It was the stuff of Saturday Night Live “cold open” legend — the joke that wrote itself about the world’s richest man, selfie iPhone pictures of his genitalia, and an alleged blackmail plot orchestrated by a man with the tabloid-friendly surname of “Pecker.”
After two-plus years when so much of the news was dominated by hard-to-follow allegations of Russian election interference and alleged collusion by an American presidential campaign, here — finally! — was a scandal that Joe Sixpack could really sink his teeth into. “[Male sexual organ] pics!” Endless “Pecker” jokes!
The prurient details of this scandal surrounding Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and foibles of a man worth $160 billion (before his looming divorce, anyway) sending sexts just like every horny 17-year-old, could fuel TV cable news and newspaper headlines for weeks — and it probably will.
But what if I told you that Bezos’s smartphone self-portrait gallery is arguably the least sexy thing (heh) about this entire affair? That a billionaire’s racy texts are merely the tip of a global iceberg that — as Bezos himself darkly hinted in his shocking Medium post exposing his alleged blackmail by the publishers of the National Enquirer — potentially involves the oil billions of Saudi Arabia and the president of the United States? Or that it could tie into shadowy international hacking operations, and maybe even the high-profile murder of a U.S.-based journalist?
And what if I told you something else: That the Bezos scandal is ripping away the curtain on a secret world that’s been hiding in plain sight: That a nation founded in the ideals of democracy has been increasingly fallen prey to a new dystopian regime that melds the new 21st century dark arts of illegal hacking and media manipulation with the oldest tricks in the book: blackmail and extortion.
Pull up a chair.
You probably know by now the basics about Bezos and the National Enquirer: In January the Amazon mogul announced that he and his longtime wife MacKenzie are divorcing, hours ahead of a report in the National Enquirer laden with the content of racy texts between the billionaire and his mistress. On Thursday, Bezos — who’d hired a well-known investigator to find out how the supermarket tabloid got his private communications — took to Medium with a post accusing the Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, whose CEO is David Pecker, of threatening to publish embarrassing photos of Bezos and his lover if he didn’t drop his investigation and state (falsely, Bezos asserts) that its coverage was not politically motivated.
Ironically, the Bezos-AMI affair sucked all the oxygen out of another big scoop published at almost exactly the same time. The New York Times reported American intelligence had learned that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (commonly referred to as “MBS”) had railed to an associate against the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who’d moved to the United States and was writing anti-MBS op-ed columns for the Washington Post. MBS allegedly said he’d personally put “a bullet” into Khashoggi.
That was in 2017. A year later, the Saudis lured Khashoggi to its embassy in Istanbul, where he was brutally murdered by agents of the oil-rich regime and allegedly dismembered with a bone saw. Within days, the only major outstanding question about the brutal but clumsy killing was proving that MBS had personally ordered it.
The Washington Post — where the slain Khashoggi was a beloved colleague and where the political murder of a columnist was seen as a threat against all journalism — vowed to stay on the story until the truth was revealed. In mid-December, the Post memorialized Khashoggi in a full-page ad and its publisher Fred Ryan said its reporters would push the Saudi regime “until meaningful action is taken.”
Did I mention that the owner of the Washington Post is Jeff Bezos?
Now let’s take a step back and look at the National Enquirer, which over decades has wormed its way into America’s consciousness by confronting supermarket shoppers with headlines about flabby celebrity sightings or JFK assassination plots.
Only now is the world figuring out that making up stories to sell papers may have been the least of the sins committed by the Enquirer, which was propped up in its 1950s’ infancy by Mafia money and which later forged a close relationship with Roy Cohn, the notorious New York fixer attorney who took an up-and-coming New York developer named Donald Trump under his wing while fighting off allegations including (wait for it) extortion and blackmail.
Since Trump was elected 45th president of the United States, we’ve learned that …
a) Pecker’s AMI reached a deal with federal prosecutors in Manhattan to avoid prosecution and tell all about how it aided Trump by working with Trump’s legal fixer, Michael Cohen, to pay Trump’s mistress Karen McDougal $150,000 in a scheme to keep her out of the news right before the November 2016 election.
c) That while the Enquirer was aiding and protecting Trump it was also — according to reports — holding onto a remarkable source of protection: a safe containing damaging stories about the president it had buried over the years.
The yeoman’s work that Pecker’s Enquirer had performed on behalf of Trump’s election — combined, possibly, with the treasure trove of dirt inside of that safe — meant it was time to cash in on the newfound connections of the man who went in just a decade from scamming Trump Vodka and Trump University to running a global superpower. And no connection was worth more than the vast wealth of Saudi Arabia.
What the public didn’t know in the early months of Trump’s presidency was that Donald Trump Jr. had secretly met in Trump Tower in early August 2016 with a longtime emissary for the Saudis and its closest ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), George Nader, and two figures from the world of intelligence: Erik Prince, founder of the notorious firm known as Blackwater, and an ex-Israeli intelligence agent named Joel Zamel.
Nader, according to the New York Times, said the Saudis and the UAE wanted to help Trump win the election. Zamel proposed a covert social media campaign. Trump Jr. swears that nothing came of the meeting — even though a sleazy social-media campaign exactly like the one Zamel proposed helped Trump narrowly win the Electoral College. When Trump became president, he could have gone anywhere for his first international trip: He went to Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis and UAE split with Qatar — a key ally where American troops are stationed — Trump baffled his own administration by trash-talking Qatar.
In July 2017, the president invited his good friend David Pecker to the White House and — after chatting with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was developing close ties with MBS — the two men had dinner with Kacy Grine, a French businessman who’s a longtime adviser to MBS. Two months later, Pecker went to Saudi Arabia and met personally with MBS and Grine and pitched business opportunities.
About six months later, shoppers in U.S. supermarkets, Walmart and other retailers might have been shocked to see a colorful piece of pro-Saudi propaganda at the checkout. The New Kingdom was a glossy publication with many color photos lauding MBS, overwrought text describing Saudi Arabia as “a magic kingdom,” no ads and a ridiculous cover price of $13,99. The magazine — just ahead of an MBS visit to America where he met Trump, Pecker (and, ironically, Bezos) and other luminaries — was of course published by AMI.
During this same period, Team Trump and MBS grew even closer, with Kushner traveling to Riyadh in October 2017 for two days of secret meetings where, according to several unconfirmed reports, he may have shared U.S. intelligence a short time before MBS rounded up and detained some 200 high-ranking Saudis. At the same time, Trump fumed over the investigative journalism of the Bezos-owned Washington Post. Even though Bezos is by all accounts a hands-off owner with no say in the Post’s journalism, Trump at one point reportedly demanded that the U.S. Postal Service hike the rates charged Amazon.
Which brings us to Oct. 2, 2018, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Post’s vow to get to the bottom of it. Three months later came the salacious Enquirer report on Bezos. Its publication was joyously celebrated by none other than President Trump, who sounded like a Mafia boss, albeit a dumb one, with a tweet about the troubles of “Jeff Bozo.”
But Bezos didn’t take the news lying down. He hired a well-known investigator, Gavin de Becker, to launch a detailed investigation of how the Enquirer obtained his private text messages. Early reports suggested a focus on the brother of Bezos’s paramour, Michael Sanchez, who is a political supporter of Trump and a friend of Trump-Russia scandal figures such as Carter Page and (wait for it … again) Roger Stone. And maybe the simplest explanation is the best explanation — except that Bezos wrote on Thursday night that what apparently made Pecker “apoplectic” was questions about Saudi Arabia.
Bezos, in his Medium post, noted some of the AMI-Trump-Saudi history chronicled in this column. He said that Trump has “wrongly concluded” that Bezos is an enemy and that the Post’s Khashoggi journalism is “highly unpopular in some circles.” He added: “For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve” with AMI, which then allegedly threatened Bezos, verbally and then (incredibly) by email, with publication of the photos.
Is a Saudi role in the hacking plausible? Over the last two years, we’ve seen the fallout not just from the Russian hacking in the 2016 U.S. election that’s been nailed down by special counsel Robert Mueller, but escalating hacking wars among the Middle East powers. Indeed, some of what we know about the Saudi-UAE effort to cultivate Trump comes from emails apparently hacked by Qatar and leaked to the press.
In December, a Saudi dissident who lives in Canada and was close friends with the murdered Khashoggi filed a lawsuit alleging that an Israeli software company called the NSO Group — which according to reports sold its spyware program called Pegasus to Saudi Arabia for $55 million — had used its technology to hack into his smartphone and his communications with Khashoggi. Other dissidents have made similar allegations — that the Saudis have used phone hacking to spy on them. (Meanwhile, the Saudis’s close friends in UAE have allegedly used a different program called Karma to spy on the iPhones of dissidents.)
Clearly, there is some kind of Hacking Incorporated that’s on the rise in the Persian Gulf. Which brings us back to the question of why AMI was demanding not only that Bezos drop its investigation of the hacking but to state that the probe found no political motivation behind its article on the Amazon chief. Any link between the Bezos phone hack and the Saudis or their allies (UAE, Team Trump) would be devastating — but what if de Gavin is on the trail of something darker? Like the truth behind Khashoggi’s murder? Or — given the ties between Team Trump, the Saudis, UAE and ex-Israeli intelligence that go back to the summer of 2016 — the truth behind the election of an American president?
Remember, AMI signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to avoid prosecution in the Michael Cohen-Karen McDougal plot that included a promise to refrain from criminal activity for three years or else the deal was off and AMI, and presumably Pecker, could be charged in the Cohen case. Why, then, would they take the insane risk of opening that can of worms with a threat to Bezos that could meet the legal definition of blackmail? They must be hiding something very bad.
Here I’ll note that an attorney for AMI went on TV Sunday to insist that the source for the Enquirer story was not connected to the Saudis or Trump. Duly noted — although AMI’s past track record for honesty is not good. Meanwhile, Trump is ignoring a congressionally mandated deadline to find if the Saudis violated human rights in Khashoggi’s murder. And a top Saudi official just warned that linking MBS to Khashoggi’s murder would be crossing “a red line.”
Again, what is everyone here so afraid of?
Meanwhile, all this talk of blackmail and extortion is a reminder that two years into the Trump administration a president who promised America “the art of the deal” has instead tried to run the country the way he ran his business in the mobbed-up New York of the 1980s — with bullying, bluster, and personal threats. But when forced to play that hand over the border wall and the government shutdown recently, it failed miserably. Would it be a surprise if Trump continues to fall back on the only tactic that’s worked for him and his allies to get things done over the years, the dark art of the blackmailer?
One thing that’s become increasingly clear since the summer of 2016 is how unprepared we were for a world in which our beloved devices like our iPhones or our laptops have become tools to control us — whether it’s the manipulation of fake news and dark ads on Facebook that helped Trump get elected, or the growing ability of both governments and big corporations to invade our privacy and spy on our activities. We know that what we’re experiencing now is not true democracy. And with the Bezos and Khashoggi revelations, it’s totally fair to ask: Are we increasingly ruled by blackmail and extortion?
It would certainly explain a lot of things. For example, is Trump’s former bodyguard Keith Schiller getting $15,000 a month from the Republican National Committee for his do-little-or-do-nothing job, or because he knows too many secrets? What are we to make of the fact that Michael Cohen and Roger Stone knew all about a hidden sex-abuse scandal involving then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — and that the New York AG’s office didn’t investigate the Trump Foundation until after Schneiderman was forced out? Why do so many GOP senators who once brutally criticized Trump now support him?
And then there’s the biggest question of all, one that Mueller is tasked with getting to the bottom of. What if America’s new amateur blackmail regime is being blackmailed by a professional: Russia’s Vladimir Putin? Much like the government’s kowtowing to the Saudis and MBS, there is too much about the administration’s bending to Russia’s will on issues such as sanctions or Syria not to ask whether Putin has leverage over Trump. The most salacious version of kompromat — that Putin’s spies have a “pee tape” of Trump — will likely remain the stuff of legend.