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What's Driving Trump's Attacks on Amazon? It's Personal

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/7/2018 Peter Nicholas
Jeff Bezos, Donald J. Trump are posing for a picture © Provided by The Wall Street Journal.

Early in President Donald Trump’s term, when White House officials heard him complain vociferously about Amazon.com Inc. they arranged private briefings in the Oval Office to make sure that he would talk knowledgeably about the company.

Gary Cohn, his top economic adviser, and other officials gave PowerPoint presentations and briefing papers they believed debunked his concerns that Amazon was dodging taxes and exploiting the U.S. Postal Service.

It made little difference. Mr. Trump persisted in attacks that ran counter to the material they had showed him.

“It’s not the narrative he wants,” one person familiar with the matter said of the White House briefings.  “He clearly didn’t find it persuasive because he keeps saying it’s untrue.”

In the past week, the president has turned what were sporadic and often private criticisms into a sustained volley of tweets against the company, often causing stock market fluctuations.

Fueling Mr. Trump’s ire is not so much Amazon, the online giant that is revamping the retail industry, but the company’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, people close to the White House say.

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Mr. Trump sees Mr. Bezos’s hand in newspaper coverage he dislikes and is lashing out at Amazon as a proxy, these people said.

A Post spokeswoman, asked for a response, referred to quotes from the paper’s leadership in a story published Thursday. In that piece, publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. said that Mr. Bezos has “never proposed a story.”

“Jeff has never intervened in a story. He’s never critiqued a story. He’s not directed or proposed editorials or endorsements,” Mr. Ryan said.

Amazon declined to comment. But the company says it collects sales taxes on its own inventory in all 45 states that have this type of tax and has voluntarily started collecting taxes in some municipalities. Many small businesses selling products on Amazon’s site don’t collect sales taxes outside of the states where they are based.

Still, the president stepped up his attack on Thursday, tweeting about the company and telling reporters aboard an Air Force One flight home from West Virginia: “Amazon is just not on an even playing field. They have a tremendous lobbying effort, in addition to having the Washington Post, which is, as far as I’m concerned, another lobbyist.”

“Look at the sales tax situation,” Mr. Trump added, suggesting the company doesn’t pay its fair share of them.

Mr. Trump’s most recent statements prompted White House aides to go back to him this week to tell him his Amazon critique might be “missing the point,” a White House official said. In response, Mr. Trump has been “digging in,” this person said.

In past briefings, Mr. Trump’s advisers have told him how Amazon pays taxes, the person familiar with the matter said.

The president’s advisers similarly have presented financial data that shows the Postal Service’s financial woes are being caused by forces other than Amazon: notably that people are sending far fewer letters.

The Postal Service has suffered a decline in revenue from first class mail delivery of about 7% in the fiscal year that ended in November. Meantime, it has had strong growth in package delivery, the category that would account for Amazon and many other online retailers, with revenue growing 11% during the same fiscal year to November.

Mr. Trump’s disdain for the media isn’t limited to the Post. He also routinely denounces the New York Times, CNN and other outlets as “fake news.”

The president’s most recent flurry of tweets targeting Amazon has coincided with publication of Washington Post stories he dislikes.

Over the past week, Mr. Trump has privately complained about two particular Post stories, White House aides and others said: a March 30 article that documented problems at a White House office that vets political appointees and another the following day that depicted Mr. Trump acting more independently of chief of staff John Kelly and other “moderating forces.”

During a long weekend at his home at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump complained to his staff about the latter story, a White House official said. The president said it didn’t capture how he is growing more comfortable in the job.

The president had targeted Amazon the day before the first of the two stories appeared, and then sent off five more anti-Amazon tweets through Thursday, sprinkling in criticism of the “Fake News Washington Post.”

Privately, Mr. Trump has “talked about the fact that the Washington Post is solely owned by Jeff Bezos and he [Mr. Bezos] is using that same entity to take on the president and the administration,” said one person who talks to Mr. Trump regularly.

Another person close to the White House said: “Every time there was a bad story it [Amazon] would come up.”

Once Mr. Trump identifies a foe, he attacks, confidants said.

Asked about the president and Mr. Bezos, Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Mr. Trump, said: “The president’s view is, ‘You want to play with me in the sandbox, then you better put on your helmet, pack a lunch and bring your flashlight.’”

What’s not clear is whether Mr. Trump will take actions that would harm Amazon’s business interests.

The company is now vying for a U.S. defense contract potentially worth $10 billion to shift computer services from mainframes to the cloud.

The contract came up in conversation at a private dinner in the White House with Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor, who brought along Oracle Corp. co-CEO Safra Catz, an Amazon rival, a White House official said.

Before the Tuesday dinner, aides privately briefed Mr. Trump and told him Ms. Catz might want to talk to him about the defense contract. He was advised not to engage, but rather to tell her the contract was up to the Defense Department.

Ms. Catz brought the matter up, saying the Pentagon’s process seemed to favor Amazon. Mr. Trump replied that the contract wasn’t up to him but would be awarded by department officials, the White House official said.

Yet in his talk with reporters aboard the plane, Mr. Trump suggested some form of action against Amazon may be taken but didn’t specify what it would address.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “The post office is not doing well with Amazon. … The playing field has to be leveled.”

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

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