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Amazon’s formal challenge to huge Pentagon award uses videos that mark potential influence exerted by Trump

The e-commerce giant followed through with the threat it made week ago, challenging the Defense Department’s decision to award the lucrative contract to rival Microsoft

Amazon has filed its protest of the huge Defense Department Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract recently awarded to Microsoft after a contentious bidding process. (Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)
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Amazon on Friday cited comments by President Trump at a rally and to journalists as it pursues its challenge to the Pentagon’s surprise decision to award a lucrative contract to rival Microsoft last month.

For the first time, Amazon directly linked the president’s comments to the award of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract, also known as JEDI, to Microsoft last month. Though Amazon filed its protest under seal, it also notified the Court of Federal Claims that it intends to use four videos as exhibits, including one of Trump at a February 2016 campaign rally in Texas, as well as one of a Fox News host urging him to prevent the Pentagon from awarding the contract to the online retail giant.

“I have respect for Jeff Bezos, but he bought The Washington Post to have political influence … he owns Amazon … he wants political influence so that Amazon will benefit from it,” then-presidential candidate Donald Trump said at the campaign rally in Fort Worth, Tx. “That’s not right. And believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems. They are going to have such problems.”

The e-commerce giant formally filed a protest Friday with the Court of Federal Claims to challenge the award of the cloud-computing contract, following through on a threat it made last week. It said it did so under seal to protect trade secrets.

In a statement, Amazon repeated its claims that “unmistakable bias” and “political influence” tainted the decision-making process. Trump has repeatedly criticized Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.

Amazon also repeated its suggestion that the award of the JEDI contract to Microsoft was improperly influenced by Trump.

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“We also believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener reiterated, issuing the same statement he gave a week ago. “Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias — and it’s important that these matters be examined and rectified.”

The Defense Department announced on Oct. 25 that Microsoft won the Pentagon's $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) Cloud contract. (Video: Reuters)

A spokeswoman for Microsoft, Janelle Poole, said: “We’re ready to get to work so the men and women in uniform who serve our country can access the critical new technology they urgently require. We have confidence in the qualified staff at the Department of Defense, and we believe the facts will show they ran a detailed, thorough and fair process in determining the needs of the warfighter were best met by Microsoft.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Department is aware of Amazon’s protest and remains confident in the JEDI award.

“The source selection process was conducted in accordance with the stated criteria in the solicitation and procurement law,” Defense spokeswoman Elissa Smith said in a statement. “Our focus continues to be on getting the warfighters these much needed capabilities as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The JEDI contract could be worth up to $10 billion over 10 years. Amazon, which pioneered the commercial cloud-computing market business and dominates it with a 48 percent market share, according to market research firm Gartner, had been seen as the most likely winner. It said it would protest after Microsoft, which holds a 15.5 percent share of the market, got the contract.

Microsoft also filed to intervene in the protest, giving it an opportunity to participate in the case. Amazon sought to file its protest under seal over concerns about revealing “proprietary information, trade secrets, and confidential financial information, the release of which would cause severe competitive harm,” the company wrote. “The record in this bid protest likely will contain similarly sensitive information.”

The company wrote that it would submit “proposed redacted versions” of its filings with the court.

Amazon will challenge Pentagon’s award of $10 billion JEDI contract to Microsoft

JEDI is meant to create a powerful computing system that can centralize U.S. military agencies’ disparate computing systems and lay a framework for advanced artificial-intelligence tools.

Amazon was seen as the clear front-runner since the project was announced in March 2018. The award was delayed by more than a year as a lawsuit from Oracle — whose federal business is threatened by JEDI — sought to block the award.

Oracle still alleges conflict of interest on the part of Defense officials who had close relationships with Amazon, arguing their involvement tainted the procurement and gave Amazon Web Services an unfair advantage. A Court of Federal Claims judge ruled that at least two of those individuals had broken the Department’s rules with respect to revolving-door employment, but cleared Amazon of the ‘organizational conflict of interest’ that could have disqualified it.

‘Once an Amazonian, always an Amazonian’: Former Pentagon official’s business ties draw scrutiny

The procurement took an unexpected turn this summer when Trump asked Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper to reexamine the Pentagon’s approach to the JEDI contract. The president said in a televised news conference that he had received “tremendous complaints” about the contract from Amazon’s competitors, citing Oracle, Microsoft and IBM.

“Some of the greatest companies in the world are complaining about it, having to do with Amazon and the Department of Defense, and I will be asking them to look at it very closely to see what’s going on,” Trump said.

Soon afterward, he retweeted a link to a Fox News segment that referred to the contract as the “Bezos bailout.”

Retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, who worked for former defense secretary Jim Mattis as a speechwriter, wrote in a recent book that Trump had sought to “screw” Amazon out of the contract and that Mattis had demurred. His claims have not been independently verified.

After becoming president, Trump has been a vocal Amazon critic. He has also frequently criticized Bezos’s ownership of The Post. In one instance, he personally pushed the U.S. Postal Service to increase rates charged to Amazon and other firms to ship packages, The Post reported last year.

The Post’s leaders have said that Bezos, who bought The Post in 2013, plays no role in coverage decisions at the newspaper.

The Defense Department also faces unresolved questions related to a surprise decision by Esper to recuse himself from the procurement just days before the award, after spending several months conducting informational interviews as part of the “review” Trump had ordered.

Dana Deasy, the Defense Department’s chief information officer, has said there is a two-tracked process in which Esper’s review of JEDI’s overall approach is separate from the team of procurement experts tasked with evaluating bids. In an Oct. 29 confirmation hearing that Amazon plans to cite as evidence, Deasy said that to his knowledge, no White House officials had contacted the anonymous individuals who reviewed bids.

“I feel very confident that at no time were team members that actually took the source selection were influenced with any external, including the White House,” Deasy said, referring to an anonymous team of 50 cloud technology experts who evaluated bids. He further confirmed that the source selection team had made the final decision to award JEDI to Microsoft, and not just a recommendation to the Defense Secretary.