Jeff Bezos, who was this year named the world’s richest man, has been increasing his profile in the nation’s capital, even as the president has accelerated his attacks on Amazon. | Cliff Owen/AP photo
Amazon’s move to establish a new headquarters in the Washington area will have one immediate political impact: putting CEO Jeff Bezos more in President Donald Trump’s face than ever.
Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post, which he bought back in 2013, has enraged Trump, sparking Twitter-fueled allegations from the president that Amazon is dodging taxes, ripping off the U.S. Postal Service and putting traditional retailers out of business.
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But the CEO’s decision to put down corporate roots in the D.C. suburb of Crystal City, Va., injecting some 25,000 jobs into a region Trump has dubbed the “The Swamp,” threatens to stoke the president’s resentment of the tech mogul.
“Anything that makes Bezos more prominent in Washington is going to irritate Trump and he will take it personally,” said Michael D’Antonio, author of the 2015 Trump biography “Never Enough.” D’Antonio added: “He will think Bezos made this decision to stick it to him.”
Amazon had initially been expected to choose one winner for its second headquarters, but on Tuesday, the company announced two: Crystal City and the Long Island City neighborhood in Queens, New York.
Queens has significance for Trump as well. He grew up there before becoming a New York City real estate developer and reality TV host. But it’s Washington — Trump’s current home — where Amazon’s growth plans could produce the most tension with the president.
Bezos, who was this year named the world’s richest man, has been increasing his profile in the nation’s capital, even as Trump has accelerated his attacks on the company.
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Just days before Trump’s inauguration, it emerged that Bezos was the anonymous buyer of D.C.’s biggest house, a 27,000-square-foot former textile museum. He’s become a regular at some of Washington’s premier social events, like the Alfalfa Club dinner. And the CEO and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, recently entered the political donor class, giving $10 million to a super PAC that aims to elect military veterans to Congress.
But it’s not just D.C.’s social and political circles that interest Bezos; there’s a business calculus for establishing a bigger, flashier presence in the Washington area. The federal government represents a huge potential market for Amazon’s cloud services business. And the e-commerce giant has a growing list of lobbying priorities in Washington, from delivery drones to online privacy to issues like taxes, trade and immigration.
“Do I think he’s going to come in and say my role with headquarters two in Washington is to change Donald Trump? No. He’s here to do business,” said Bobbie Kilberg, the president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, which counts Amazon Web Services as a member.
Bezos’ decision to establish a headquarters in greater Washington, however, will cement his status as an immensely powerful player in D.C. — and an unavoidable presence for Trump.
Even before the announcement, Amazon’s interest in the D.C. area was credited with helping to break the longstanding logjam over funding for the region’s ailing Metro system. Now, Amazon’s pledge of thousands of new corporate jobs could be a stimulus for the local job market, at a time when the White House is seeking to cancel automatic pay raises for 1.8 million federal workers.
Bezos’ flood-the-swamp plan comes amid growing Trump animus toward Amazon. The president equates the company with The Washington Post, which he considers part of the “fake news” media that cover him unfairly. He accuses Amazon of using The Post as a lobbyist to avoid taxes and says the company treats the U.S. Postal Service like its “Delivery Boy.”
The Amazon CEO spent months laying low as Trump ramped up his attacks, but at a dinner in Washington in September, he called the president’s anti-media rhetoric bad for democracy.
“What the president should say is, ‘This is right. This is good. I am glad I am getting scrutinized,'” Bezos said at the event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington. “But it’s really dangerous to demonize the media. It’s dangerous to call the media lowlifes. It’s dangerous to say they’re the ‘enemy of the people.'”
It’s unclear how far Trump will take the feud, now that Amazon is coming to his backyard.
In April, the White House unveiled a task force to examine the budget woes of the financially troubled U.S. Postal Service, amid speculation that the president would use it to target Amazon with higher shipping rates. And Trump has repeatedly suggested that Amazon and other major tech companies are ripe for antitrust scrutiny.
Amazon, though, is poised to expand its influence game in D.C. with the headquarters plan. The company is already one of the biggest tech industry spenders in Washington, shelling out $12.8 million for lobbying in 2017 and maintaining a stable of well-connected lobby firms. But having thousands more workers in the area will undoubtedly give it greater leverage in the capital and its many policy debates.
Bezos himself will likely be a more frequent visitor to the area. The Washingtonian magazine has already chronicled the CEO’s emerging profile as a “freewheeling DC socialite.” The story, complete with an image of Bezos looming over the capital’s skyline, raised the idea that he could fill a role once occupied by the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, bringing prominent decision-makers and thinkers together for salon-like dinners.
“In an ecosystem where power matters more than money or fame, an invitation to the house of the richest man in the world says something,” said Cathy Merrill Williams, the president and publisher of Washingtonian Media.
Trump and Bezos mixed it up even before the 2016 election, when Trump accused Bezos of using The Washington Post as a tax-dodging “scam,” and the Amazon CEO responded cheekily that Trump had “finally trashed” him. Bezos also proposed to have his space flight company, Blue Origin, offer Trump a seat on one of its rockets in a tweet featuring the tongue-in-cheek hashtag #sendDonaldtospace.
After Trump’s victory, Bezos and other tech executives attended an awkward Trump Tower meeting as they made nice with a president-elect they had not supported during the campaign. Amazon later announced it would add 100,000 new “full-time, full-benefit” U.S. jobs, joining other companies in touting domestic growth plans to please the incoming president — and Trump’s transition team promptly took credit for the pledge. Bezos later participated in the White House innovation office led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and attended a White House tech gathering last year.
Still, Trump ramped up his Twitter attacks on Amazon. Just days after sitting near Bezos at the June 2017 summit, the president unleashed the first of many volleys at the company, apparently enraged by Washington Post coverage.
Undaunted, Bezos has continued to pursue Amazon’s agenda in Washington, hosting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Seattle and positioning the company as a top contender for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud services contract known as JEDI. Winning that contract would be a huge victory for the company, solidifying its position as the nation’s leading web services provider.
Expanding in Washington, however, could expose Bezos to other kinds of political risk, making him a more tempting target for the company’s critics.
The CEO last month moved to defuse a source of growing liberal outrage about his company, announcing Amazon would increase the minimum wage it pays its thousands of warehouse workers to $15 per hour.
That appeared to be an effort to appease Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who spent months denouncing the working conditions at Amazon’s network of “fulfillment centers” and asking why one of the world’s most valuable companies couldn’t treat its employees better. Sanders had even introduced a bill called the Stop BEZOS Act, which would require large companies like Amazon to compensate the government when their employees use federal assistance programs like food stamps.
While Bezos sought to lower the temperature on that issue, the dust-up could be a sign of things to come for Amazon as questions accumulate about the company’s business and labor practices and its dominance in the online retail market, which is drawing increasing attention among regulators.
“No one wants to be the brightest spot in the greater Washington area, because it’s just a target and you don’t want that target on your back,” said Jim Dinegar, the longtime head of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “It’s one of the concerns that Amazon has got to have on their list.”
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