Stop me if you’ve heard this before: An investigation reveals that an authoritarian intelligence agency accessed the personal information of a high-profile U.S. Democrat, then slipped that information to a dubious media outlet in a combined effort to help Donald Trump take down his political enemies. The media outlet publishes the story, denies the allegations, and Trump reportedly knew about and appreciated the attack.
The Bezos scandal is the Russia scandal.
Last week Gavin de Becker—whom Jeff Bezos retained to conduct an investigation into the National Enquirer’s recent smear campaign against him—wrote an op-ed in The Daily Beast claiming his investigation “concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.” De Becker’s statement stopped short of directly implicating Saudi Arabia in leaking the texts the Enquirer published this January, and made clear that, “As of today, it is unclear to what degree, if any, AMI [the Enquirer’s parent company] was aware of the details.” He reportedly shared his evidence with federal authorities and has since closed his investigation.
This complicates the protestations from AMI that their only source for the texts—published after Bezos and wife MacKenzie announced their divorce—was a man named Michael Sanchez, the brother of Bezos’ mistress, Lauren Sanchez. This in itself raises questions about Trump’s possible involvement in the smear: Michael Sanchez is an outspoken Trump supporter and close associate of some high-profile figures in Trump’s circle, including Roger Stone and Carter Page. Trump also frequently attacks Bezos and Amazon, and has repeatedly questioned the ethics of Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post, one of many mainstream outlets Trump includes as an “enemy of the American people.” (Trump’s beef with Bezos, whom earlier this year Trump awarded the sobriquet “Jeff Bozo,” predates his presidency.) We also know of several shady connections between Trumpland and Saudi Arabia, most specifically including Jared Kushner and Trump himself. We also know that AMI made a point to deny that both the Saudis and the White House were involved in the Bezos story.
Though we have no direct evidence that connects Trump, the Saudis, and AMI in a conspiracy—and as of today no evidence Trump was or is aware of a possible coordinated effort between AMI and the Saudi government—the reams of publicly available circumstantial evidence suggest at the very least an alignment of several interests that make this convenient for all parties. (Important here to remember that almost six months ago to the day the Saudis dismembered the body of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist. Bezos, of course, owns the Post, and Trump has never explicitly denounced the Saudi government for that murder.) Now that de Becker has concluded the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, it’s impossible to ignore the weight of that circumstantial evidence.
Here’s how it all connects.
First of all, the Saudi government killed a Washington Post journalist. And after evidence of Saudi involvement in the murder came to light, the White House issued a statement calling Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salam (MBS) a “great ally” and suggesting he might be innocent. Though Congress believes MBS is undoubtedly to blame (GOP Senator and Trump lapdog Lindsey Graham called the evidence against the Crown Prince a “smoking saw”) Trump has toed a similar line ever since.
We also know the Saudis have pretty extensive hacking capabilities, and that hacking efforts played a key role in Saudi surveillance that helped lay the groundwork for murdering Khashoggi. The Saudi government then launched a coordinated campaign against Bezos when the Post wouldn’t let the story of the murder of one of its own journalists go. This included calls to boycott Amazon and its Saudi affiliate, Souq. One such line about Bezos reads, “We’re after you—the Jew, worshipper of money, will go bankrupt by the will of God at the hands of Saudi Arabia… the owner of Amazon and Souq is the owner of the Washington Post is the spiteful Jew who insults us every day.”
(Bezos isn’t Jewish.)
This is pretty evident. Like Saudi Arabia, Trump hates the Washington Post, which Bezos owns and which publishes stories unfavorable to him. (The Post has won the Pulitzer for its coverage of Trump, twice). He’s gone after the paper by name countless times, among other things alleging Amazon (and Bezos) uses the Post as both a tax shelter and Amazon lobbyist. He has also claimed Amazon is costing the U.S. Post Office millions of dollars, and said the company should pay fees to subsidize that government-owned business.
Trump has a close and enduring relationship with AMI chairman David Pecker, and often uses the Enquirer to smear and threaten his perceived enemies. Last year we learned that before the 2016 election Trump had AMI pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 in a “catch and kill” contract to buy and bury her story about her affair with Trump. We also learned in a Ronan Farrow New Yorker article that AMI once paid a Trump Tower doorman $30,000 to bury a story that Trump fathered a child with another Trump Tower employee. (That story has never been proved true.)
When federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York brought criminal allegations in the Trump cover-ups, AMI and Pecker struck an agreement that exchanged their cooperation in the matter for prosecutorial immunity. (They also had to pledge not to commit any more crimes for three years.) That agreement upset and rattled Trump, who until then counted Pecker a loyal ally. When the Bezos story dropped five months later, Jeff George—who spent 28 years at the Enquirer—said he believed ”[AMI] and David Pecker tried to make amends and brought this divorce story to the president as a means of kissing and making up.”
Given the above Trump-AMI-SDNY timeline, we should note when Sanchez began giving AMI dirt on Bezos.
AMI claims Sanchez is their only source. Last Sunday, after de Becker published article alleging the Saudi connection AMI issued a statement saying “it was Michael Sanchez who tipped the National Enquirer off to the affair on Sept. 10, 2018, and over the course of four months provided all of the materials for our investigation.” That was two weeks after federal prosecutors outlined the Trump-AMI connection.
However, Sanchez independently told media that the Enquirer first contacted him about the affair in July—two months before the AMI statement alleges. Sanchez added the Enquirer had at that time already “seen text exchanges” between Bezos and his sister.
These two stories don’t necessarily contradict each other. AMI could very well have seen text exchanges between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez that didn’t confirm the two were having an affair, but which raised suspicions. Sanchez could have confirmed the affair to AMI in September. It seems quite possible that de Becker, the Bezos investigator, could be correct in his hypothesis that AMI had another source for the original information that led them to tap Sanchez, who later uncovered the affair. To that end, it’s pretty curious that the Enquirer’s story—published January 2019—alleges Bezos and Sanchez began their affair eight months before then. Simple math says this fits Michael Sanchez’s story that the Enquirer had seen texts in July.
Trump went after the Post/Amazon on Twitter five times in July. (One. Two. Three. Four. Five.)
One other detail that makes AMI’s statement not so solid as it reads: They say that Sanchez “over the course of four months provided all of the materials for our investigation.” That certainly doesn’t rule out some kind of initial tip in July, from another source.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal independently reported that the Enquirer first began conversations with Michael Sanchez “already been investigating whether Mr. Bezos and Ms. Sanchez were having an affair.” Again: AMI could have first asked Sanchez to look into the question in July; they reached out again after the SDNY debacle in August; and Sanchez confirmed in September, and provided material from his sister’s phone thereafter.
Which raises another question.
Sources close to the development of the story say Sanchez, having access to his sister’s phone, leaked the texts himself. But Sanchez himself suggested, weirdly, that the stolen texts came from the “deep state”—specifically the National Security Agency. Curiously, AMI itself directly contradicted Sanchez in a detailed statement that confirmed he was their source, though they didn’t name him explicitly.
But keep in mind de Becker’s conclusions weren’t about Lauren’s phone. He said that, in the course of investigating where this all began, he concluded the Saudis had access to personal information on Bezos’ phone. It seems more and more likely the Saudis tipped off the Enquirer, who then asked Sanchez to look into it. (Also worth noting the Roger Stone connection almost certainly factors in at some point.)
It looks bad for Trump, by Sanchez’ own account. The Daily Beast reported it had seen documents that show Michael Sanchez, who has taken up Trump’s “fake news” on Twitter, believed the Enquirer had gone ahead with its Bezos story with “President Trump’s knowledge and appreciation.” According to that report, Sanchez says this was cheered by Republican operatives “who THINK Jeff gets up every morning and has a WaPo meeting to plot its next diabolical attack on President Trump.” (Roger Stone and Carter Page, of course, are deeply paranoid Republican operatives.)
Surprisingly, AMI has extensive connections not just to Trump, but to Saudi Arabia as well. And in 2017 they converged: David Pecker brought Kaci Grine, an intermediary for Saudi Crown Prince MBS, to the White House. Ahead of MBS’ U.S. trip in March 2018—he visited the White House and members of his delegation stayed at Trump International Hotel in New York—AMI distributed 200,000 issues of a 100-page, ad-free, one-off glossy piece of propaganda about the Prince titled The New Kingdom. That magazine featured content penned by Grine, and AMI reportedly sent the Saudi Embassy an advance copy a few weeks before it ran (the Saudis apparently gave notes), a claim the Saudis denied.
However, according to de Becker, AMI had to tell the Department of Justice this publication included content written by Grine.
That October, Jared Kushner reportedly passed MBS classified information about Saudi dissidents living in the U.S. (Jamal Khashoggi, we should note, fits this profile: The Saudi government banned him after he wrote an article criticizing Trump in the wake of the 2016 election.) Afterwards, MBS reportedly said he had Kushner “in his pocket.”
How did Kushner connect to the Saudis? A guy named Tom Barrack—Lebanese-American real estate financier close with Trump and Gulf-state governments—worked during the election to promote Kushner to the Saudis, and vice-versa. Barrack was also chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, which itself is now subject of an investigation by federal prosecutors.
In 2010 Barrack threw Kushner a lifeline to help his ill-fated 666 Fifth Avenue New York City real estate project stay above water. According to the New York Times, Barrack has raised has raised more than $7 billion for his own company since Trump won the nomination, and about a quarter of that money came from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ah, but here it is: Barrack is one of several people Congressional Democrats have requested documents from in their own investigation into Trump’s “catch-and-kill” dealings with AMI (the criminality revealed in SDNY filings last August and mentioned above).
As we learned with Mueller, it’s one thing to see unmistakable evidence of an understanding, and quite another to prove an agreement was reached that would constitute criminal conspiracy in a court of law. Trump, for instance, communicated to Russia he knew and approved of their hacking efforts literally dozens of times in the course of the campaign. Going by what we have here, this case looks very much the same, as far as Trump goes.
But in the end, de Becker’s piece lays out a pretty compelling case against AMI. In the course of the investigation, he reportedly spoke with a number of people: “investigative interviews with current and former AMI executives and sources, extensive discussions with top Middle East experts in the intelligence community, leading cybersecurity experts who have tracked Saudi spyware, discussions with current and former advisers to President Trump, Saudi whistleblowers, people who personally know the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), people who work with his close associate Saud al-Qahtani, [and] Saudi dissidents.”
De Becker also details—as Bezos himself famously did in a blog this February—a number of strange, unprompted denials and pre-emptive suggestions, as well as what appears to be an attempt to extort absolution from both de Becker and Bezos in exchange for not publishing further lewd pictures. Here’s one such passage:
An eight-page contract AMI sent for me and Bezos to sign would have required that I make a public statement, composed by them and then widely disseminated, saying that my investigation had concluded they hadn’t relied upon “any form of electronic eavesdropping or hacking in their news-gathering process.” Note here that I’d never publicly said anything about electronic eavesdropping or hacking—and they wanted to be sure I couldn’t.
De Becker further alleges AMI “wanted me to say our investigation had concluded that their Bezos story was not ‘instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise.’” But, he continues, AMI already knew de Becker didn’t believe that: He said he “told AMI Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard (in a 90-minute recorded phone call) that what they were asking me to say about external forces and hacking ‘is not my truth,’ and would be ‘just echoing what you are looking for.’”
If the Saudis did indeed hack Bezos’ phone and deliver the information that sparked AMI’s investigation into the mogul, that itself would be a crime (as Mueller showed us in his February 2018 indictment of Russian intelligence officials). But unless AMI commissioned the Saudis directly to access dirt on Bezos, it seems that like Wikileaks they might be afforded first amendment protections that insulate them from any criminality. However, we have other possible intermediaries as well, including Tom Barrack and, in another weird echo of the Russia-Wikileaks scheme, Roger Stone.