When he was running for president, Donald Trump threatened to single out Amazon for retribution. “If I become president, oh do they have problems,” he said. “They’re going to have such problems.”
He is carrying out that threat. The White House has ordered the Defense Department to reexamine a $10 billion cloud-computing contract “because of concerns that the deal would go to Amazon,” the Washington Post reports.
It’s not yet possible to prove that Trump is directing this decision as punishment for Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Post. And proof may never be found. Trump’s Mafia style of management, which the Mueller report chronicles, is designed to avoid leaving a paper trail that would incriminate the boss. (The report shows Trump, among other things, using buffers to carry out his illegal orders and chiding his lawyer for taking notes.)
But Trump is also not smart or subtle enough to leave any doubt about his intentions. He has made it abundantly clear both that the Post is the source of his hatred of Amazon, and that his policy grounds for punishing Amazon are pretexts.
Trump calls the paper the “Amazon Washington Post,” and habitually intermingles attacks on Amazon with his periodic rants against the Post’s reporting:
This rant from last year revealingly toggles repeatedly back and forth between denouncing the Post’s coverage of his presidency and denouncing Amazon as a business:
It’s interesting that you say that, because every hour we’re getting calls from reporters from the Washington Post asking ridiculous questions. And I will tell you. This is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise. He’s using the Washington Post for power. So that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed. He’s getting absolutely away — he’s worried about me, and I think he said that to somebody … it was in some article, where he thinks I would go after him for antitrust. Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much. Amazon is controlling so much of what they’re doing.
And what they’ve done is he bought this paper for practically nothing. And he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people. And I’ll tell you what: We can’t let him get away with it. So he’s got about 20, 25 — I just heard they’re taking these really bad stories — I mean, they, you know, wrong, I wouldn’t even say bad. They’re wrong. And in many cases they have no proper information. And they’re putting them together, they’re slopping them together. And they’re gonna do a book. And the book is gonna be all false stuff because the stories are so wrong. And the reporters — I mean, one after another — so what they’re doing is he’s using that as a political instrument to try and stop antitrust, which he thinks I believe he’s antitrust, in other words, what he’s got is a monopoly. And he wants to make sure I don’t get in.
Sometimes Trump is able to begin and end a thought about Amazon without blurting out his actual motive. What’s telling is that the supposed grounds for disliking Amazon, one of the few American firms he refuses to cheerlead for, changes constantly. At first his complaint was Amazon’s lack of paying taxes (a strange complaint for a president who passed a massive, loophole-filled corporate tax cut). Then the accusation evolved to alleged Amazon antitrust violations — which the Department of Justice, led by his hatchet man William Barr, is now formally investigating.
For a while, Trump’s complaint was that Amazon allegedly took advantage of low rates by the Post Office:
Trump in fact ordered the Post Office to charge Amazon more, a change that failed to take hold.
And now the supposed concern with the Defense Department giving Amazon its contract is the danger of awarding a single firm responsibility for a cloud system for the military. The particulars of the complaint keep changing, but the target stays constant.
You don’t have to agree with Amazon about the particulars of any of these cases to see the problem. Trump is trying to grasp at of any lever he can use to punish Amazon for the Post’s reporting of him.
Shortly after Trump’s election, Matthew Yglesias presciently warned about the primary danger of a Trump-led government operating outside of customary norms:
Trump is not going to crush the free media in one fell swoop. But big corporate media does face enough regulatory matters that even a single exemplary case would suffice to induce large-scale self-censorship. AT&T, for example, is currently seeking permission from antitrust authorities to buy Time Warner — permission that Time Warner executives might plausibly fear is contingent on Trump believing that CNN has covered him “fairly.” A Federal Trade Commission investigation charging Amazon with predatory pricing would be viewed favorably by many competing retailers, but would also be seen in other quarters as Trump making good on his promise to punish Jeff Bezos for critical coverage in the Washington Post.
These fears seemed like hyperventilation to some. But they have largely come to pass. Indeed, Trump’s oligarchic methods are simply taken for granted to the point where it barely generates outrage any more when he uses the power of the federal government to punish owners of independent media.
In the short run, it’s unlikely to work. Bezos has enough financial cushion to withstand losses, even massive contracts with the Pentagon. He also probably expects Trump to lose, and can ride out another year and a half of whatever Trump can do to him. That said, it’s hardly comforting that the editorial freedom of one of the country’s greatest national newspapers hinges on the willingness of its owner to withstand punishment from the federal government.
And if Trump wins reelection? Then the calculus by Bezos, and every other major business owner and manager who have offended Trump or might do so, will begin to change.