Updated at 1:43 p.m. ET on February 8, 2019.
Jeff Bezos does not often speak publicly about his personal life, his philanthropic endeavors, or the future of Amazon, the company he founded 25 years ago. He doesn’t even make a peep on Amazon’s quarterly earnings calls. But on Thursday, he decided to go to war with the National Enquirer on Medium, accusing the publication of “extortion and blackmail.”
The post is, as my colleague Robinson Meyer put it, bizarrely stimulating. “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” Bezos writes in the post, which also contains the text of emails the lawyer for his security consultant allegedly received from executives at American Media Inc., which owns the Enquirer. (Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.)
The emails pertain to photos of Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a woman with whom Bezos reportedly had an affair that led to the end of his marriage. Soon after Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, announced on Twitter that they were divorcing, the Enquirer published a story alleging that Bezos and Sanchez had had an affair. The Enquirer said that it had tracked them across 40,000 miles, and it published snippets of texts between Sanchez and Bezos.
Soon after the Enquirer’s story was published, President Donald Trump tweeted gleefully that Bezos (whom he called Bozo) was “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.” That tweet spurred more speculation about the political relationship between Trump and the Enquirer.
Trump has famously claimed that The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, does not cover him fairly. The president and the Enquirer have also shared criticism for warm relationships with Saudi Arabia: According to Bezos, AMI’s emails made the company seem particularly touchy about allegations that the tabloid has special ties to the Saudi government, and that it gave the Saudi embassy an early copy of an issue devoted to the crown prince.
After the initial story about Sanchez and Bezos was published, Bezos launched an investigation into how the texts were leaked to the Enquirer. This investigation came at a fraught time for AMI: In December, the company admitted to paying hush money to a woman who said she had an affair with Trump in order to quiet the story before the election. AMI’s chief executive, David Pecker, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating possible breaches of campaign-finance law in exchange for immunity. AMI also said in January that it was refinancing its debt; the company is facing falling sales and revenue.
AMI wanted to end Bezos’s inquiry into how it got his texts, Bezos said, and tried to do so by threatening to publish more photos. According to the emails Bezos published, in early February, AMI warned Bezos and his attorneys that the Enquirer was poised to publish pictures of Bezos and Sanchez, including a “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick.’ ” The Enquirer would agree to not publish those photos, according to an email from Jon Fine, AMI’s deputy general counsel, if Bezos publicly backtracked and said that there was no reason to believe that the Enquirer’s coverage of Bezos and Sanchez was politically motivated.
In the emails, which were sent to Martin D. Singer, the litigation counsel for Gavin de Becker, whom Bezos hired to investigate the leak, AMI appears to be extremely concerned about Bezos’s comments about the Enquirer’s reasons for publishing the exposé. “American Media emphatically rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise,” one email from Fine reads. “We hereby demand that you cease and desist such defamatory conduct immediately. Any further dissemination of these false, vicious, speculative and unsubstantiated statements is done at your client’s peril.”
This email motivated Bezos to publish the correspondence. On Wednesday, he wrote in the Medium post, the National Enquirer made him an offer it thought he couldn’t refuse. “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,” he wrote.
In a statement sent to reporters Friday, AMI said it believed that it had acted lawfully in reporting on Bezos, and that at the time the emails were published, it had been “in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him.” Still, the company said its board had convened and would launch an investigation into the claims made by Bezos, and take action if appropriate.
It would be difficult for Bezos to prove that the Enquirer’s emails are actually extortion, said Stuart Green, a law professor at Rutgers University. The law defines extortion as using a threat to obtain a property benefit. So even if Bezos can prove that threats were made, it will be harder to show that the Enquirer would have obtained something tangible had Bezos agreed to say publicly what AMI wanted him to. “I guess you could make the argument that a Bezos statement has economic value to the Enquirer,” Green said, but it’s far from an easy case.
It’s unclear why the Enquirer was so worried about Bezos’s allegations. Since Pecker has already gotten immunity from prosecutors, he seemingly has nothing to lose. But the Enquirer essentially ceded typical First Amendment protections in its deal with prosecutors, a decision that Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said “essentially signaled the Enquirer is not a real news organization.”
“They are very worried about their reputation,” Levinson said, “so in an effort to be respected they’re engaging in the most disrespectful kind of behavior. That is not the way any real news publication functions—it’s thuggery.”
The tabloid may be trying to appear more legitimate now. AMI promised that it would distribute “written standards” to employees about federal election laws, and is apparently trying to introduce more intense vetting into its properties, which include OK!, Us Weekly, and In Touch.
Of course, Bezos also gains something by exposing this conversation with the Enquirer, even if he is highlighting the existence of embarrassing and explicit photos. He has been under scrutiny of late for the way Amazon treats its employees. His Medium post portrays him as a victim, and as someone who wants to stand up for legitimate news organizations by supporting The Washington Post and by shedding light on the Enquirer’s shady practices.
That strategic positioning hasn’t gone without notice. As Kristin Kanthak, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, put it on Twitter: “You know we are at a disgusting moment in our nation’s history when the billionaire sending out dick pics is the HERO of the story.”