Another example of government retaliation against companies: the Amazon/JEDI contract situation
- February 10, 2020
Protect Democracy Files Brief in Support of Amazon’s JEDI Contract Lawsuit
President Trump’s Pattern of Retaliation Against Amazon and Other Companies Casts Shadow on Contract Decision and Harms Democracy
WASHINGTON, DC – On Monday, Protect Democracy submitted a friend of the court brief in Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) bid protest lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Amazon alleges that the DOD’s award of a $10 billion JEDI Cloud contract to Microsoft was influenced by pressure from President Trump, who has publicly and repeatedly expressed his personal disdain for Amazon, its CEO Jeff Bezos, and The Washington Post, which Bezos owns.
While Protect Democracy does not take sides on which company should get the contract, it filed a brief in support of AWS’s motion to supplement the record with evidence that would uncover President Trump’s role in DOD’s decision. Protect Democracy’s brief explains that the JEDI contract award is just the latest episode in President Trump’s pattern of using government power to retaliate against companies that displease him—particularly media companies—and that the courts should ensure that he complies with his constitutional duties. In short, the President should not be using government contracting decisions to reward allies and punish perceived enemies.
The brief is available here.
“Retaliating against corporations, media, and anyone who expresses dissent has been a recurrent theme of the Trump administration, so it’s not unreasonable for Amazon to believe that it lost the JEDI contract because of the President’s personal animus toward the company and Mr. Bezos,” said Kristy Parker, Counsel for Protect Democracy. “Punishing and stifling speech is a common tactic of anti-democratic governments, like in Hungary. We cannot allow such behavior to go unchecked in the United States. The court should order DOD to turn over all relevant information about how this contract decision was made.”
In its complaint, Amazon alleges that DOD committed “blatant” and “inexplicable” violations of procurement law, saying, “Under escalating and overt pressure from President Trump, DoD departed from the rules of procurement and complied—consciously or subconsciously—with its Commander in Chief’s expressed desire to reject AWS’s superior bid.” That pressure is demonstrated by numerous comments critical of Amazon or Jeff Bezos that the President has made since his presidential campaign began in 2015, including a remark about the JEDI contract itself.
In a July 2019 press conference, a reporter asked Trump directly, “Is there any chance that you might intervene in that contract,” to which he responded, “I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon. … And I will be asking them to look at it very closely to see what’s going on because I have had very few things where there’s been such complaining. Not only complaining from the media—or at least asking questions about it from the media—but complaining from different companies like Microsoft and Oracle and IBM. Great companies are complaining about it. So we’re going to take a look at it. We’ll take a very strong look at it.”
Prior to that statement, Trump accused Bezos in 2016 of trying to buy “political influence” with his purchase of The Washington Post and said of Amazon, “If I become president—oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.” He also has tweeted that Amazon pays “little or no taxes,” evades non-existent “internet taxes,” damages “towns, cities, and states,” and is a “no profit company,” triggering temporary drops in Amazon’s stock price. In 2018, after accusing Amazon of taking advantage of low postal rates, he initiated a government review to hike those rates.
Protect Democracy’s friend of the court brief notes that President Trump has repeatedly violated his oath of office, and his fundamental duty to faithfully execute the laws, by using his office to punish his critics—particularly his perceived political opponents and those in the media. He has interfered with White House press access; threatened to revoke broadcast licenses; and revoked the White House press credentials and security clearances of certain media commentators. (Protect Democracy represents PEN America, an organization of writers and literary professionals, in a lawsuit alleging that the president’s threats to use—and actual use of—government power to punish the speech of critics in the media violates the First Amendment. More information on that case is here.)
The President also has interfered in the workings of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to punish perceived critics. In 2017, he pressured DOJ to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner—the parent company of what a Trump campaign press release once called “the wildly anti-Trump” CNN. This followed his claims that he has “an absolute right to do what I want to do with” the DOJ, including firing federal officials to protect himself from criminal investigation, as he did with then-FBI Director James Comey and attempted to do with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Experts on authoritarianism have observed that autocrats across the world use similar strategies to accrue and maintain power. A group of historians and political scientists recently warned in a different legal brief that harming the business interests of media companies is a core part of that strategy, often referred to as the “autocratic playbook.”
“Interference with federal agency decisions, including contract decisions, is a standard tactic autocrats use to stifle dissent and wield control over the business community,” said NYU Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on fascism and authoritarianism. “This is dangerous for our democracy, and it’s terrible for our business community.”
The friend of the court brief is here. More information about Protect Democracy’s lawsuit on behalf of PEN America is here.
Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.