Trump’s Attack on Amazon May Be His Most Egregious Abuse of Power Yet
That President Trump’s Ukraine policy led to articles of impeachment against him was largely a matter of chance. A CIA official decided to collect evidence that the administration’s foreign policy was being used as a domestic oppo-research shakedown. The director of national intelligence suppressed the complaint, but Congress managed to find out about it just before Ukraine’s president was set to announce investigations into Trump’s domestic opponents, improbably foiling the scheme. This unlucky sequence explains Trump’s fixation on the whistle-blower, but for whom Ukraine would be just another Trump scandal sitting in plain sight. “Frankly,” a close Trump adviser recently confided to CNN, “I think he’s a little surprised it’s the Ukraine thing that’s done it.”
Another scandal, posing a far more dire threat, has unfolded mostly in public without causing Trump the slightest discomfort, let alone impeachment. According to a lawsuit filed this month, Trump influenced, and probably ordered, his Defense Department to deny Amazon a $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud-computing contract to punish the company’s owner, Jeff Bezos, for publishing the Washington Post. In the wake of Trump’s election, critics who predicted Trump might turn the government into a weapon to threaten and punish newspapers would have been dismissed as hysterical. But the fact pattern — which would have been an impeachment-worthy scandal in another presidency but has been treated like a C-plot in our frenzied political moment — leaves virtually no doubt.
Trump’s obsession with Bezos began during the campaign, when he lashed out at the Post for its critical coverage and threatened to harm Amazon. “If I become president — oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems,” he said. Trump kept up his attacks on Amazon and the Post — which, despite their common owner, are independent of each other — frequently treating the two as interchangeable and calling the newspaper the “Amazon Washington Post.”
Trump has tried out various pretexts to punish Bezos. He has claimed that Amazon evades “internet taxes” (which don’t exist) and has accused it of benefiting from low postal rates (based on a faulty calculation, as my colleague Josh Barro has shown) and of “getting away with murder” on its corporate tax rate (an ironic charge given both Trump’s own long history of tax fraud and his agenda of reducing corporate tax rates). Trump has simultaneously claimed that Amazon makes no money and that it is evading taxes on its nonexistent corporate profits — “The @washingtonpost, which loses a fortune, is owned by @JeffBezos for purposes of keeping taxes down at his no profit company, @amazon,” he tweeted. Trump’s frequent Twitter attacks have regularly triggered brief stock drops for Amazon, and the tweets alone would constitute a major scandal in any normal administration. (Imagine if Barack Obama or any other president had singled out a company for repeated abuse.)
In 2018, Trump settled on the Pentagon as his weapon of choice. That spring, Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fairreported that the president was “obsessed” with hurting Amazon and that advisers were encouraging him to cancel its pending contract to provide cloud-computing services to the Defense Department. That summer, according to a former speechwriter for Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump ordered Mattis to “screw Amazon” by withholding the lucrative cloud contract. Mattis reportedly pushed back, and by the end of the year, he resigned.
On July 18 of this year, Trump told reporters that “great companies” had been complaining about the Pentagon’s criteria for awarding its cloud-computing contract, which appeared likely to go to Amazon. (The company had previously built a cloud system for the CIA.) “I will be asking them to look at it very closely to see what’s going on,” Trump told reporters—pledging to intervene in the Pentagon’s contract process.
The next week, Mark Esper took over as Defense secretary and announced a few days later that he would revisit the contract. “I’ve heard from folks in the administration, so I owe, as the new guy coming in, a fresh look at it, study it, make sure I understand all the different factors,” he said. In October, Defense shocked analysts by awarding the contract to Microsoft.
This is not the only instance when Trump sought to use government power to punish a media company for its journalism. In 2017, according to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, Trump ordered his chief economic adviser at the time, Gary Cohn, to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which owned CNN, another favorite Trump target. (The Justice Department tried to block the merger but lost in court.) Trump settled for ineffectual calls on the public to boycott AT&T. “I believe that if people stoped [sic] using or subscribing to @ATT, they would be forced to make big changes at @CNN, which is dying in the ratings anyway,” he tweeted.
Amazon filed suit this month, charging that the Defense Department had arbitrarily and improperly changed its criteria in order to deny it the contract. “These errors, however, were not merely the result of arbitrary and capricious decision-making,” a redacted version of the suit reads. “Under escalating and overt pressure from President Trump, DoD departed from the rules of procurement and complied — consciously or subconsciously — with its Commander in Chief’s expressed desire to reject AWS’s superior bid.” The lawsuit cites Trump’s tweets and declarations to argue that the president “launched repeated public and behind-the-scenes attacks to steer the jedi Contract away from AWS to harm his perceived political enemy.”
Whether or not the Pentagon has created a legitimate paper trail to justify the change, Amazon and other business owners clearly believe the company lost that contract because of Trump’s vendetta against it. The credibility of his threat has been established; Trump could plead in public that he had nothing to do with the change and nobody would believe him. The notion that publishers of independent media have to account for the risk that the president could single them out for economic retaliation is no longer hypothetical but a fait accompli.
Jeff Bezos will be fine either way. The danger Trump poses is not to the livelihood of Amazon’s owner or any other member of the CEO class but to something much broader. Trump is wielding government power to keep the economic elite in line, to dissuade them from any political activity that threatens his power. Since serious political journalism often relies on philanthropic subsidy, leaning on media owners is an especially inviting point of leverage for his threats. But the larger theme of his corruption is a bid to bribe or coerce the entire Establishment into serving as his willing or unwilling accomplices.
The leaders Trump most admires — Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and, of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin — preside over quasi-democracies with quasi–market economies. The business leaders in those countries understand that their wealth requires maintaining good relations with the ruling party. Trump came into office with no experience in and barely any knowledge of the workings of the federal government. His initial lurches into fashioning his own oligarchic state often floundered. But as his first term draws to a close, Trump is learning through trial and error how to staff his administration with functionaries who will carry out his orders rather than ignore them, how to effectively damage the laws and norms that stand in the way of his vision, and how to evade accountability. Now that we have watched the entire Republican Party approve of his Ukraine shakedown, the idea that any Republicans will take action to stop him from punishing Bezos or weaponizing the state against his critics now seems delusional.
*This article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!