The owner of the National Enquirer on Friday said it would investigate claims by Jeff Bezos that the tabloid had attempted to blackmail the billionaire by threatening to release sexually explicit photographs.
American Media Inc (AMI) said it believed it had “acted lawfully” after Mr Bezos published emails appearing to show the tabloid asking him to retract suggestions that political motives drove their decision to reveal his extramarital affair, in return for not publishing the images.
The emails were included in a remarkable 2,000-word blog post in which the Amazon founder laid out links between the tabloid, President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia.
Federal prosecutors in New York were last night reviewing the incident to determine whether anything criminal had taken place, Bloomberg News and Associated Press reported.
AMI has previously admitting paying hush money to a woman who claimed to have had an affair with Mr Trump before the US election.
Mr Bezos owns The Washington Post, a newspaper Mr Trump has repeatedly and vehemently criticised. In Mr Bezos’s blog post he said “certain powerful people” including Mr Trump had concluded “I am their enemy”, and that The Washington Post’s criticism of the murder of its columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi operatives was “undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles”. A member of his team has suggested a “government entity” may have been involved in revealing the affair, according to a Washington Post reporter.
“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favours, political attacks, and corruption,” Mr Bezos wrote. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.” The extraordinary row involves people at the very pinnacle of American power – the world’s richest man, the country’s most powerful politician and a magazine which helped the latter hide his scandals.
This latest standoff began last month when Mr Bezos unexpectedly announced a divorce from his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, vowing to “continue our shared lives as friends”. The trigger for the statement became clear within days, when the National Enquirer revealed how Mr Bezos, 55, had begun a relationship with Lauren Sanchez, a 49-year-old former Fox presenter who was also married, and published a series of their intimate texts.
Mr Bezos ordered an investigation, led by Gavin de Becker, his longtime security consultant, to see how the text messages had been obtained.
Mr de Becker later said he was investigating suggestions that Ms Sanchez’s brother Michael Sanchez, a Hollywood talent manager with connections to Trump campaign figures, might be behind the leaks. He also said that “strong leads point to political motives”.
Suggestions that the National Enquirer was acting for political reasons prompted an attempt by figures at the magazine to get a retraction and a promise that they would not be repeated, according to emails published in Mr Bezos’s blog. One of the messages detailed 10 as yet unpublished photos of both Mr Bezos and Ms Sanchez.
Mr Bezos wrote: “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.”
On Friday, AMI put out a statement: “American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr Bezos. Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him. Nonetheless, in light of the nature of the allegations published by Mr Bezos, the board has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims.”
It later emerged that prosecutors in Manhattan are reviewing whether AMI’s actions violated its non-prosecution agreement relating to the $150,000 hush-money payment made to Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who claims she had an affair Donald Trump. If that cooperation agreement is nullified then AMI, or its executives, could be reopened to prosecution over the hush payment.
At the time of the original story revealing Mr Bezos’s affair, Mr Trump tweeted: “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”