What did President Trump know and when did he know it? Whom did he pressure out of self-interest? Are there emails or tapes? And, maybe, let’s call some witnesses.
I am talking about a “Star Wars”-themed face-off between Mr. Trump and the Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos. Things got more problematic for the Trump administration last week when a judge ordered that work be stopped on a huge $10 billion, 10-year, cloud-computing project for the Defense Department called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project, also known as JEDI.
The sealed opinion last week was a big initial win for Amazon, whose Amazon Web Services cloud-storage powerhouse division last year had called foul over the awarding of the contract to Microsoft. Amazon asserts that there were irregularities in the Pentagon procurement process.
Amazon is pointing the finger right at — you guessed it — Mr. Trump, who has spent a lot of time trashing Mr. Bezos along with his newspaper, The Washington Post, and the enormous company he founded, often conflating them all into one billionaire blob of a rival. The Grand Canyon-size gulf in business talent and wealth between the two surely is a factor here. There is a long history of petty comments by the commander in grief aimed at the internet legend.
And there was that report by a staff member for the former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, saying that Mr. Trump had expressed a desire to “screw” Amazon. (Even earlier, Mr. Trump declared during his campaign that the company was “going to have such problems” when he becomes president.)
The continuing public and private enmity is at least partly why Amazon is claiming it lost the bid. While Amazon had been seen as a front-runner for the contract, in October, it was awarded to tech’s other Seattle-based behemoth, Microsoft. Amazon sued in December.
Many think it’s an uphill battle for Amazon. But if the company continues winning legal motions, there is the possibility of a discovery process that could force the Trump administration to reveal what kind of pressure the president may have brought to bear to stop Amazon from winning the JEDI project. Some at Amazon believe the administration may have changed the terms of the proposal to advantage Microsoft.
Microsoft argues that it got the contract fair and square. Frank Shaw, a Microsoft communications officer, said the Defense Department “ran a detailed, thorough and fair process” and determined that its needs “were best met by Microsoft.” He said the company was “disappointed with the additional delay.”
For its part, the Pentagon is peddling the idea that the legal delay “deprived our war fighters of a set of capabilities they urgently need,” even though it was Mr. Trump who originally asked to have the bidding process reviewed last summer.
Some sources told me the government will seek to limit discovery to the technical record and rely on executive privilege to protect whatever Mr. Trump did or said related to the award (does the executive privilege excuse sound familiar?). That includes blocking testimony by Mr. Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
The fact that Amazon has been hired by the federal government many times bolsters the company’s case that its loss of the JEDI project is part of the president’s vendetta against Mr. Bezos.
One oddity that Amazon will surely point out is that Mr. Esper recused himself from the process — citing a conflict of interest because of his son’s job at IBM. That’s unusual since IBM was not considered a top contender and weirder still since Mr. Esper did not step aside until the very last moment of deliberations. And he was the one who prolonged the bidding contest upon orders from Mr. Trump.
One of the most important factors in this battle — compared to a lot of other fights in which Mr. Trump delays and obfuscates and makes noise to muddy the waters — is Mr. Bezos’s tenacity. From my time spent with him in the days of Amazon’s founding, I know him well enough to say that he will fight as long as it takes, and he can outmaneuver any mud that Mr. Trump can throw at him.
Amazon has also been lucky since Mr. Trump’s behavior in the JEDI process seems to recall how he got into trouble with Ukraine and, more recently, with the Justice Department’s handling of the Roger Stone case (and really in so many instances). To that point, Amazon said in a statement, “President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to use his position as president and commander in chief to interfere with government functions — including federal procurements — to advance his personal agenda.”
And that was the nicest part of the statement. Mr. Trump’s supporters may think that he brings it all and more when he is attacked. But I’d say Mr. Bezos brings it all to a fight — and also a drone howitzer, an army of lawyers and a huge wallet. And if Mr. Trump is already rattled politically by the willingness of the real billionaire Michael Bloomberg to go to the mattresses using his $62 billion fortune, remember that Mr. Bezos is more than twice as wealthy as that.
Mr. Bezos did just that this week with the announcement that he would devote $10 billion of his own money to fund climate change initiatives under the Bezos Earth Fund. Even as some denounce Amazon’s toll on the environment and call for taxing the company more, this laudable initiative was a smart move for Mr. Bezos and will burnish his reputation. It will also irritate Mr. Trump, no friend to climate change solutions.
Unfortunately, what is getting lost in these clashes of titans is that it is critical that the Pentagon modernize its tech as quickly as possible, as it faces challenges across the globe, most especially from China. Right now, the Defense Department is working with patched-up systems from the 1980s and 1990s.
So, given that both Microsoft and Amazon are U.S.-based giants, the mess that Mr. Trump has created with his careless words — and perhaps with his actions — only hurts the security of this country. So, while it might be called JEDI, it feels an awful lot more like “Spaceballs.”