Following Trump's intervention, Amazon sues over DOD contract

In this Oct. 18, 2010 file photo, a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver lifts an Amazon.com box in Palo Alto, Calif.
In this Oct. 18, 2010 file photo, a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver lifts an Amazon.com box in Palo Alto, Calif.

At first blush, the Pentagon's Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract -- a multi-billion-dollar cloud-computing initiative -- may only seem relevant to those closely involved with national security and the tech industry. But as regular readers know, there are real political implications to the controversy and this newly filed lawsuit.

Amazon Web Services on Friday confirmed it has filed a lawsuit challenging the Defense Department's decision to award Microsoft a major contract for cloud services.The JEDI, or Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, deal, which could be worth up to $10 billion, was hotly contested and marks a big win for Microsoft as it chases down AWS in cloud infrastructure.

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

Let’s back up and review how we arrived at this point. 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 its report on Friday's developments:

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."

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.