talking to a lot of people reporting this out. Do we know if that's true?

  • Jim Rutenberg:

    The truth is, we don't really know that, whether that's true. It's a big deal.

    The allegation is quite serious. AMI's future depends on it. Its officers' ability to stay out of criminal hot water is dependent on that question. They are definitely in an uncomfortable place here. They were seeking to trade something of value or something that could cause at least great harm to Mr. Bezos.

    And that is these compromising photographs. And, in return, they were asking for something for them, him to quit make these accusations against them. So that's — that could fit under more than one statute that would cover extortion, which can be prosecuted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, of course, the question being, does that violate the terms of the immunity deal that they previously had?

    But let's spend a moment here and just pull apart a little bit of this Venn diagram of these overlapping personalities and relationships at play here.

    Let's start with Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos. Lay out for us here, what is the basis of the conflict between those two men?

  • Jim Rutenberg:

    Well, the real basis of the conflict is that Mr. Bezos owns The Washington Post. Of course, the Washington Post has had a great journalistic resurgence.

    That resurgence has come, at least in Mr. Trump's view, at his own expense. So attacking Mr. Bezos has been kind of a go-to move of President Trump's.

    And what President Trump has done, which for Mr. Bezos is quite treacherous, is, he has brought in Amazon, which is not the owner of The Post. The Post is owned by Mr. Bezos himself.

    And so President Trump has also attacked his business and tried to kind of meld these two things together, that somehow Amazon's on the take, it's not paying its fair share of taxes, all these allegations.

    Mr. Bezos has phased into this thus far by just standing by journalism and the truth and sort of, you know, apple pie. So this is kind of a whole new realm that he's entering into with this latest phase.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what about David Pecker here, the CEO of AMI? What's his relationship to Donald Trump?

  • Jim Rutenberg:

    Right now , it's complicated because of the prosecution deal that you referenced.

    They do go back several decades. I put myself in the camp that has been skeptical of the idea that they were in cahoots on this story against Mr. Bezos. But, A, I rule nothing out ever with any of these characters.

    But, B, it's quite conceivable — and this is just speculation — that Mr. Pecker might have seen this story as having a fringe benefit of signaling to President Trump that he will still go after his enemies.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why is it that you're skeptical about that at this point?

  • Jim Rutenberg:

    Cooperation agreements have a way — when your testimony is being used against the other person has a way of sort of putting rifts in friendships.

    And that investigation continues. And Mr. Pecker's cooperation with the Southern District of New York has been very important. It has confirmed a lot of the allegations that have been made against President Trump and his campaign in terms of improper campaign spending, those allegations, of course, made by the president's former lawyer Michael Cohen, who isn't exactly a choir boy and can't really stand out there on his own as a credible witness, without the very important backup that Mr. Pecker, AMI have provided.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Jim, very quickly before we go, we saw a lot of details in these e-mails that Bezos posted of intimidation and threatening tactics from AMI.

    Do we know how common a practice that has been for them? How widespread is that?

  • Jim Rutenberg:

    My reporting, which is now, fortunately or unfortunately, more than a year in the making, finds that that is fairly common.

    AMI plays a really rough game. And the question here is going to be, did that rough game stray into criminality? And I would predict that, before this is over, when you have someone like Mr. Bezos now with the means to keep going after AMI, we might be hearing more about these kind of tactics that — involving people we hadn't heard from before.

    So, this still has some ways to go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And you will be following it all. We will be following your reporting.

    Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times, thanks so much.

  • Jim Rutenberg:

    Thank you.

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