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The ongoing saga of Jeff Bezos’s sexts, explained

The story pits the richest man in the world against some of President Trump’s closest media allies.

Jeff Bezos at the WIRED25 Summit on October 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California
Jeff Bezos at the Wired25 Summit on October 15, 2018, in San Francisco.
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

At this point, you’ve probably read the sexts.

“I love you, alive girl,” reads one message allegedly sent by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez. “I will show you with my body, and my lips and my eyes, very soon.”

This and other messages were published by the National Enquirer in January, soon after Bezos and his wife MacKenzie announced their divorce. And the Enquirer promised more: “a cache of lewd selfies taken by Bezos and seen by reporters from The ENQUIRER are so shocking we dare not print them.”

The couple’s divorce announcement sparked questions about how they would divide their vast wealth — but it soon became clear that this story was bigger than the Bezoses. The National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., has ties to President Trump — a noted Bezos foe — and some speculated that the Enquirer had gone after the Amazon CEO as a way to please the president.

Then in a February blog post, Jeff Bezos wrote that executives from the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., had threatened to release the “lewd selfies” unless Bezos released a statement saying that the Enquirer had no political motivation for its exposé on him.

Bezos refused, instead publishing what he said were emails from AMI executives attempting to extort him. AMI has said it’s investigating the matter. Meanwhile, speculation around Trump’s connection to the story has intensified since the Daily Beast reported that Sanchez’s brother Michael Sanchez, a Hollywood manager and vocal Trump supporter, had leaked the texts to AMI.

In an interview with Vanity Fair published on February 14, Michael Sanchez wouldn’t directly comment on whether he was the source of the leak, but claimed that “my only goal has been to protect Jeff and Lauren.”

Now, more than a month after it began, the story of Jeff Bezos and his text messages has become a complex tale pitting the richest man in the world against some of Trump’s closest media allies, and raising questions about who decides what stays private and what gets revealed.

In January, the National Enquirer published texts between Jeff Bezos and his girlfriend

The world first learned that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos were divorcing on January 9, from a statement posted to Jeff Bezos’s Twitter account.

“After a long period of loving exploration and trial separation, we have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends,” the statement read.

But the message of friendliness was called into question within hours, as the Enquirer teased a story online alleging an affair between Bezos and Sanchez, a pilot and former TV anchor. Sanchez and Bezos had known each other for years, according to Page Six, but began to grow closer after she worked as a pilot shooting aerial footage for Blue Origin, Bezos’s spaceflight company.

Soon, the Enquirer published what it said were texts between the two, including the “alive girl” message, which quickly became a meme. And the tabloid announced that its reporters had seen racy pictures sent between the two, including “a below-the-belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pic.’”

A source close to the Bezoses told Vox that the couple had separated before Jeff Bezos began dating Sanchez. Still, the publication of the texts and subsequent conversation complicated the narrative of a friendly separation that the Bezoses had tried to advance.

Meanwhile, commentators began to raise questions about whether Trump had a hand in the Enquirer’s story. Trump has deep ties to AMI — the company paid former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 in a 2016 “catch and kill” agreement to keep her from speaking publicly about an affair she said she had with Trump. AMI sources told Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker last year that AMI had also paid $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman in order to shut down a story about Trump fathering a child with a former employee (Farrow found no evidence the story was actually true). David Pecker, the chair and CEO of AMI, has described Trump as a “personal friend,” Farrow notes.

Trump, for his part, has a very public distaste for Jeff Bezos, whom he has called “Jeff Bozo.” He once reportedly pressed the US postmaster general to up Amazon’s shipping costs. The president’s anti-Bezos stance likely has to do with the Amazon CEO’s ownership of the Washington Post — which, as David Smith notes at the Guardian, is “a bastion of what he calls the ‘fake news’ media.” Trump has been linking Amazon, Bezos, and the Post on Twitter since before he was president:

There’s another possible reason for the beef, as Smith notes — Trump, whose actual net worth is a subject of controversy, might be jealous of Bezos’s wealth.

Bezos is “ranked many hundreds of places higher than Trump on the scale of wealth and he did it without any inheritance of the sort that Trump had,” Michael D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump, told Smith. “He’s respected in a way that Trump never was as a businessperson. He is circumspect in the way that Trump is not. He’s everything that Trump hates.”

Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron told the New York Times that Bezos doesn’t influence coverage at the newspaper, but Bezos has hit back at Trump personally over the years, calling his campaign rhetoric a threat to democracy in 2016.

Given this, it wasn’t surprising that some people wondered if Trump was connected to the Enquirer Bezos story. But when Adam K. Raymond of New York magazine asked AMI directly if Trump was involved, a company spokesperson said only, “The National Enquirer has been doggedly investigating this story for four months and the extraordinary details and evidence uncovered by our team, and presented to Mr. Bezos’s representatives for comment early this week, underscores the kind of investigative reporting that the publication has long been known for.”

Trump, for his part, told CNN’s Brian Stelter in February that he was not aware of AMI’s investigation into Bezos prior to publication. Commenting on the Bezos divorce in January, he said, “I wish him luck. It’s going to be a beauty.”

Bezos says AMI tried to extort him — so he decided to expose them

Then in February, Bezos lit up the internet with a post on Medium — cheekily titled “No thank you, Mr. Pecker” — in which he accused AMI of extortion. After the Enquirer story came out, he wrote, he launched his own investigation into how AMI obtained his texts and why the company decided to publish them. He pointed out AMI’s ties to Trump, as well as to the Saudi government, and noted that “federal investigators and legitimate media have of course suspected and proved that Mr. Pecker has used the Enquirer and AMI for political reasons” in the past.

However, Bezos wrote, Pecker was “apoplectic” to learn about Bezos’s investigation. AMI soon threatened to publish selfies sent between Bezos and Sanchez — including the aforementioned “d*ck pic” — unless Bezos issued a public statement saying he had no reason to believe that the Enquirer’s story was politically motivated, Bezos wrote. The Amazon CEO refused, instead publishing what he said were emails sent to him by AMI executives, which described the selfies in detail.

“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here,” Bezos wrote. “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

In a statement, AMI said it would investigate the claims Bezos made in his post.

Meanwhile, AMI could find itself in legal trouble. In September, the company entered into a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in connection with its payout to Karen McDougal, as Jim Rutenberg and Karen Weise write at the New York Times. That payment was determined to be an illegal campaign contribution, but under the agreement, AMI avoided charges — as long as it agreed not to commit any crimes for three years. If the company is found to have acted criminally in its dealings with Bezos, it could be prosecuted not just for that crime but for the campaign contribution as well.

A few days after Bezos published his post, the Daily Beast reported that Michael Sanchez, Lauren Sanchez’s brother, had leaked her texts with Bezos to AMI, according to sources inside the company. As the Daily Beast noted, Sanchez is a vocal Trump supporter with ties to recently indicted Trump adviser Roger Stone. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sanchez is a registered Republican and Hollywood manager who represents a number of conservative figures, including political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes. In a letter to the paper in 2016, he described himself as “a gay man, a Hispanic, a West Hollywood homeowner and strong supporter of Trump.”

According to documents reviewed by the Daily Beast, Sanchez believed the Enquirer went after the Bezos story with “President Trump’s knowledge and appreciation.”

Sanchez, however, told a different story to Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. He claimed that Bezos’s camp was pushing the narrative of a Trump-Enquirer connection to distract the public from the fact that he’d been caught cheating on his wife. He also said that he had been a close adviser to Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, even after news of their relationship became public. Sanchez said that he and Bezos had discussed the possibility of Bezos buying AMI in order to find out who had tipped off the company to the relationship.

Sanchez told Vanity Fair that he was not the source of the nude selfies, but would not say whether he had leaked the other texts. “I’m not saying I didn’t do something,” he said. “Until I go under oath, what I can tell you now is that ever since April 20, when I met Jeff, my only goal has been to protect Jeff and Lauren.”

Meanwhile, he said that the scandal had brought Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, who has not commented publicly on the relationship, closer together.

“The truth will come out about my motivations and how much I believe in Jeff and Lauren’s love,” Michael Sanchez told Vanity Fair. “It’s a legendary romance that will blow your mind as to just how in love they are.”

A spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment to Vanity Fair, and the story includes no comment from Lauren Sanchez. A source told Page Six in early February that Bezos and his girlfriend had been unable to see each other in person for about a month due to the scandal around their relationship, though they had kept in close contact. They were last seen together in public at the Golden Globes on January 6.

Bezos has emerged as the hero of the story — for now

As the story has developed, Bezos has emerged, at least for a time, as an unlikely hero. A billionaire often criticized for his company’s labor practices and stranglehold on the publishing industry, Bezos (at least in his telling) stood up to a bully and won the news cycle.

The National Enquirer and AMI have been at the center of the Trump camp’s efforts to keep potentially damaging information about him out of the public eye. Now, Bezos may have exposed evidence of how they operate.

“These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism,” he wrote, talking about AMI executives’ emails to him. “Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption.”

We may not have seen the last turn in the story yet. And some have pointed out that trying to buy AMI in order to find out the identity of one of its sources would not exactly be the action of a radical transparency advocate.

But for now, Bezos’s post has led to increased scrutiny of a media company with a documented history of hushing things up on behalf of Trump. The president’s dealings with AMI have long looked like an example of a common practice in America, by which wealthy men can pay to keep information about them quiet.

By declining to participate in this system, Bezos appears to have brought it into the open — and what he’s revealed is far more interesting, and potentially far more relevant to the American people, than his sexts.