This Sunday, let’s veer away from local politics and take a peep into the world of the richest man on earth, Jeff Bezos (he is the founder of the giant technology firm, Amazon), and his poisoned relationship with the world’s most powerful man, US President Donald Trump. In the strange mix are Trump’s friends in the Saudi royal family, plus a colourful character called David Pecker, who is indisputably America’s gutter press king by virtue of his position as proprietor of a mass circulation scandal sheet called the National Enquirer.
Pecker is an old friend of Trump’s; he was the go-between when a hush cash payoff was made to a porn star who nearly derailed Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign when she threatened to go public about an affair with the candidate. This matter is now the subject of a wider investigation by a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, of possible Trump campaign transgressions. It is also emerging that Pecker may have secretly reached out to the Saudis when his company got into financial problems, prior to being bailed out by a mysterious benefactor. Among other elements of the saga, the US mainstream media is hugely titillated by the spectacle of puritanical Saudis underwriting a smut-driven magazine like the Enquirer. Of course, the Saudis are strenuously denying any involvement with Pecker, or with the other actors in this soap opera.
It all started seemingly innocently when the Enquirer, in what looked to be its routine business, exposed an extra-marital affair Bezos was having. Things moved fast and now look headed to a divorce between the magnate and his long-standing wife. This looming break-up is itself of no small significance because, under a Seattle law where Amazon is incorporated, Bezos will have to split his $137 billion fortune in equal share with his ex-wife, thus relegating him down the zillionaire scale and leaving Bill Gates to reoccupy the position of Number 1.
Trump was thrilled with the Bezos extra-marital scandal expose. He detests Bezos, who he referred to in a tweet as Bozo. However, it is not so much the person of Bezos that Trump loathes; it is the newspaper he owns – The Washington Post. It is the most influential newspaper in the US capital and is fiercely critical of Trump and his administration.
Enter the Saudis. They have their own highly personalised beef with the Post over its no-holds-barred coverage of the Saudi regime ever since the murder in Turkey last year of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. The killing is widely believed to have been ordered by the sinister Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is a chum of Trump’s son-in-law-cum-adviser Jared Kushner. The CIA reportedly confirmed conclusively the Crown Prince’s involvement in the murder, but Trump disregarded the findings of the spy agency. The Post's continuing interest in the story is only natural: Kashoggi was a columnist with the newspaper.
In their usual clumsy manner, the Saudis then launched a naked internet smear campaign against Bezos and Amazon, calling on customers to boycott the company and its services. The social media accounts behind the attacks were easily traced back to Crown Prince Mohammed’s cronies. (One wonders what shape the Saudi cyberbullies would have been left in if Amazon, which is the world’s largest cloud computing and e-commerce company, had chosen to marshal its cyberspace arsenal to counter-attack. It’s rather like would happen if a small Kenyan school computer lab picked up an online fight with Safaricom. As it were, Bezos held his fire.)
STEPPED ON TOES
Matters came to a head recently when Bezos posted a blog accusing Pecker of blackmailing him by threatening to publish nude photos the publisher had somehow acquired of Bezos and his girlfriend. The multi-billionaire charged that Pecker was demanding as a quid pro quo that he publicly disavow that the Enquirer’s unmasking of his extra-marital affair was politically motivated. Bezos has no intention of doing that sort of trade-off. In fact, he has strongly hinted that the campaign against him by Pecker has a “government angle.” Only he hasn’t explicitly said which – the White House or the Saudis. Or perhaps both acting together, like they have done with the Kashoggi murder cover-up.
The Saudis are desperate to hang on Trump’s coattails in an increasingly hostile world where the US Congress and the international community consider their despotism to be archaic. Trump is not averse to use his status to strike deals for personal profit with the corrupt Saudis. Pecker just smells the money and power circulating in this super-wealthy crowd. Bezos certainly doesn’t need anybody's cash. He is not a politician even. His passion is purely for his business. Yet he has been sucked into unfamiliar territory through his ownership of an illustrious newspaper that has stepped on the toes of extremely powerful people and networks. Funny enough, the Post, which Bezos bought for $250 million in 2013, is a tiny dot in his investment portfolio.