Jeffrey P. Bezos has long guarded his personal privacy and that of his businesses with vehemence. Amazon kept major initiatives, such as the Kindle e-reader, secret for years. His space venture, Blue Origin, once had a rocket crash but didn’t report the mishap for days. Visitors to the space company’s headquarters have been routinely asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, even if just visiting for a holiday party.
This quest for privacy imploded in recent weeks as Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man and the owner of The Washington Post, faced perhaps the most personal crisis of his career. The National Enquirer published a series of stories, including intimate texts and photos, about his extramarital relationship with a former TV anchor, prompting Bezos and his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie Bezos, to announce their planned divorce over Twitter.
Then, according to a blog post Bezos published Thursday, the tabloid threatened to blackmail him with additional photographs of Bezos and the woman he was dating. He responded in the blog post by including copies of Enquirer emails detailing the alleged threat. The move revealed graphic descriptions of what the images showed.
The Enquirer on Friday said it had only been engaged in “good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him” and would investigate the claims by Bezos before taking “whatever appropriate action is necessary.”
The blog post Thursday night startled many in the technology industry and beyond, quickly spreading to internal online forums at Amazon, the company he founded in 1994 and for which he remains chief executive, board chairman and the largest shareholder.
But some longtime associates and observers also considered his confrontation with the Enquirer to be a classic Bezos move. As Amazon’s CEO, he has relished the chance to rewrite the script when it came to managing public relations. Perhaps even more so, he has thrived on seeking to vanquish rivals, whether they be corporate behemoths such as Walmart or upstarts such as Diapers.com. With the Enquirer, Bezos has twice seized the initiative by essentially scooping the tabloid, revealing news of his divorce and of the additional pictures before its reporters could.
Even as the controversy has grown, Bezos has been spotted in public settings looking jovial, as he did when he appeared briefly on national television during the Super Bowl, standing and chatting near NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He appeared last month at the annual dinner of the Alfalfa Club in Washington, a black-tie event that attracts some of the city’s biggest names.
“He is playing his hand as well as he can, given what has been made public,” said Shel Kaphan, the first Amazon employee after Bezos and his wife. The “damage is done and I think he probably calculates correctly that it isn’t going to get measurably worse for him if the photos come out.”
Kaphan added, “It would be very typical of Jeff to strategically weigh his options in a detached way and pick the one that would leave him in the best position or minimize further damage to him.”
Bezos, who declined an interview request made through Amazon officials Friday, typically is described as cerebral, ruthless and relentless as a businessman, with a particular ability to focus on long-term goals in the face of short-term pain.
Bezos and his company have faced multiple controversies during his public life. In Amazon’s early years, it faced skepticism over whether the company could ever turn a profit and survive. But he relentlessly focused on underpricing competitors and other customer innovations, earning the trust of investors that one day Amazon would make money.
In 2015, when the New York Times published a detailed investigation describing a “bruising” workplace culture at Amazon, the company responded with a 1,300-word blog post detailing what the company argued were flaws in the story’s reporting. Jay Carney, Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs and former press secretary to President Barack Obama, titled the response, “What The New York Times Didn’t Tell You,” and engaged in an tit-for-tat exchange with the Times’s executive editor over the coverage.
In more recent years, as lawmakers have raised questions about whether Amazon was compensating its workers enough and other aspects of its business model, the company made announcements of plans to hire 100,000 new workers and, later, to introduce a $15 minimum wage. Amazon spent $14 million on lobbying last year, a record for the company.
Bezos in recent years has raised his public profile. He bought The Post and the biggest home in Washington, and has appeared at entertainment award shows and high-profile rocket launches. He even drew attention for a more muscular physique and more refined wardrobe than earlier in his life.
His ownership of The Post has led to clashes with candidate and now President Trump, who has argued that the Amazon founder bought The Post to advance his financial interests. When Trump was a candidate in December 2015 and criticized Bezos in several tweets, he replied on Twitter. “Finally trashed by @realDonaldTrump. Will still reserve him a seat on the Blue Origin rocket. #sendDonaldtospace.”
He largely has avoided further clashes with Trump, though he has said it is wrong of elected officials “to demonize the media.”
Trump has from time to time continued to criticize Bezos. After the Enquirer published its article on Bezos’s expected divorce, 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!”
In publicly challenging the Enquirer, Bezos gambled in a way that’s rare in a corporate world where the more common approach could be to protect valuable businesses from controversies before they might spread in unpredictable ways. The stakes are particularly high for a man who has drawn the ire of an aggressive publisher that thrives on controversy and whose chief executive is David J. Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump. Pecker has received immunity from prosecution as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into campaign finance violations by Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Bezos wrote in the post on Medium, a self-publishing site, “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
The accusations about the Enquirer’s reporting came at a critical time for Bezos’s empire, which increasingly has sought to work with the federal government. Amazon Web Services, which holds a $600 million cloud computing contract from the CIA, is vying for a $10 billion contract to build a cloud computing system for the Pentagon. Late last year, Blue Origin won its first major government contract, a $500 million deal from the Air Force to help develop its New Glenn rocket.
“As a billionaire, he can afford to take the risk to respond this way,” said Jim Lukaszewski, a crisis consultant based in Minneapolis. “He skipped all the steps that get people in trouble . . . This neutralizes the power of this predator.”
Bezos, who bought The Post in 2013 for $250 million, said in his online post Thursday that owning the news organization is “a complexifier” in his decisions about how to respond to political and other pressure. At a technology conference in 2016, he said that he admired Katharine Graham, the Post’s late publisher who supported the newsroom’s Watergate coverage even when a Nixon associate threatened that she was “gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particular story was published.
“With Kay Graham as my role model, I’m very willing to let any of my body parts go through a big, fat ringer if need be,” Bezos said at the conference.
However this clash with the Enquirer turns out, it has revealed elements of Bezos’s personality not widely known before, including a degree of personal indiscretion that has surprised longtime associates and observers.
Bezos and his romantic partner, former TV anchorwoman Lauren Sanchez, appeared together in public, including at the Golden Globe Awards, before publicly announcing an end to his marriage to MacKenzie Bezos, a fiction writer who helped him found Amazon. The couple have four children together.
While extramarital affairs are hardly novel, some Bezos watchers expressed surprise that he would send provocative text messages given the ease of copying and sharing them with others.
Bezos amassed a fortune of more than $125 billion running a technology company at a time when such breaches of personal privacy were becoming routine. Bezos long has preached within Amazon that personal actions by employees — and there is no more visible one than Bezos — can reflect poorly on a company, said his biographer Brad Stone, author of “The Everything Store.”
“It’s kind of inexplicable considering his messages inside the company,” Stone said. “This was somebody who has been careful and strategic about every move in his personal and professional life over 50-plus years.”
Once the affair was exposed, Bezos’s response comes right out of the playbook of his longtime security consultant, Gavin de Becker. In “The Gift of Fear,” he wrote that “extortion is a crime of opportunity, usually committed by amateurs.”
De Becker added that when someone threatens to reveal marital infidelity, the best response is to say, “Hold on a moment, let me get my wife on the line and you can tell her right now.”
The immediate pain, he wrote, is better than a prolonged period of blackmail during which the damaging information may ultimately be revealed anyway.
For much of his career, Bezos personally avoided the limelight, and the penchant for secrecy extended to his company and to his philanthropic endeavors. Until 2018, when he announced a $2 billion commitment to support preschoolers and the homeless, he had said very little about what he planned to do with his fortune.
Bezos also is known for staying silent on quarterly earnings calls with analysts and investors, and the company has banned recording, typing and photography at its shareholder meetings. Reporters at such meetings were allowed only to take handwritten notes.
“I never think of us as secretive,” Bezos once said at a meeting in response to questions about these practices. “We’re just quiet . . . We talk when we have something to say.”
Blue Origin, his space company, also has kept a low profile, even though space is one of his main passions and now comprises, as he has said, “the most important work I’m doing.” That included not revealing a 2011 crash until urged to by NASA, which had begun to worry about conspiracy theories spreading among those who noticed that something had gone awry.
In the early 2000s, Bezos started quietly acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres in West Texas, where Blue Origin now launches its New Shepard rocket. He purchased the land under corporate entities named for explorers. There was Joliet Holdings and Cabot Enterprises, the James Cook and William Clark Limited Partnerships and Coronado Ventures.
All were linked to a firm with a Seattle post office called Zefram LLC, named for Zefram Cochrane, a character in the Star Trek franchise. As he was scouting the land, a helicopter carrying Bezos crash-landed in a creek, flooding the cabin with water before he and others could escape. Later, he would say that “it was harrowing. We were very lucky. I can’t believe we all walked away from it.”
At the time, Amazon downplayed the crash, saying only that Bezos “is fine. We’re business as usual.”