Is the Jeff Bezos-National Enquirer Scandal Really 'Extortion and Blackmail'? Here's What Experts Say
Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon and reigning world's richest man, says he's the victim of "extortion and blackmail" perpetrated by the National Enquirer and its parent company, American Media Inc.
Yet while extortion is a crime — and blackmail is a particular kind of extortion involving a threat to release damaging or embarrassing information — legal experts aren't sure if the Jeff Bezos-National Enquirer scandal warrants criminal charges.
In a blog post on Medium.com published on Thursday, Jeff Bezos accused the National Enquirer and American Media Inc. of threatening to publish explicit and embarrassing photos and texts sent between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, with whom Bezos has reportedly had a long-term affair. Soon after Bezos announced in early 2019 that he was getting a divorce from his wife of 25 years, Mackenzie, the tabloid National Enquirer published a story featuring several intimate texts between Bezos and Sanchez.
More recently, Bezos explained, National Enquirer representatives said the tabloid would publish more embarrassing and personal texts and photos if Bezos refused to capitulate with certain demands.
In an email sent to one of Bezos's attorneys (published in full in Bezos's blog post), American Media chief content officer Dylan Howard reportedly said that they were ready to publish graphic images such as a “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’” sent by Jeff Bezos, as well as Lauren Sanchez's reply, "a photograph of her smoking a cigar in what appears to be a simulated oral sex scene."
American Media representatives said that it would not publish these and other Jeff Bezos photos, however, if Bezos and his "parties" — which perhaps include the Washington Post, which Bezos owns — announced publicly that they had "no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces."
"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 Thursday. "Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out."
Is Jeff Bezos the Victim of Extortion and Blackmail?
There is no consensus among legal experts as to whether the actions of the National Enquirer and American Media amount to criminal extortion and blackmail. While extortion and blackmail often involve a demand for money, a financial transaction isn't required for there to be a crime. Any threat in exchange for money, property, or a service can be construed as extortion or blackmail.
American Media released a statement on Friday claiming that "it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story," and the correspondences published in Bezos's blog post were "in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him."
However, Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor and current CNN legal analyst, said that he would be likely to file charges in a case such as this. "There is a fine line between hard-edged business or legal negotiations and extortion, and prosecutors should hesitate to criminalize aggressive tactics. Here, however, AMI's conduct goes beyond the pale," Honig explained.
Other legal experts aren't so sure. "I don't think a journalistic enterprise could be charged with an actual charge for doing this," Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer, New Yorker writer, and legal analyst, said on CNN. "What's clear is that this is appalling journalistic behavior on the behalf of the National Enquirer."
It also seems clear that prosecutors will look closely at the correspondences between the National Enquirer and Jeff Bezos, to see if crimes have occurred. National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. is sure to come under special scrutiny because the company recently received immunity from federal prosecutors for cooperating with efforts to investigate Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former attorney. At the time, AMI admitted that it had paid Karen McDougal $150,000 for a story in which she claimed to have an affair with Donald Trump — and then never published it to help Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Prosecutors say the money given by AMI to McDougal amounted to an illegal campaign contribution, arranged by Cohen at the direction of Trump. In exchange for immunity, AMI agreed that if it committed any crimes within three years of the deal, it could be prosecuted for all charges, including those it had previously been granted immunity for.
“One thing we can be certain of is these allegations [by Jeff Bezos] will be looked at hard by the federal prosecutors,” Jeff Tsai, a former federal prosecutor, told the New York Times this week. “The nature of that non-prosecution agreement — to not commit any crimes — was to give A.M.I. the opportunity to really think hard about the nature of its practices.”
Why Is the National Enquirer Blackmailing Jeff Bezos?
Clearly, the National Enquirer, AMI, and David Pecker — AMI CEO, National Enquirer publisher, and a longtime friend of Donald Trump — are trying to silence the accusations that they've been operating with underhanded political purposes in mind.
Before and after becoming president, Donald Trump has frequently attacked Jeff Bezos and Amazon on Twitter, largely launching the accusation that the Bezos-owned Washington Post's coverage of Trump is unfair.
An AMI representative said to Jeff Bezos that Pecker was “apoplectic” in particular over the Washington Post's coverage of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist widely believed to have been murdered while in the custody of Saudi officials. Months before Khashoggi's death, AMI published a strange glossy magazine "saluting Saudi Arabia, whose ambitious crown prince was soon to arrive in the US on a PR blitz to transform his country’s image," in the words of the Associated Press.
In his blog post, Bezos also explained that he hired an investigator named Gavin de Becker to find out how the National Enquirer gained possession of his personal texts and photos. In its threats, American Media said that it wanted both Bezos and de Becker to affirm in a national news outlet that "they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces."
Bezos said that doing so would be a lie, and that he is refusing to play along, even if that means his embarrassing texts and photos are published.
What may be revealed in Gavin de Becker's investigations, or in any possible federal investigations into American Media, remains to be seen.