The richest man on earth accused the nation’s leading supermarket tabloid publisher of “extortion and blackmail” on Thursday, laying out a theory that brought together international intrigue, White House politics, nude photos and amorous text messages.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post, made his accusations against American Media Inc., the company behind The National Enquirer, in a lengthy post on the online platform Medium. Last month, The Enquirer published an exposé of Mr. Bezos’ extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former host of the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The headline of Mr. Bezos’ post — “No thank you, Mr. Pecker” — targeted David J. Pecker, the head of the tabloid company. In the sometimes digressive text that followed, he accused American Media of threatening to publish graphic photographs of Mr. Bezos, including a “below-the-belt selfie,” if he did not publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair was not motivated by political concerns.
“Well, that got my attention,” Mr. Bezos wrote of the threat. “But not in the way they likely hoped.”
The inciting event in this battle of American titans was the Jan. 28 edition of The Enquirer, which hit supermarket racks on Jan. 10, one day after Mr. Bezos and his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie, announced that they would be getting a divorce. The tabloid devoted 11 pages to the story of Mr. Bezos’ affair with Ms. Sanchez, calling it “the biggest investigation in Enquirer history!”
[Who Is MacKenzie Bezos? Her divorce has made the novelist, and her private life, a public fascination.]
The Enquirer boasted that it had tracked the couple “across five states and 40,000 miles,” furtively observing them as they boarded private jets, rode in limousines and repaired to “five-star hotel hideaways.” The article was illustrated with paparazzi shots of the unwitting couple as they stepped onto a tarmac and arrived together at what the tabloid called “their beachfront love nest in Santa Monica.”
The tabloid also published amorous text messages that Mr. Bezos had sent to Ms. Sanchez. “I am crazy about you,” he wrote, according to The Enquirer. “All of you.”
Tech executives are not the usual subjects of Enquirer covers, and the story set off speculation in Washington and New York media circles that the tabloid’s aggressive coverage of Mr. Bezos was tied to the closeness of Mr. Pecker, The Enquirer’s chief, and the White House. That alliance came fully to light last year in the legal drama involving hush payments to women alleging affairs with Mr. Trump.
[Our media columnist examined the unlikely power of The National Enquirer in December.]
Mr. Trump and Mr. Pecker were longtime friends — but the relationship between the two was said to be frayed in recent months, when American Media’s leadership entered into a deal with federal prosecutors looking into the company’s role in the hush payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Pecker and his associates had helped orchestrate the deals involving two women who alleged past affairs with Mr. Trump in “catch and kill” deals: the former Playboy model Karen McDougal and the porn star Stormy Daniels.
After The Enquirer made his private life public, giving Twitter wags and late-night hosts the chance to weigh in on his high-flown texting style, Mr. Bezos sprang into action, starting his own investigation of the tabloid’s motives and how it had come to possess his texts to Ms. Sanchez.
The Amazon founder, who at last count was worth $136 billion, suggested that he would spare no expense in taking the fight to the tabloid publisher. Leading the investigation was Gavin de Becker, Mr. Bezos’ longtime security chief, whom Mr. Bezos said he had instructed “to proceed with whatever budget he needed to pursue the facts in this matter.”
It was a bold move for someone who has often tried to evade the spotlight, even amid the frequent insults hurled his way by Mr. Trump, who has labeled the newspaper that Mr. Bezos purchased in 2013 as “The Amazon Post” and recently called him “Jeff Bozo” in a tweet.
[Mr. de Becker has advised celebrities on threats for decades.]
Mr. de Becker confirmed to The Daily Beast on Jan. 31 that he was leading the investigation into the matter of how the Enquirer had obtained the text messages. Not long afterward, The Post prepared an article exploring competing theories about the motivation behind the publication of the tawdry tale.
American Media made the next move, offering Mr. Bezos an offer that it wrongly assumed he could not refuse. And if he did say no? A future issue of The Enquirer would make him very unhappy, with the selfies and more of the steamy texts it had apparently obtained.
“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks and corruption,” Mr. Bezos wrote. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over and see what crawls out.”
Amazon declined to comment. American Media did not respond to a request for comment.
By using Medium to reveal The Enquirer’s backstage maneuvers, Mr. Bezos — one of the world’s most powerful tech titans and the owner of one of the country’s most influential newspapers — showed the best means of communications can be a simple blog post.
Sometimes rambling — while also showing the occasional flair of tabloid columnists of yore — the Bezos post pulled together random strands of the yearlong legal drama involving the president, American Media and the allegedly illegal payments to women.
That federal inquiry resulted in a guilty plea from Mr. Trump’s former attorney and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, who said he had paid Ms. Daniels $130,000 and asked American Media to pay Ms. McDougal $150,000 at the president’s direction, to protect his election prospects.
Federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York determined that the American Media payment was an illegal corporate contribution. Because the company cooperated with prosecutors, the authorities did not bring charges. But they made American Media sign onto a non-prosecution agreement, in which it affirmed that it had made the payment to “influence the election.”
That agreement, signed in September, stipulated that A.M.I. “shall commit no crimes whatsoever” for three years, and that if it did, “A.M.I. shall thereafter be subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation of which this office has knowledge.”
If American Media’s threat to publish the personal photos of Mr. Bezos is determined to have been criminal, it would find its deal with federal prosecutors in jeopardy.
“One thing we can be certain of is these allegations will be looked at hard by the federal prosecutors,” said Jeff Tsai, a former federal prosecutor. “The nature of that non-prosecution agreement — to not commit any crimes — was to give A.M.I. the opportunity to really think hard about the nature of its practices.”
He added, “You can sometimes get a pass from federal prosecutors; it’s much harder to get two passes.”
The agreement put American Media, Mr. Pecker and Dylan Howard, the company’s chief content officer, at odds with Mr. Trump, which served to tamp down speculation that the Enquirer had somehow pursued the Bezos story in alliance with the president and his allies.
On Feb. 5, though, that possibility surfaced in The Post. Mr. de Becker told the paper that the Enquirer story had begun with a “politically motivated’’ leak. Mr. de Becker has served as a protector to Olivia Newton-John, Michael J. Fox and friends and family of Ronald Reagan. He declined to comment.
American Media appeared to warn Mr. Bezos away from raising any political speculation in an email to Mr. de Becker’s attorney, which he shared on Medium. In the letter, which he quoted in full, a lawyer for the company, Jon Fine, demanded that Mr. Bezos state publicly that he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that” American Media’s “coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Mr. Fine has worked as a lawyer at Amazon.
In his post Mr. Bezos also appeared to imply that the tabloid company was doing the bidding of Saudi Arabia, quoting from a New York Times report last year: “After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions.”
The Post has been reporting determinedly on intelligence assessments that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the grisly murder of the Saudi dissident — and Post global opinion contributor — Jamal Khashoggi.