Once in a while, we're confronted with a story that's so unusual, it's tough to know where to start. In this case, it's probably best to start with the end and work backwards.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., of "extortion and blackmail" on Thursday for threatening to publish scandalous photos of him and his girlfriend if he didn't drop an investigation into how the tabloid obtained text messages exposing his extra-marital affair.According to the emails that Bezos published, which have not been independently reviewed by NBC News, AMI threatened to publish texts from Bezos and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, that included photos of a sexual nature. In exchange for withholding the photos, AMI demanded that Bezos stop the Washington Post, which he owns, from reporting about political motivations behind the National Enquirer's initial reports about his relationship with the former TV anchor.
Bezos explained these developments in a lengthy blog post published at Medium, which appeared to include the written messages he'd received from AMI. American Media Inc., led by a prominent Donald Trump ally named David Pecker, has not yet commented.
But to appreciate the significance of all of this, we're going to have to back up a bit.
Michael Cohen's many crimes, committed during his tenure as Trump's personal attorney and "fixer," have been well documented, but in some cases, they were also connected to his boss' favorite supermarket tabloid. Specifically, Cohen made pre-election hush-money payments to two women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who allegedly had extra-marital affairs with the president.
But as Cohen received his three-year prison sentence for this and other misdeeds, prosecutors also reached an agreement with AMI and its flagship tabloid. The National Enquirer's publisher admitted last year that it paid hush money and worked with Trump's campaign to advance his candidacy, in defiance of federal campaign finance laws.
The company avoided prosecution by providing "substantial and important assistance in this investigation" -- though that non-prosecution agreement came with some conditions.
Indeed, prosecutors told AMI it won't face charges so long as it continues to cooperate and agrees not to commit any crimes over the next three years. If the media company were to violate any part of that non-prosecution agreement, all bets would be off.
Meanwhile, there's the National Enquirer's ally in the Oval Office, who's made no secret of his personal contempt for the Washington Post and its owner, Jeff Bezos. It therefore raised a few eyebrows when the tabloid recently published intimate text messages between Bezos and an alleged mistress, which contributed to the breakup of the Amazon CEO's marriage.
Donald Trump responded to that story with unseemly glee and praised the National Enquirer for its work.
It led many observers to wonder whether the tabloid targeted a Trump nemesis as part of a political agenda, or whether that was simply a coincidence. (There's also a Saudi Arabian angle to all of this that gets a little complicated.)
In fact, it led Bezos to begin exploring the motivations behind the National Enquirer's reporting about him. As Bezos put it in his blog post, AMI's David Pecker was reportedly "apoplectic" about the investigation. "A few days after hearing about Mr. Pecker's apoplexy," Bezos added, "we were approached, verbally at first, with an offer. They said they had more of my text messages and photos that they would publish if we didn't stop our investigation."
It became the basis for an offer: if Bezos didn't reject arguments about possible political motivations for the National Enquirer's reporting, AMI would further embarrass Bezos.
Keep in mind, AMI has already exposed Bezos' affair, just as it's already admitted to illegally assisting Trump in 2016. Why make new threats against Bezos over allegations that its reporting might be politically motivated?
Might it have something to do with that non-prosecution agreement, which is still in effect, and which involves pending legal issues?