- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 16, 2020

President Trump and the Pentagon scored a big victory this week when a watchdog report found Defense Department officials followed the law in awarding a massive military cloud computing contract to Microsoft — but the battle is far from over as rival Amazon and other critics train their fire at the White House and charge that the president’s use of executive privilege raises even more questions.

The fight between the Trump administration and Amazon Web Services already is set to play out in court as the tech giant, whose owner Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post, alleges that the president and his top aides pressured the Defense Department to steer the 10-year, $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract to Microsoft.

But this week’s Pentagon inspector general report, which had been expected to tamp down controversy and provide some closure to a nagging scandal, has added fresh fuel to the fire.

The release of the review also came just days after the president removed acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine from his post, leading some Democrats to suggest that Mr. Fine was removed while asking uncomfortable questions about the JEDI process.

Rather than offer answers, Amazon and its backers on Capitol Hill say the IG review has put a fresh spotlight on Mr. Trump’s deep disdain for the company, which he’s routinely bashed for what the president says is a record of avoiding federal taxes and profiting off of cheap delivery of goods by the Postal Service.

In a harsh statement issued Wednesday, Amazon highlighted the fact that the IG report didn’t actually address whether the company or rival Microsoft was best positioned to handle the JEDI program, which is a central part of the military’s 21st-century strategy to deliver real-time data to personnel stationed all over the world. Instead, they cast the report as more damning evidence that the president has something to hide.

“It’s clear that this report couldn’t assess political interference because several DoD witnesses were instructed by the White House not to answer the IG’s questions about communications between the White House and DoD officials,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “The White House’s refusal to cooperate with the IG’s investigation is yet another blatant attempt to avoid a meaningful and transparent review of the JEDI contract award.”

While the IG report found that the Pentagon followed proper procedures in awarding the contract last year, it also flatly stated that they were unable to fully assess White House involvement in the process because of “presidential communications privilege” that blocked interviews with key Defense Department personnel.

Both the White House and the Pentagon have steadfastly denied that any political pressure went into the JEDI contract decision, but rumors of backroom dealings have persisted for months. A top aide to former Defense Secretary James Mattis, Guy Snodgrass, claimed in a recent book that Mr. Trump told Mr. Mattis to “screw Amazon” out of the award.

The White House and Pentagon have vehemently denied that allegation.

Defense Department officials say the IG report is evidence that they acted properly. The Pentagon statement also suggested that the company has been pushing vicious attacks on the integrity of the contract process.

“This report should finally close the door on the media and corporate-driven attacks on the career procurement officials who have been working tirelessly” on the JEDI program, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Robert Carver said in a statement.

The legal headaches surrounding the JEDI contract have frustrated military officials eager to begin work on the revolutionary new system to improve the military’s less-than-state-of-the-art communications and data networks.

The JEDI contract will cover the storage and processing of huge amounts of classified Pentagon data, and Microsoft will now be linked in an unprecedented high-tech partnership with the Defense Department.

Amazon and Microsoft were the only two companies left in the running by the time of last October’s award.

Ironically, for much of 2019 Amazon was widely expected to win the award and another early competitor, Oracle Corp., filed its own lawsuit alleging that the Pentagon had structured the contract in a way that favored Amazon. That case was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge.

As that debate played out, Mr. Trump publicly waded into the case and said he’d examine reports of favoritism toward Amazon.

“I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon. They’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid,” the president said last July. “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.”

In legal filings earlier this year, Amazon asked a federal judge to allow the company’s lawyers to depose Mr. Trump, and powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill now say there are key questions that must be answered.

“The White House’s assertion of some kind of ‘communications’ privilege is part of a pattern of refusing to answer questions and ethical lapses by a president who wants no independent oversight and is firing inspectors general left and right,” said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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