Amazon lawyers want to depose Trump (and it's hard to blame them)

Amazon.com's lawyers are eager to chat with Trump and his two most recent Pentagon chiefs in a case that could prove damaging to the White House.
An Amazon.com package is prepared for shipment by a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver in Palo Alto, Calif.
An Amazon.com package is prepared for shipment by a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver in Palo Alto, Calif.Paul Sakuma / AP
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By Steve Benen

Two months ago, Amazon.com filed suit against the Trump administration, challenging its decision to award the Pentagon's Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract -- a multi-billion-dollar cloud-computing initiative -- to Microsoft. As NBC News reported, the online retail giant is now eager to depose Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis in the case, and under the circumstances, it's hard to blame them.

In court documents unsealed and filed Monday, Amazon's cloud-computing arm said it's looking to depose seven "individuals who were instrumental" in the JEDI source selection and "played pivotal roles" in the ultimate contract award. Aside from Trump, Mattis and Esper, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is also seeking to depose Dana Deasy, the Defense Department's Chief Information Officer, the Source Selection Authority (SSA), which awarded the contract to Microsoft, as well as the chairpersons of the SSA, according to the documents.

A spokesperson for AWS told CNBC in a statement: "President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to use his position as President and Commander in Chief to interfere with government functions -- including federal procurements -- to advance his personal agenda. The preservation of public confidence in the nation's procurement process requires discovery and supplementation of the administrative record, particularly in light of President Trump's order to 'screw Amazon.' The question is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of the DoD to pursue his own personal and political ends."

For those who may be new to the story, let's back up and revisit our earlier coverage.

About a year into Trump’s presidency, Axios spoke to five sources close to the White House who said the Republican was eager to “go after” Amazon.com and its CEO, Jeff Bezos. Referring to Trump, one source said at the time, “He’s obsessed with Amazon. Obsessed.”

The article added, “The president would love to clip CEO Jeff Bezos’ wings. But he doesn’t have a plan to make that happen.”

Trump’s preoccupation with Bezos has always been a little weird. It’s effectively a political bank shot of presidential contempt: the Republican hates the Washington Post’s coverage of his administration, which leads Trump to hate its owner, which then leads the president to also hate Bezos’ other businesses, including Amazon Web Services.

It was against this backdrop that Trump announced in July – just as the Pentagon was reportedly prepared to announce a decision on the JEDI contract – that he was looking “very seriously” at intervening in the contracting process because unnamed people had told him “it wasn’t competitively bid.”

Even at the time, the comments suggested that Trump had no idea what he was saying. There was a competitive bidding process, and no company had secured the contract.

Nevertheless, on the heels of the president’s comments, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he intended to review the contract. According to a Washington Post report, the Pentagon chief’s reexamination was the result of White House instructions and “11th-hour Oval Office intervention.” There were “concerns” in the West Wing, the article added, that the lucrative contract “would go to Amazon.”

Not surprisingly, the president’s personal animus has not gone unnoticed by the lawyers representing the online retail behemoth. The Washington Post noted in a recent report:

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.

It was at that Texas rally that then-candidate Trump assured supporters, in reference to Amazon, “[B]elieve me, if I become president, oh do they have problems. They are going to have such problems.”

One of the other exhibits notes a Fox News segment, which Trump promoted via Twitter, that criticized the JEDI contract as the “Bezos bailout.”

It’s worth emphasizing that it's entirely possible that Microsoft won the contract strictly on the merits and there’s no concern about possible presidential corruption. That said, Trump hasn’t exactly made it easy to believe the most benign interpretation of events.

Jon Chait recently described the president’s alleged intervention in the Pentagon contract as Trump’s “gravest abuse of power.” Given the competition in the category, that’s no small assessment.

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