Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, and owner of The Washington Post, has elicited widespread sympathy and admiration for his unflinching response to American Media Inc. (AMI), which threatened to publish embarrassing photographs of him in the National Enquirer. Rather than give in, Bezos published emails from AMI officials. (So convenient of them to put their blackmail attempt in writing.) His action recalls what the Duke of Wellington did on a similar occasion in 1824 when a sleaze merchant demanded a payoff to prevent the publication of a book naming him as a client of a notorious courtesan. “Publish and be damned,” the victor of Waterloo growled. The allegations were indeed published but did not prevent Wellington from becoming prime minister of Britain four years later.
Much remains mysterious about the Enquirer’s actions, and in particular its connections, if any, with President Donald Trump and the government of Saudi Arabia — a possibility that Bezos alluded to in his blog post. Both the Saudis and Trump are aggrieved at The Post, and Trump wrongly blames Bezos for the newspaper’s accurate but unflattering coverage of him. When the Enquirer’s initial article about Bezos’s extramarital relationship was published, the president gloated in a tweet: “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!”
The president would obviously love to see a sale of The Post to a friendlier owner — perhaps Trump pal David Pecker, the chairman and chief executive of AMI. (One is reminded of autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have benefited from bullying media organizations into submission in their own countries.) The Enquirer was threatening Bezos in order to get him to affirm that its coverage was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Might the Enquirer have, at a minimum, pursued the story to curry favor with Trump?
This is apparently not the first time the publication has been accused of extortionate demands. Other journalists, including Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, have said they were threatened by the Enquirer’s lawyers while investigating the tabloid’s relationship with Trump. And Bezos wrote that “numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI.” These machinations are now being exposed because of Bezos’s smart and courageous decision to confront the Enquirer rather than give in. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,” he wrote.
In response to Bezos’s blog post, American Media insisted that it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos” but pledged to “thoroughly investigate the claims.”
This is the second significant revelation in the past two months concerning the National Enquirer. In December, AMI struck a deal with federal prosecutors, acknowledging that it had circumvented campaign finance laws by paying $150,000 to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Trump. The aim was to keep McDougal’s story secret. “Catch and kill” appears to be a long-standing practice at the Enquirer, but it is only coming to light because of the tabloid’s close association with Trump, whom it relentlessly boosted during the 2016 presidential campaign. In turn, Pecker was able to take a close adviser of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to meet Trump at the White House, thereby facilitating AMI’s attempts to seek deals with Saudi investors. AMI subsequently published and distributed a glossy propaganda magazine featuring the crown prince on its cover. These are the kinds of dubious practices that people such as Trump and Pecker have long engaged in behind closed doors. Now their doings are out in the open.
I suspect David Pecker will rue the day that his friend Trump became president — if he does not already. And he is not alone. Paul Manafort had a flourishing business as an international influence-peddler before he became Trump’s campaign chairman. He now faces a long stretch in prison after having been convicted of felony financial charges. Trump’s friend Roger Stone has now been indicted for the first time after a long career as a political dirty trickster. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, has gone from well-respected general to convicted felon. Michael Cohen had a cushy career as Trump’s personal lawyer before his client became president. Now Cohen, too, is a felon. Numerous other Trump associates and family members are facing, at a minimum, hefty legal bills and, at worst, serious legal exposure.
Every organization Trump has been associated with — the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump campaign, the Trump administration — is being investigated by prosecutors and lawmakers. His name, long his biggest asset, has become so toxic that bookings are down at his hotels. And Trump, a.k.a. Individual 1, faces a serious threat of prosecution once he leaves office. Before it is all over, Trump himself may regret the day he became president. His unexpected and undeserved ascent is delivering long overdue accountability for him and his sleazy associates. We have gone from logrolling to having logs rolled over — and it’s about time.
Max Boot is a columnist with The Washington Post.