How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the National Enquirer went to war

When Jeff Bezos was battling the National Enquirer over the exposés about his private life, he had a simple message for his top lieutenants: Stop feeding the coverage. Stop responding to journalists’ questions. Stop engaging with the media even if you’re trying to correct a bad story.

That order came as the Amazon founder believed he had tangible evidence that the supermarket tabloid was willing to abide by a cease-fire. It was then that Bezos authorized discussions with his adversaries about the nightmare that began when the paper exposed his affair with Lauren Sanchez.

These talks reached the point that the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., was supremely confident of reaching a written deal that would satisfy both sides’ concerns, according to sources familiar with the process. But that was not Bezos’ view at all. Hours later, he blew up the talks by accusing the Enquirer of blackmailing him over intimate photos and text messages.

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The private talks cast the billionaire’s charge of extortion in a somewhat different light, leaving people on both sides of the bitter battle convinced that he had successfully lured the tabloid company into a trap.

After the original Enquirer story in early January, Bezos had one overriding goal. That was to stop the Chinese water torture of embarrassing photos and texts about his relationship with Sanchez, a Los Angeles television personality, which put in motion a divorce from his wife MacKenzie. The sources say there were dozens of sexually explicit texts, along with the photos, that the Enquirer had held back.

Executives at American Media were told that Bezos was concerned that his reputation as a tech titan might be damaged by the continuing stories. After all, Amazon was promising its customers online security, and yet the Bezos messages and photos had been leaked, and possibly even hacked. (The latter theory has been largely discounted since the photos have been found not to have come from Lauren’s brother, Michael Sanchez, who called such rumors “100 percent false,” but may have come from several girlfriends, and an assistant, with whom Lauren shared the pictures and texts.)

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The move toward behind-the-scenes talks began with a tacit understanding.

The Bezos team offered to play ball with another AMI publication, Us Weekly, for a story that would paint the couple exposed by the Enquirer in a more sympathetic light. A “source” provided by the team furnished such sympathetic quotes as “Jeff and Lauren are together. They’re serious about each other. This wasn’t a one-off fling. This is a relationship that’s been going on for months.” AMI was even able to push for quotes with more emotion.

The Bezos side, using Michael Sanchez, a Hollywood talent manager, as an intermediary, also arranged for paparazzi photos of Lauren Sanchez, who is a pilot, going to her office at the Santa Monica airport and boarding a helicopter. Us Weekly, which ran a cover story, called the photo spread an exclusive.

Now Bezos wanted something in return.

BEZOS' GIRLFRIEND SHARED HIS TEXTS, PHOTOS WITH FRIENDS BEFORE ENQUIRER LEAK

His side was convinced, based on conversations with someone at AMI, that the Enquirer planned two more cover stories on Jeff and Lauren to follow up the first 12-page spread. A source close to AMI said there was no plan for additional cover stories on the couple, which would be a marketing decision, but that was what Bezos feared, along with the steady drip on items on the Enquirer’s website.

Days before the following week’s edition was scheduled to be published, the Bezos team was able to obtain a PDF file of the next Enquirer cover. It was about George Clooney’s wife Amal, supposedly moving out on him.

This was such a breach of the Enquirer’s usually tight security that someone on the Bezos team asked an AMI executive whether the cover was real or fake. The executive was surprised when shown evidence that Bezos’ people had the advance cover. Some of those involved believe the leak came from David Pecker, AMI’s owner. The company denies that Pecker provided the pre-publication cover to anyone.

But that leak -- along with the Enquirer’s sudden halt in publishing any Bezos texts -- convinced the billionaire that his strategy was working.

In fact, when reporters called about a rumor that Bezos and Lauren Sanchez would make their first public appearance at the Oscars, the CEO was gratified that Amazon’s PR department had refused to comment on the false story.

Some in Bezos’ inner circle reject the term “negotiations,” since they see themselves as simply responding to extortion threats. Still, detailed information provided by those close to the process makes clear there was a steady stream of phone calls, emails and texts about the contested issues, including one phone conversation that lasted 90 minutes.

Both sides played hardball.

The Bezos team insisted that AMI stop using leaks to smear Gavin de Becker, Bezos' longtime security consultant, by suggesting that the breach involving the explicit photos and texts reflected a failure on his part. AMI was sent legal warning letters, demanding that such conduct cease.

AMI, for its part, wanted de Becker to acknowledge that his internal investigation had discovered no evidence that the Enquirer story was rooted in national politics. The company considered it defamatory for the Bezos side to suggest, as did his other high-profile property, the Washington Post, that its story was a politically motivated hit job. Pecker is a close friend of President Trump, who has repeatedly lambasted Bezos and what he calls the “Amazon Washington Post.”

In fact, the sources say, Bezos never intended to give the tabloid company what it wanted, which was a public statement declaring that the Enquirer stories, as an AMI letter put it, were not “instigated or dictated by external forces, political or otherwise.”

Legal letters were also sent on Bezos’ behalf, demanding that none of his photos or text messages be made public beyond what had already been published.

During this period, Bezos mused with his confidants, including his girlfriend, about the possibility of buying American Media, closing down the Enquirer, and beefing up its health and fitness titles. This could be presented as striking a blow for good journalism. There were even numbers thrown around, $1 billion or more, before they concluded the move was too risky.

AMI had a strong motivation to settle. Pecker and the company had recently struck an immunity deal with federal prosecutors over their role in arranging hush-money payments during the campaign to two women accusing Trump of extramarital affairs. Under the terms, any legal breach could cause prosecutors to revoke that immunity.

Bezos was motivated as well. He not only wanted relief of even the threat of naked pictures and steamy texts being published, he wanted no mention of certain tensions with his dying biological father.

The Amazon chief was closely monitoring the talks, as his advocates would sometimes ask for more time to consult with him if he was unavailable.

AMI, whose chief content officer, Dylan Howard, handled much of the negotiating, contended during the talks that it was not engaging in blackmail. When asked, the company refused to say that it would definitely publish the explicit Bezos material if no agreement was reached, only that it reserved the right to do so.

On Feb. 5, the sources say, AMI sent two crucial letters, after the Bezos team suggested the company put forth a proposal and they would respond.

The first letter was from an AMI lawyer, outlining a 7-point settlement agreement.

The second letter was from Howard, graphically detailing the photos they had obtained of Bezos, some of them “below-the-belt selfies,” and Lauren Sanchez. The problem was that this read like a threatening letter.

When reporters called about a rumor that Bezos and Lauren Sanchez would make their first public appearance at the Oscars, the CEO was gratified that Amazon’s PR department had refused to comment on the false story

The reason for this catalogue, in AMI’s view, is that Bezos wanted to know what recourse he would have if the Enquirer breached the agreement. The two sides even discussed whether a mediator would resolve any claims of a breach and whether that would take place in New York or California.

The calls and messages continued through the afternoon of Feb. 7. But that evening, Bezos accused AMI of blackmail in an explosive blog post on Medium, including the two AMI letters as evidence.

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Even executives at AMI had to admit it was a shrewd publicity move. Bezos won praise for denouncing the Enquirer and changed the subject from his personal life to harsh tabloid tactics. AMI executives felt they had furnished the letter as part of the negotiations and got burned.

The downside for Bezos was that the messy spectacle burst back into the news, just when the story seemed to be fading. Neither side would comment for the record.

Some on the Bezos team now hope the media spotlight will turn to his divorce, given that the eventual settlement will make MacKenzie Bezos the world’s richest woman and could have a significant impact on Amazon. That, at least, would shift the public focus away from the affair. They were pleased when told that MacKenzie was buying an apartment in New York worth at least $25 million, believing that she is in the process of moving on.

As for the evidence that triggered the blackmail brawl, that will probably never see the light of day. Bezos and his advisers believe that AMI executives would have huge legal liability by running photos without a copyright, and which arguably aren’t newsworthy since the story is already out. The AMI team, still sensitive about any violation that could eradicate the immunity deal, would like the story to quietly fade.

But given that federal prosecutors and AMI's own board are now reviewing the situation,that may be wishful thinking.