It’s Donald Trump versus everyone. But there’s one person who cues up the President’s fight response like no other. And, as much as political pundits wish it were Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s not. It’s Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post.
The POTUS’ Twitter rage Monday morning put Bezos’ companies in the crosshairs again, with the rant essentially calling the newspaper an agent of the online retailer.
“The Amazon Washington Post has gone crazy against me ever since they lost the Internet Tax Case in the U.S. Supreme Court two months ago. Next up is the U.S. Post Office which they use, at a fraction of real cost, as their ‘delivery boy’ for a BIG percentage of their packages,” the President tweeted, in the latest installment of criticisms that have ranged from antitrust business practices to taking advantage of the U.S. Postal service.
The online tax issue does not directly involve Amazon. The court case may put the onus of collecting online taxes on retailers, but since the company is already structured to handle sales taxes in numerous jurisdictions, it has less to lose with the ruling than smaller merchants (although third-party sellers on the company’s marketplace will be impacted).
As for antitrust claims, the tech and e-commerce giant’s seeming ubiquity across all sorts of retail verticals may make it look like an apt target. But legal experts argue it probably won’t reach that level.
President Trump “should not single out Amazon as a target of federal antitrust enforcement unless he means to apply the antitrust laws uniformly against all similarly situated dominant firms,” said William Markham, a Harvard-educated trial attorney and antitrust expert in San Diego. “It seems likely, however, that he has no such intent.”
That doesn’t mean Amazon’s dominance of retail or other giants’ control of the tech sector don’t present reasons to worry from an antitrust standpoint, he added. But Trump’s key appointees to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the federal courts don’t seem willing to enforce the antitrust laws “in the manner that [Trump] now says he favors.”
The constant drumbeat of Trump’s Amazon attack casts the company as a bully that takes advantage of the poor U.S. Postal service — a notion that its own inspector general’s office has practically negated. In the face of declining postal letters, the USPS welcomes more package deliveries, it has said on its blog. There’s also been no evidence that Amazon forces the mail carrier to accept a cut rate.
“As a general rule, being big and taking steps to lower your costs, in and of themselves, are not antitrust violations,” said Amanda Wait, partner and head of competition practice at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, in Washington, D.C. “The fundamental principle of antitrust is that there’s no antitrust violation without there being an anticompetitive effect.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped the allegations from wreaking havoc with Amazon’s share price. The company was enjoying a celebratory period after its biggest Prime Day ever last week. But after the latest presidential trolling, Amazon’s stock dropped as much as 2.4 percent on Monday before recovering some and closing down 0.7 percent to $1,802.
It is not clear if Amazon’s recent lobbying has had the intended effect. The e-tailer just spent a record $3.5 million in the second quarter for lobbying efforts in Washington. However, even though it’s no small sum, it falls short of other high-stakes expenditures by tech companies.
According to disclosures, Facebook, which has been embroiled in data privacy controversies, spent $3.7 million. And Google, contending with the European Union’s $2.7 billion antitrust fine, threw in $5.8 million.
In this instance, Trump’s out-of-the-blue tirade might well be more motivated by dislike for The Washington Post’s political coverage than Amazon’s business practices. The paper, which Bezos bought in 2013 for $250 million, often paints the Trump presidency in vivid hues. And there has been plenty to write about recently.
The White House has had its hands full trying to explain — and, some say, contain — the President’s recent behavior and comments.
The beleaguered administration has been dealing with fallout from the Helsinki summit a little over a week ago, when the President failed to support the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s election meddling. Days later, Trump walked back the position in a pre-written statement, then walked back that walk-back, calling the accusations of interference a hoax once more. Meanwhile, another Twitter rant heightened the war rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran, and reports surfaced that the President is unhappy with the stagnant state of North Korea denuclearization, a matter that Trump told the public was “solved.”
On any other day, the Amazon kerfuffle might have grabbed the spotlight at a White House briefing. But when it comes to controversial issues, Monday’s briefing gave reporters an embarrassment of riches. In a notable moment, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders revealed that Trump may revoke the security clearance of former intelligence chiefs, following their criticisms of the administration.
The jaded view is that the President is trying to distract from these matters and more, including the disclosure of a dozen audio recordings by ex-Trump attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen, the impending criminal court case of the President’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort and the broader Russia investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Amazon-Washington Post skirmish looks like a secondary story line in the reality TV version of White House politics. But it could graduate into a central plot twist if the presidential accusations morph from tweet storm to an official probe or some sort of punitive measure.