World / Crime & Legal

Sex, tabloids and blackmail: The toxic politics behind the Jeff Bezos extortion claims

AFP-JIJI

The stunning extortion claims made by Amazon and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos against the Trump-friendly National Enquirer tabloid have spotlighted a fierce behind-the-scenes media feud taking place in an ever-more-toxic U.S. political climate.

The story recounted by Bezos — the world’s richest man — touches on political intrigue, sexual indiscretion, the murder of a Saudi journalist and bitter charges of media bias.

The supermarket tabloid last month reported that Bezos had an extramarital affair with a former news anchor, publishing a trove of private text messages. The report appeared days after Bezos and his wife, Mackenzie, announced their divorce.

That prompted Bezos to launch an investigation into the Enquirer and how it was able to obtain such intimate material.

In a post on the online platform Medium, Bezos said Enquirer publisher American Media Inc., led by David Pecker — a friend of President Donald Trump — was threatening to publish intimate photos of him if he did not call off the probe.

“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,” Bezos wrote.

He maintained that the Enquirer had demanded that he and security consultant Gavin de Becker, who is leading the probe, publicly state they had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

The revelations appear to show the gossip tabloid trying to smear Bezos — whom Trump has repeatedly attacked as the owner of The Washington Post, a paper he claims is biased against him.

Bezos meanwhile hinted he may have been targeted by pro-Trump forces in part because of the Post’s coverage of the murder of its contributor Jamal Khashoggi, strangled and dismembered by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October.

“The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles,” he wrote.

Although Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is accused of ordering the assassination, the Trump administration has maintained there is no irrefutable evidence of his involvement and has stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between Washington and Riyadh.

Pointing at connections between Pecker, AMI and the government of Saudi Arabia, Bezos said he learned that “Pecker is ‘apoplectic’ about our investigation,” and that “the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.”

American Media said in an emailed statement that it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos” and made “good faith negotiations” with the U.S. billionaire but had decided nonetheless to “promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims” by the Amazon CEO.

Bezos pointed out that Pecker recently entered into an immunity deal with federal prosecutors on his role in “catch and kill” stories — in which reports are quashed by paying off sources — about Trump and his alleged mistresses.

But Pecker and his Enquirer colleagues could face fresh criminal investigations based on the Bezos allegations, according to former federal prosecutor Jacob Frenkel.

The allegations “easily could fall into possible violations of federal criminal statutes involving extortion or wire fraud,” the attorney said.

Bloomberg News reported that federal prosecutors were already reviewing the matter, including whether the tabloid breached its immunity agreement.

But former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said on Twitter that he didn’t believe they would pursue the company.

“Was AMI’s action slimy? Yes,” Mariotti posted. “Is it consistent with some of the questionable practices that AMI engaged in on behalf of Trump and others? Yes. But is this the sort of case federal prosecutors would charge as extortion? No.”

The case highlights a politically tinged feud between the Post owner and the supermarket tabloid, with Bezos asserting that he would not be intimidated.

Releasing the email exchanges, he said, shows “the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press. … And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.”

The disclosures are also likely to deepen the rift between Bezos and Trump, who claims that the tech entrepreneur is using the newspaper for his own purposes.

Taking aim last month at Bezos, Trump alluded to Enquirer reporting of the billionaire’s relationship with the former news anchor and entertainment reporter, Lauren Sanchez.

“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,” he tweeted.