Thursday night, speaking with friendly Fox News host Sean Hannity, Donald Trump outlined his theory that his presidential campaign attracts journalistic scrutiny from the Washington Post as part of a larger conspiracy to help Amazon avoid sales taxes, and threatened to take revenge on the e-commerce giant if he is elected president.
Specifically, Hannity asked Trump about a report that the Post is assigning 20 reporters to dig into the various phases of his life, and whether he is prepared for the kind of scrutiny that comes with a presidential campaign.
Yeah — it's interesting that you say that, because every hour we're getting calls from reporters from the Washington Post asking ridiculous questions and I will tell you, this is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder tax-wise. He's using The Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don't tax Amazon like they should be taxed. He's getting absolutely away, he's worried about me and I think he said that to somebody, it was in some article where he thinks I would go after him for antitrust because he's got a huge antitrust problem because he's controlling so much, Amazon is controlling so much of what they're doing and what they've done is he bought this paper for practically nothing and he's using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people and I'll tell you what, we can let him get away with it.
So he's got about 20-25. I just heard, they're taking these really bad stories, I mean they're wrong, I wouldn't even say bad, they're wrong and in many cases they have no proper information and they're putting them together, they're slopping them together and they're going to do a book and the book is going to be all false stuff up because the stories are so wrong and the reporters, I mean one after another. So what they're doing is — he's using that as a political instrument to try and stop antitrust; which he thinks I believe he's antitrust, another word's what he's got it's a monopoly and he wants to make sure I don't get in. So it's one of those things but I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what — what he's doing's wrong and the people are .... the whole system is rigged, you see a case like that, the whole system is rigged — whether it's Hillary or whether it's Bezos. He's using the Washington Post which is peanuts, he's using that for political purposes to save Amazon in terms of taxes and in terms of antitrust.
Basically none of this holds up to any kind of scrutiny.
Amazon's CEO really does own the Washington Post
The thread of truth here is that for the past few years the Washington Post has been owned by Jeff Bezos, who is also the founder and CEO of Amazon, and that the purchase price of the Post was relatively low compared with the vast fortune of the founder of one of the biggest technology companies in the world.
It doesn't really seem to be true that Bezos bought the Post to gain political influence. At a minimum, he didn't replace the paper's top editor, Martin Baron, nor did he replace the editorial page editor or the main columnists.
Trump's theory of Amazon and taxes is totally wrong
Trump's talking point that Amazon is seeking political influence in order to avoid paying taxes is badly outdated. For years, Amazon really did gain an edge over brick-and-mortar retailers by not collecting or paying sales tax. But state governments began to change their laws, and now 25 states covering 77 percent of the American population (and probably a higher share of e-commerce sales) make Amazon collect taxes, while three other states have no sales tax.
The biggest problem with Trump's theory, however, is that Amazon is actually lobbying on the other side of the issue. It wants Congress to change the law to make it easier to force internet retailers to pay taxes, not harder. The reason is that (per this map) Amazon is so big that most big states are already making it pay taxes, while smaller companies are still able to get away with nonpayment.
Trump is trying to threaten Amazon
Obviously, if Donald Trump had started talking about a proposal to change antitrust law in a way that would be bad for Amazon, and then suddenly a legion of Washington Post reporters showed up covering Trump, that would be suspicious.
But the actual sequence of events has been backward. The Post, located as it is in the nation's capital, has long been deeply invested in covering American politics. It is staffing up to cover Trump because Trump just locked up the nomination of a major American political party. It's only in response to critical coverage in the Post that Trump has started talking about using antitrust policy against Amazon, and he's doing so in a totally nonspecific way with no reference to what aspect of antitrust policy he wants to change.
A vindictive president could be scary
Back in March, libertarian economist Tyler Cowen offered a prescient post on this general matter, titled "The Regulatory State and the Importance of a Non-Vindictive President":
I hope we always will have non-vindictive Presidents in this country. One reason is because the regulatory branch reports to the Executive. And if you own a large company, it is virtually impossible to be in accordance with all of the regulations all of the time. If there were a President who wished to pursue vendettas, the regulatory state would be the most direct and simplest way for him or her to do so. The usual presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" does not hold in many regulatory matters, nor are there always the usual protections of due process.
Cowen said at the time he "wonder[ed] if this is one reason why some of the leaders in the Republican Party have been somewhat reluctant to challenge Donald Trump."
In conventional times we count not just on laws but on norms to protect the country from this kind of misconduct. But back in mid-March we had a few incidents where Trump supporters violently attacked anti-Trump demonstrators, seemingly with Trump's encouragement and accompanied by Trump suggestions that he would pay the legal fees of the attackers.
That kind of norm-defying behavior didn't stop Trump from winning the nomination (indeed, it may have helped), and so far he shows no inclination to stop.