TIMOTHY L. O'BRIEN: How Donald Trump's brain works - a case study
'Trump loathes Amazon because he conflates the company with the Washington Post'
Who'd ever have guessed that the forces driving President Donald Trump's attacks on Amazon.com Inc. are personal animus, fear, politics, and a lifelong obsession with the media?
Trump has spent the last several days using his bully pulpit on Twitter to take pot shots at Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, helping the company's market valuation shed about $75 billion.
Trump has claimed that the main reason he hates Amazon is because it gets off easy on taxes, has dislocated traditional retailers and, most curiously, hurts the U.S. Postal Service by giving it lots of business:
I am right about Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy. Amazon should pay these costs (plus) and not have them bourne by the American Taxpayer. Many billions of dollars. P.O. leaders don’t have a clue (or do they?)!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2018
Putting aside the fact that Trump himself bragged during a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton that not paying federal taxes "makes me smart," it's doubtful that taxes, competition, or your local post office are the real reasons why Trump is on Amazon's case.
Trump loathes Amazon because he conflates the company with the Washington Post. Bezos owns the Post and founded Amazon, but Amazon doesn't own the Post; Bezos purchased it himself for $250 million in 2013. Amazon is just a useful straw man for a president ticked off by the stellar reporting the Post has done over the last few years on the White House, public policy and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump's ties to Russia. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, citing people close to Trump, "critical articles in the Post often trigger his public musings about Amazon."
Trump first went on a Twitter rant against Amazon and the Post in December 2015, when the Post was reporting, among other things, that Trump wanted to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S. and that his rationale for doing so was based "on a very shoddy poll."
Trump was at it again last summer, relabeling the paper as the "Amazon Washington Post" after it published entirely accurate articles revealing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had (contrary to his public statements) discussed policy issues with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign:
A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post,this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions.These illegal leaks, like Comey's, must stop!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
As the Times noted, the Post reported last week that one of the president's lawyers discussed pardoning two former Trump advisers, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. A Twitter hit from Trump followed. Vanity Fair reportsthat Trump is now "obsessed with Bezos" and is considering pressuring the Postal Service to raise Amazon's shipping costs and to encourage the Defense Department to cancel a pending cloud-computing contract with the company.
Amazon has deep pockets and could easily challenge Trump in court, of course, and the president's public statements about all of this have made him legally vulnerable. There is, however, a cheaper way for the Post and Amazon to avoid the president's ire: They could get with the program.
For guidance, they'd just have to look to the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair, which owns 193 television stations broadcasting on 614 channels in 89 markets across the U.S., is looking to expand its media empire by buyingTribune Media and the latter company's 42 local TV stations. That deal has been held up by federal regulators (who work for Trump) over antitrust concerns.
Sinclair, as CNN's Brian Stelter first reported, has been giving all of its TV anchors scripts recently that it directs them to follow during their broadcasts. The scripts note the various Sinclair stations' commitment to "quality, balanced journalism" — and their concern (which, conveniently, the president shares) about "national media outlets" publishing "fake stories without checking facts." (A Sinclair executive defended the scripts this week by expressing puzzlement "that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media.")
The scripts have gone live and Timothy Burke, a writer for Deadspin, spun some of the broadcasts together into a video mash-up:
I'm probably among the biased observers Sinclair worries about. Trump sued me in 2006, alleging that my biography, "TrumpNation," had misrepresented his business record and his wealth. Trump lost the suit in 2011. I'm also an opinion writer now, not a news reporter.
Sinclair isn't a dispassionate observer, either. The company's executive chairman, David Smith, recently told New York magazine's Olivia Nuzzi by email that he doesn’t trust print media because it "serves no real purpose."
“The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble [sic] which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away," Smith added. "Just no credibility.”
Like Fox News, Sinclair has a pedigree in conservative politics and has long used its resources to promote conservative causes. A former Trump adviser, Boris Epshteyn, offers political commentary on Sinclair's network and the company has pushed its outlets to feature him. All of this seems to sit well with the president (so take note, Jeff Bezos):
So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2018
The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The “Fakers” at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2018
Trump wants more than the party line from the national media, however. He also wants protection.
One of the Post stories last week was an article by David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O'Connell that outlined the myriad legal, financial and reputational threats that have coalesced around the White House and Trump. Perhaps the most threatening among those is the Mueller probe.
Mueller recently subpoenaed the Trump Organization for financial records, widening his investigation by digging into the heart of the president's business dealings. Trump has made no secret of his distaste for Mueller's investigation, and he's repeatedly labeled it a "witch hunt."
Trump has also attacked Mueller and the sponsor of his probe, the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the federal court system and any other institution that gets in his way.
The media — flawed, valuable and necessary — is also an institution that gets in Trump's way. He has spent decades courting and deriding the press, but he's never been in the corner he's in now. Trump is afraid. His attacks on Amazon, the Post and Bezos show the new and dangerous lengths he is willing to go in the interest of self-preservation.