Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claimed Thursday that the owner of the National Enquirer tried to blackmail and extort him over naked pictures he sent to his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez.
In an extraordinary blog on Medium, Bezos posted a series of emails purportedly from American Media Inc. (AMI), publisher of the National Enquirer, that demanded the Amazon founder and Washington Post owner make a false statement in return for not publishing the intimate images. The National Enquirer in January published a story that referenced “intimate” texts between Bezos and Sanchez, and Bezos was investigating how the texts had been obtained.
The pictures outlined in the AMI emails include a “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’,” “a photograph of [Sanchez] smoking a cigar in what appears to be a simulated oral sex scene” and eight other images of the pair in various states of undress, according to the email supposedly from AMI’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard.
The tabloid publisher wanted Bezos to say publicly that he has “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
That threat came in response to an investigation Bezos launched into how AMI obtained his private messages. In the blog, Bezos hinted that his probe may have unearthed details about the publisher’s links to Saudi Arabia.
“For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve,” Bezos wrote of AMI’s threat.
AMI has denied any wrongdoing, saying that it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” adding that in light of the allegations made by Bezos, it will investigate the claims.
Any potential embarrassment in going public was outweighed by a desire to take a stand against AMI, Bezos said.
“If, in my position, I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” Bezos said.
Bezos indicated that “numerous people” had similar experiences with AMI, and several prominent journalists, including Ronan Farrow, backed up that claim.
While Bezos is a highly divisive figure, he has won almost universal praise for this decision to go public with the allegations.
How did we get to this point?
On Jan. 9, Bezos and his wife MacKenzie announced they were getting a divorce. The announcement was prompted by a message to Bezos from the National Enquirer that it was going to publish a story about intimate messages sent between Bezos and Sanchez.
The Enquirer did later publish a story about what it called “sleazy text messages and gushing love notes.” In response, Bezos hired security consultant Gavin de Becker to investigate, handing him an unlimited budget.
Speaking to the Daily Beast on Jan. 31, de Becker claimed the leaks were politically motivated, and on Feb. 5, the Washington Post reported that the investigation had centered on Sanchez’s brother Michael, who has close ties to President Donald Trump, including former campaign advisers Roger Store and Carter Page.
Bezos said he learned earlier this week that Pecker was “apoplectic” about the investigation.
What is AMI?
AMI is the publisher of the National Enquirer, which is led by David Pecker, a close friend of Trump.
Pecker reportedly tried to boost Trump’s chances of winning the 2016 election by publishing a series of flattering articles about the businessman as well as dozens of anti-Clinton front-pages.
In September, Pecker entered into an immunity deal with prosecutors at the Southern District of New York in return for giving evidence against Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who reportedly coordinated between the Trump campaign and the National Enquirer.
As part of that plea deal, Pecker admitted to engaging in “catch and kill” agreements on Trump’s behalf, killing negative stories about the businessman before they were published.
Among these agreements was a deal to facilitate a hush money payment of $150,000 to former Palyboy model Karen McDougal to silence her claims of a 2006 affair with Trump.
What are the legal implications?
While Bezos claims AMI’s actions amount to “extortion and blackmail,” legal experts are unsure if the case would meet the standard for a criminal charge.
“This could be criminal extortion although we need to know more facts to be sure,” Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York, told VICE News. “It does not look like a normal request for a correction. Nor does it look like a normal business transaction. A person is not permitted to threaten to harm someone as a way of coercing behavior. That is a crime — extortion, perhaps under the Hobbs Act.”
If the allegations prove accurate, it will also have an impact on the plea deal AMI and Pecker struck with prosecutors back in September.
“If AMI engaged in criminal conduct, the Justice Department could, in theory, declare its cooperation agreement null and void,” Jens David Ohlin, vice dean at Cornell Law School, told VICE News.
That could open the door for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against AMI relating to its role in Trump’s 2016 campaign.
What does it mean for Trump?
After the publisher cut a deal, it is unclear how close Pecker and Trump are today, and the president has yet to comment on the situation.
However, Trump has often revealed his disdain for the Amazon CEO, even commenting on the Enquirer’s story last month:
Bezos referenced Trump’s anger in his post:
“It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy. President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets. Also, The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles.”
The links to Saudi Arabia is one of a number of breadcrumbs contained in Bezos’ post, which will likely pique the interest of prosecutors investigating Trump and his entourage.
“A mystery to me is why AMI so badly wanted this statement to be made," Sandick said. “Do they have a concern that Trump or his allies are involved somehow in the gathering of the Bezos emails and photos? That is what a prosecutor will want to find out.”
Cover Image: Honoree Jeff Bezos speaks at the 21st Annual HRC National Dinner at the Washington Convention Center on October 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)