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How President Trump is Destroying Freedom of Speech in Corporate America

President Trump, the Right’s poster child of free speech, is actually doing everything he can to restrict it. Throughout his tumultuous administration he has systematically interfered with independent governmental organizations such as the Pentagon, the US Postal Service, and the Justice Department, all with the ultimate consequence of intimidating dissenting opinions in corporate America.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a history of criticizing the President. And Bezos’s newspaper, the Washington Post, shares similar tendencies. Moreover, Bezos is the world’s richest man. He earned his wealth without a $300 million inheritance and is respected in the world of business in a way that Donald Trump never will be. These are just a few of the many reasons why the two are not friends. The President tried to pressure the US Postmaster General to double postage fees for Amazon. He also successfully pressured the Pentagon to give a massive Defense Department contract to Microsoft, despite the fact that Amazon has clear supremacy in the relevant cloud-computing services.

Similarly, CNN President Jeffery Zucker also doesn’t get along too well with Trump. After a fruitful, 20-year-long relationship, the President and Zucker fell out over the fact that CNN, unlike Fox News, refuses to treat Trump like a client, openly reporting on his misdoings. Not surprisingly, the President later pressured the Justice Department to file a lawsuit against the AT&T merger with Time Warner, which owns CNN.

It is more than obvious that the President has made an effort to inhibit the companies of these respective men from major corporate moves. What is a little less clear is just how far he went to achieve his objectives and whether, as Adam Schiff put it, he “use[d] the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta.

Amazon’s case paints a stark picture. The 2019 Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, valued around $10 billion, came down to two bidders: Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure – the companies’ respective sectors for cloud services. AWS has twice the run-rate size of Azure, and has long been understood as the leader in cloud services. AWS’s dollar growth also continues to dwarf that of Azure. For at least the near future, it is hard to envision a world in which Azure can provide services superior to AWS.

The question then remains: why choose Microsoft? According to Former Defense Secretary aid Guy Snodgrass, the President ordered Secretary of Defense James Mattis “to screw Amazon” out of the contract. It’s worth noting that Mattis refutes this. However, Snodgrass doesn’t seem to have any vendetta against Mattis or the President. Both in his book and in later interviews, Snodgrass actually reveals quite a lot of respect for both men, often criticizing the press coverage of the President, who he believes “to the contrary… thinks quickly on his feet and [is capable of] asking piercing questions” during important briefings with the Secretary.

Just recently, a judge ruled in favor of Amazon’s protest to the Department of Defense decision, raising further questions about the legitimacy of Pentagon’s decision. Trump is one of seven individuals that Amazon has requested to depose for the case. Given that the President has proven capable and willing to interfere in the affairs of external departments, and his public dislike for this deal, it seems reasonable to deduce that he has done similar things in this scenario.

The situation between CNN and the President was harrowingly similar. The AT&T-Time Warner merger, valued at around $109 billion, brought CNN into the larger AT&T conglomerate. This helped CNN to grow stronger in the face of a more competitive media environment.

In addition to the personal feud between Zucker and Trump, there are more extensive corporate ties that pit the President against CNN. Rupert Murdoch, who owns CNN’s primary competitor Fox News, is a close friend of Trump – both in public and behind the scenes. In 2002, Fox replaced CNN as the highest-rated cable news network. In 2014, Murdoch tried to buy out CNN with an $85 billion. More importantly, Fox News has increasingly become an organism of the Trumpian state, getting unprecedented access to the White House in return for favorable coverage of the President. By blocking the AT&T merger, Trump stood to harm his personal rival, please his corporate ally, and strengthen his propaganda machine.

Fortunately, the merger went ahead in June of 2018. However, Trump did succeed in pressuring the Justice Department to file an antitrust lawsuit which almost reversed the approval. Recently, more information regarding this pressure has come to light. Beside his public statements that this was “not good for the country,” an unnamed source claimed that the President went much further. Trump told Chief of Staff John Kelly, “I’ve been telling [then director of National Economic Council, Gary] Cohn to get this lawsuit filed… I want that deal blocked!” Even more troubling is how closely incentives align with objectives. Even before this dialogue was reported, the Justice Department was willing to allow the deal if AT&T were to sell off CNN’s parent company from Time Warner. This specific reference to CNN has been one of the main concerns of the case, because it appears to detach from the greater picture of antitrust that the Justice Department alleged to be the reasoning behind their lawsuit.

There has definitely been an element of public and private coercion on the President’s behalf in both cases. This kind of manipulation is a major departure from previous White House precedent. Consider the federal contract awarded to DJT Holdings, LLC to renovate the Washington, DC Old Post Office. The US General Services Administration (GSA) lease was approved under the Obama administration despite Donald J. Trump’s lead role in the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the US, once saying that “growing up nobody knew [who Obama was].” This is how federal contracts are supposed to work; the GSA made its own decision on which company was best suited to fulfill the task. The President’s personal agenda should not interfere.

One is compelled to ask: why bother? Why would President Trump waste so much time and political effort meddling in the corporate affairs of people he doesn’t like? One possibility is that he is just incredibly petty, which could surely be true. However, it is more likely that he has a greater purpose in mind. 

Trump wants to send a message to powerful figures in the corporate world: do not oppose him, or he will make you suffer. Particularly, he wants to target figures who have influential roles in the media, like the owners of The Washington Post and CNN.

The problem is that Trump’s meddling tactics are working. CEOs across the United States are scared to speak out. There’s been a growing rift of fear that has prevented these powerful businessmen from acting in the way they would otherwise see fit. Just take a look at the reaction to the Charlottesville riots, and Trump’s shocking inability to condemn white supremacists. After one Black CEO resigned in protest, it took about an hour for Trump to unleash on Twitter. This type of antagonism and the cases discussed in this argument are all part of the President’s silencing campaign. Many other CEOs later posted ambiguous messages in response to Charlottesville, avoiding direct disapproval of the President.

Free speech is the ability to speak your mind without fear of legal retribution. But how real is that freedom if the world’s most powerful man can turn the instruments of his state against you?

Photo: Image via Flickr (Michael Vadon)