The National Enquirer’s parent company insisted that it had “acted lawfully” but pledged to thoroughly investigate extortion claims by Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos.
Bezos said Thursday that the Enquirer threatened to publish intimate pictures of him unless he backed off an investigation of the tabloid. In an extraordinary post to the online publishing platform Medium, Bezos said the Enquirer and its parent company, American Media Inc., made the threat after he began investigating how the tabloid obtained text messages that revealed his relationship with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez.
Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, wrote that the Enquirer wanted him to make a false public statement that he and his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Bezos declined to do so. Instead, he published what he said were emails from Enquirer executives to a lawyer representing de Becker. In one, top Enquirer editor Dylan Howard appears to suggest that the tabloid would publish a series of photos of Bezos and of Sanchez, some of them salacious, if AMI’s terms weren’t met.
After Bezos published his statement, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ronan Farrow said that he “and at least one other prominent journalist” had received similar blackmail threats from the Enquirer’s parent company over their reporting. Farrow had written about the Enquirer’s “catch and kill” practice — in which stories are squelched by paying off sources — that benefited Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Farrow, like Bezos, said he refused to cut a deal with the National Enquirer or AMI.
In a statement, American Media said it was investigating Bezos’s claims.
“American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos. Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr. Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him," said the statement from the board, which is chaired by AMI’s chief executive, David Pecker.
"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. Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary.”
The extraordinary allegations by the world’s richest man and an award-winning journalist raised serious questions about whether a media company known for its loyalty to President Trump was engaged in legitimate newsgathering, or something else.
Bezos said the threatening letter encouraged his team to use “common sense.”
“I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering,” Howard wrote, going on to say that the Enquirer had a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos, among other shots. Howard added, “It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.”
Bezos noted that the email “got my attention,” but said that “any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
The Bezos story spilled into public view on Jan. 9 when Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, revealed they would be divorcing after 25 years of marriage — roughly two days after the Enquirer had informed him it would be publishing a story about his relationship with Sanchez. The Enquirer later published what it called “sleazy text messages and gushing love notes” between Bezos and Sanchez, raising questions about how the tabloid was able to get such intimate material. Bezos began to investigate how the leak of his private information came about.
Pecker has had a long friendship with President Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Bezos, Amazon and The Washington Post. Pecker directed the Enquirer to write favorable stories about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, while paying $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to suppress her claim of a long-running affair with Trump.
On Jan. 31, de Becker was quoted in the Daily Beast suggesting that the Enquirer’s pursuit of Bezos was politically motivated.
On Feb. 5, The Post reported that Bezos and de Becker suspected that the source of the text and photo leaks may have been Sanchez’s brother, Michael, a California public relations executive who is close to Pecker and various figures in Trump’s orbit, including former campaign advisers Roger Stone and Carter Page. Michael Sanchez denied any involvement in revealing his sister’s relationship with Bezos.
The Post reported that Sanchez said he was told by multiple people at AMI that the Enquirer set out to do “a takedown to make Trump happy.”
Pecker is now cooperating with federal investigators who are looking into the company’s involvement with the Trump campaign.
On Friday deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said he was “not sure” if the president is aware of Bezos’s allegations. “We’re not going to get into a conversation about something between Jeff Bezos and a tabloid magazine.”
Bezos’s public letter seems to suggest that federal agents should investigate whether AMI may have violated the terms of its non-prosecution agreement with prosecutors in Manhattan over its role in the 2016 hush money payments.
“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. In the next sentence, Bezos describes the non-prosecution agreement struck in September between AMI and the Justice Department.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan did not immediately comment on Bezos’s assertion that AMI had committed extortion.
Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said Bezos’s allegations, if accurate, could have serious consequences for both prosecutors and AMI.
“This could constitute criminal conduct in the eyes of a prosecutor, if these allegations are true,” said Mintz. “For prosecutors, your worst nightmare is watching a cooperation deal unravel. Alleged conduct like this puts them in the position to rethink that deal and potentially turn around and have to prosecute AMI, and that undermines their ability to continue to use them to assist other ongoing investigations.”
Bezos said in his Medium post that the tabloid threatened to keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future “if we ever deviate from [the] lie” that politics played no role in the Enquirer’s pursuit of Bezos’s relationship with Lauren Sanchez.
In addition, he included emails from AMI’s deputy general counsel, Jon Fine, detailing a list of terms under which AMI said it would withhold publication of the photos. One of those terms was a statement from Bezos and de Becker “affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that [AMI’s] coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
In his post on Medium, Bezos called his ownership of The Post “a complexifier” for him. He wrote that 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.”
Despite mounting evidence, Trump has disputed that Khashoggi was killed on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi crown prince was the subject of a flattering glossy magazine produced by AMI in 2016, at a time when the Saudi regime was attempting to portray Mohammed as a reformer in Middle Eastern politics.
It’s not clear how the Enquirer acquired the texts between Bezos and Sanchez. Bezos commissioned de Becker — his longtime security consultant — to investigate how the material fell into the Enquirer’s hands.
The Enquirer has said that it obtained the texts and photos lawfully, and that it had the right to publish the material under the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law. It also said the photos were newsworthy, given Bezos’s prominence.
But as Bezos began to investigate the leak, the tabloid’s parent disputed any suggestion that its story was politically motivated. The company “emphatically rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise,” Fine wrote in an email to de Becker’s lawyer, Martin Singer, which Bezos shared. “Simply put, this was and is a news story.”
The cooperation agreement federal prosecutors in New York signed with AMI after the media company admitted it paid former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 before the 2016 election to silence her allegations about an affair with President Trump, stipulates only that the company will not be prosecuted for that incident. It says that AMI “shall commit no crimes whatsoever,” or be subject to potential federal prosecution.
Legal minds disagree over whether the corporation’s actions meet the threshold of criminality. Among the key questions for investigators, according to Alex Spiro, a partner at Quinn Emanuel and a former prosecutor, was whether AMI obtained the photos unlawfully, or encouraged someone else to do so.
As is the case with many First Amendment issues, the standard of what is considered improper can change because Bezos is a public figure, he said. “Publishing embarrassing photos of someone isn’t a crime in and of itself," he said.
But Ted Boutrous, a veteran lawyer who briefly represented McDougal in a dispute with the Enquirer, said the emails Bezos described in his post are “a textbook example of blackmail and extortion. It’s ripped right out of the law books.”
He added, “At an extreme level, this shows how frightening it should be to the citizens of the United States that the National Enquirer reportedly has a safe full of information about the president of the United States. That’s one of the dangers to democracy of what they were engaged in when they were catching and killing information they could have used against Candidate Trump and now President Trump. . . . It’s a shocking and frightening thing Mr. Bezos has revealed.”
Jerry George, the former Los Angeles bureau chief of the National Enquirer, told CNN on Thursday that the media company he used to work for may have gone too far. The threats, he said, were “nothing short of extortion.”
“I think they thought they were smarter than they are," he said, “and I think now the reality is hitting them and they’re freaking out.”
Staff writers Eli Rosenberg, Allyson Chiu and Deanna Paul contributed reporting.