Jeff Bezos’s astounding blog post alleging executives from American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker’s publishing operation tried to extort him by using his own photographs is awful news for Donald Trump.
As part of a settlement with federal prosecutors in New York, Pecker was granted immunity to campaign finance laws, in exchange for giving prosecutors information about payments Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen made to two women who allege they had affairs with Trump. Pecker and AMI admitted to coordinating a $150,000 hush-money payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison.
AMI said in a statement today (Feb. 8) it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” but that its board “has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate” Bezos’s claims.
The terms of the agreement with Southern District of New York prosecutors, signed Sept. 20, 2018, state that if AMI commits a crime at a later date, federal officials have the right to use any information they’ve gathered during the course of their investigation to prosecute the company for “any federal criminal violation of which this office has knowledge.”
In other words, AMI and its executives were not charged because they cooperated with the authorities. But if they commit more criminal violations all bets are off, and everything prosecutor have on hand can now be used against them.
Bezos alleges that AMI executives approached him in recent days, threatening to publish intimate photos of him and his mistress, unless he suspended an investigation he’d started into AMI’s publication of a personal text messages he sent to a girlfriend, and apologized for calling their publication by the National Enquirer politically motivated.
Legal experts are now arguing whether what AMI was demanding—an apology—is a “thing of value,” and if AMI’s actions could constitute extortion.
Pecker, who has been friends with Trump for decades, has a safe full of documents related to Trump and damaging stories that he killed, multiple sources have told the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. “Catch and kill,” as the practice of getting salacious information on a famous person and then burying it for money is known, is how AMI often did business, a former employee told Quartz.
“Just like [former FBI chief] J. Edgar Hoover, they keep dossiers on everyone,” he said. “If anyone approached them with a rumor, they would just keep it in the folder” he said. He recalled one instance when the publication flew him to meet a women who claimed to have incriminating photographs with former president Bill Clinton, and told him to offer her a check. “They were just going to sit on them,” he said.
Whether Trump had undisclosed business ties to foreign governments is now the subject of a House investigation. Whether he ever urged a former girlfriend to have an abortion has been a subject of discussion; information about that could drive away his evangelical Christian base.
Pecker’s publications trashed Trump’s Republican opponents in the 2016 presidential primaries and then spent months arguing that his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was in bad health. Questions about how rumors spread about her health are being investigated by the FBI special counsel’s office, a recent indictment of Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone shows.
There’s another wrinkle, too. Bezos’s own investigator believes that AMI may have gotten the Amazon CEO’s personal information through a government source, a Washington Post reporter said last night (Bezos owns the paper). The allegation is likely to put even more pressure on Trump’s administration, already under multiple investigations for misconduct by House Democrats.