The Amazon boss outlines an extortion scandal reaching the highest levels of international politics, media and business.
Jeff Bezos on Thursday exposed what he described as a blackmail attempt by The National Enquirer, which in January reported on the Amazon founder’s extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez.
An Amazon representative confirmed that the post by Bezos on the online publishing platform Medium was authentic. The representative did not provide a comment from the company.
Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, posted what he said are emails to his representatives from American Media Inc. (AMI), the Enquirer’s parent company. The emails threaten to publish some 10 photographs, including portions of Bezos’ and Sanchez’s genitalia and simulated sex acts, unless Bezos and his longtime security chief, Gavin de Becker, agree to make a statement “affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility,” among other terms.
Bezos wrote Thursday, “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.”
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In a statement Friday morning, AMI said it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” and that it was negotiating in good faith to resolve matters with him at the time of his Thursday post. “Nonetheless, in light of the nature of the allegations published by Mr. Bezos, the Board has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims,” AMI said.
AMI was apparently seeking a disavowal of statements in a story the Post published Tuesday exploring whether The National Enquirer’s expose of Bezos’s affair — which featured intimate text messages between Bezos and Sanchez — was politically motivated. That story reported that Bezos had directed de Becker to investigate the how and why of the Enquirer’s investigation of him.
“Depending on whom you believe, the Enquirer’s exposé on Bezos’ affair was a political hit inspired by President Trump’s allies, an inside job by people seeking to protect Bezos’s marriage, or no conspiracy at all, simply a juicy gossip story,” the Post reported.
Bezos announced Jan. 9 on Twitter that he was divorcing from his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie. The Enquirer started posting parts of its expose online that day.
The Post story quoted de Becker saying the revelation of Bezos’s affair with Sanchez, a former television anchor and helicopter pilot, resulted from a “politically motivated” leak. De Becker suggested it was meant to embarrass Bezos in his capacity as owner of the Post, which he purchased in 2013.
In a statement to the Post, AMI rejected the suggestion that any external forces influenced its reporting on Bezos, which it has described as its largest investigation, consuming four months and covering 40,000 miles.
AMI chief executive David Pecker is an ally of President Donald Trump, who has criticized Bezos for the Post’s reporting on his administration and conflated Bezos’ ownership of the news organization and Amazon.
Pecker’s publication has previously engaged in a strategy known as “catch and kill,” buying the rights to scandalous stories in an attempt to keep them secret. In December, the Justice Department announced a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, in which the company admitted to making a $150,000 payment to a woman during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence her “damning allegations” against Trump before the election.
Bezos wrote Thursday that his ownership of The Washington Post “is a complexifier for me. 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.”
Still, Bezos wrote, “I do not at all regret my investment.” He paid for a first-of-its-kind commercial touting the importance of journalism in general and the Post specifically during the Super Bowl.
Bezos, 55, asserted to AMI through his lawyers that the Enquirer has no right to publish the revealing photos, arguing that he and Sanchez hold the copyright to their own images, and that the photos “don’t add anything newsworthy.”
AMI representatives countered that publishing the photos is legal under the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law, and that “Mr. Bezos’ judgment as reflected by his texts and photos is indeed newsworthy and in the public interest,” given his leadership of Amazon.
Bezos fought back against the idea that the tumult in his personal life is impacting his role at the Seattle-based commerce and technology giant. On the day he announced the divorce, the company stated that Bezos “remains focused on and engaged in all aspects of Amazon.” Bezos on Thursday said he directed de Becker to “prioritize protecting my time since I have other things I prefer to work on,” and touted Amazon’s business success.
Bezos’s divorce has raised the prospect of a diminishment of his 16 percent ownership stake in Amazon.
The twists and intrigue of the Bezos-AMI dispute don’t stop.
A Wednesday email outlining the terms under which AMI sought to extract a statement from Bezos and de Becker was apparently sent by Jon Fine, who joined AMI as deputy general counsel in November.
Fine worked at Amazon between 2006 and 2015 in various business groups and roles including associate general counsel, vice president of business development and director of author and publishing relations, according to his LinkedIn page.
Fine was known to attend events at Seattle’s Hugo House and was responsible for doling out Amazon donations to literary arts groups, according to a person familiar with the local scene.
Bezos began Amazon in a Bellevue garage in 1994 as an online bookseller.
Fine and other AMI executives did not return a request for comment.