MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is accusing the National Enquirer of extortion and blackmail. In an extraordinary online post tonight, Bezos accuses the Enquirer of threatening to publish intimate photos of him unless he, Bezos, calls off an investigation into how the Enquirer got hold of his private text messages with a woman with whom he was having an affair. The Enquirer is part of American Media Inc, a media group run by a close friend of President Trump, who has been caught up in the Russia investigation. Lots of layers to this, so let's bring in reporter Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal to help sort through it. Hi, Lukas.
LUKAS ALPERT: How are you?
KELLY: All right, thank you. I want to give people listening a warning that details you're about to hear may be graphic. But let's start with this post that Jeff Bezos has just put up on Medium in which he describes how the Enquirer approached and threatened him. What does he say happened?
ALPERT: Well, so to kind of step back a bit, earlier this week, The Washington Post ran a story kind of investigating how the National Enquirer kind of got these text messages and followed Jeff Bezos and his alleged paramour around.
KELLY: The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos - another wrinkle here.
ALPERT: That's right. That's right. And so that story alleged a lot of things - you know, whether there was a political motivation, as you mentioned. The Enquirer and its owner is - are close to or, you know, have defended Donald Trump and have, you know, written rather copiously in his favor. So in the kind of run-up to this, it looks like, according to the post that Bezos has put up today, that the Enquirer threatened, if you don't, you know, in light of this article you're about to publish in your paper, you know, we have these pictures of you. I gather they were text messages that maybe he'd sent that included nude or partially nude selfies, you know, stuff that's quite embarrassing. So Bezos came forward, said, I'm going to publish this on my own and, you know, get out ahead of this. They're trying to extort me, and, you know, I'm not going to stand for it.
KELLY: Yeah. I mean, the photos, it sounds like according to the messages that are published here, are very graphic - below-the-belt selfies and selfies in a bathroom where Bezos is wearing a towel and various things are visible, also selfies of the woman with whom he was having an affair.
ALPERT: That's right. And then later they put a post up from a corporate counsel, a lawyer for American Media, saying, you know, we will agree to not run these pictures if you agree to stop, you know, making - or come out publicly and say, we have no evidence that this was a politically motivated story or our investigation was untoward in any way - so a quid pro quo there.
KELLY: And the Bezos response - he - as you noted, he said, obviously I don't want personal photos to be published, but I'm not going to participate in this - his words - well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks and corruption. And he ends his response saying, I prefer to stand up, roll this log over and see what crawls out.
ALPERT: It's an interesting thing. If you go back to the original story that the Enquirer ran last month about the affair. Before it ran, Bezos came out with a statement to sort of preempt it's announcing that he and his wife would be getting divorced. So one has to wonder if a story like this - you know, he comes out ahead of - perhaps they were planning to publish these pictures. I don't know if that's the case - but, you know, if he was trying to preempt a move by them by getting out ahead of it. And that seems to be maybe where we are.
KELLY: What is the Enquirer saying? Have they confirmed that these - have they confirmed these messages were sent to Bezos or his attorney?
ALPERT: So far they have not commented - any of their representatives or the executives who are - you know, whose names show up in these documents. None of them have returned calls. You know, they are, as part of their connection through Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance fraud - they admitted to their role in covering up, you know, some negative stories about Donald Trump and affairs that he had. They bought stories. They didn't run - this catch-and-kill practice. They - they've made an agreement with prosecutors that granted them immunity. So the question now one has to wonder is, does this allegation - if this is true, if this is really extortion or blackmail, does that run afoul of the agreement that they're already party to?
KELLY: So you're saying we have not yet had a statement tonight from the Enquirer or the parent company, but based on what we know about their business practices in past, this would be consistent.
ALPERT: They have been known - they're very hard-nosed in their dealings. They do use things as leverage. They have in the past, you know, kind of dangled things over people. We will run this unless you do something. That's sort of in the line of the catch-and-kill business that they've, you know, been - that they've admitted to doing in the past.
KELLY: Lukas Alpert, media reporter at The Wall Street Journal, thanks very much.
ALPERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.