|NEW YORK POST|
In an emerging scandal with Donald Trump's dirty if small hands all over it, the president's favorite supermarket tabloid has been caught red-handed trying to extort and blackmail an arch enemy and the world's richest man -- Jeff Bezos.
Longtime Trump pal David Pecker, owner of the National Enquirer's parent company, had obtained salacious text messages between Bezos, the Amazon founder and CEO and Washington Post owner, and girlfriend Lauren Sánchez. Whether they were hacked, possibly by a government agency, or simply leaked by someone unhappy about Bezos's impending divorce is not yet known, but what is indisputable is that Pecker then ham-handedly attempted to shake down Bezos by threatening to publish dick pics of the billionaire unless he backed off his investigation into the Enquirer's unflattering stories about the affair and divorce.
The scandal -- and does America really need yet another one involving Trump? -- burst into the open on Thursday evening in the form of a remarkable online post written by Bezo titled "No Thank You, Mr. Pecker."
The post included incriminating emails from Enquirer execs and stated that Bezos and his longtime security consultant Gavin de Becker had been informed by Enquirer parent company American Media Inc. that it wanted them to make a false public statement that they "have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI's coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces."
The "or else" included a suggestion from top Enquirer chief content officer Dylan Howard that the tabloid would publish salacious photos of Bezos and Sánchez if AMI's terms weren’t met.
"I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering," Howard wrote, explaining 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."
Trump has not been directly linked to the scandal. But Bezos, Amazon and the WaPo have been frequent targets of his wrath.
Among other things, the president has threatened to arbitrarily raise the postal rates Amazon pays based on his false claim that Amazon is costing the U.S. Postal Service billions of dollars a year. In fact, the retail colossus is the USPS's largest customer and the biggest reason it hasn't gone under.
The early stages of the scandal began on January 9 when Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, revealed they would be divorcing after 25 years of marriage. This, Bezos said, was two days after the Enquirer had informed him it would be publishing a story about his relationship with Sánchez, who is a former Los Angeles television news anchor.
Soon after the story was published, Trump tweeted gleefully that Bezos (whom he called "Bozo") was "being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post."
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, and prompting Bezos and De Becker to begin investigating.
Pecker has had a long and mutually beneficial friendship with Trump.
The Enquirer, along with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, did much to burnish Trump's image as a playboy and billionaire entrepreneur extraordinaire as he struggled to get out from under repeated bankruptcies in the 1990s. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Enquirer published many favorable stories about Trump and hit jobs on Hillary Clinton (whom it variously called corrupt, racist, bulimic, prone to rages and stricken with liver damage from boozing) while paying $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal with Trump's apparent knowledge to suppress her claim of a long-running affair with Trump, a practice known as "catch and kill."
The Pecker-Trump friendship took an interesting turn in September when Pecker agreed to cooperate with federal investigators looking into AMI's involvement with the Trump campaign in making hush-money payments through then-Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen in return for a plea agreement brokered by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York under which he and AMI would be granted immunity.
That agreement, which contained boilerplate saying that said that if the company committed "any crimes" in the future, "AMI shall thereafter be subject to prosecution," now appears to have been blown to smithereens and SDNY prosecutors are back on the case.
While it is not yet known whether the texts were hacked or leaked, some people including De Becker see Lauren Sánchez's brother, Michael Sánchez, as the likely culprit.
The Hollywood talent agent is rabidly pro-Trump and runs with known Trump associates Roger Stone and Carter Page, but is vigorously denying any involvement and claims the texts may have been obtained by the U.S. National Security Agency, British intelligence, or the Mossad.
"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 on Medium, an online publishing platform. "If in my position I can't stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?"
Meanwhile, New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow says that he and "at least one other prominent journalist" who had reported on the Enquirer, its obliging relationship with Trump and "catch and kill" policy also received blackmail threats from AMI. Farrow says he refused to cut a deal, while Daily Beast and The Associated Press are said to have also received similar threats.
On Friday morning, the AMI board announced that it will investigate Bezos's claims despite the fact that the company "believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting" on him. In other words, even if the texts were provided in bad faith, AMI is not responsible for that and therefore is in the clear, which is quite a stretch of the definition of legitimate newsgathering since the purpose of publishing the photos was extortionate and not their newsworthiness.
As Kristin Kanthak, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, noted on Twitter, "You know we are at a disgusting moment in our nation's history when the billionaire sending out dick pics is the HERO of the story."
Beyond its over-the-top nature, the scandal also tells us several things about Pecker and Trump. Both are manipulative and evil . . . oh, and not very smart, because it is only a matter of time before all the sordid details tumble out.