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Jeff Bezos Cast in a Role He Never Wanted: Amazon’s D.C. Defender

WASHINGTON — Last September, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, rattled off terrifying statistics about the warming planet from the storied National Press Club, two blocks from the White House. Then he said he had something exciting to announce.

But when he uncovered a towering sign with the news, Amazon’s name was nowhere in sight. Instead, the sign introduced the Climate Pledge, a project to reduce carbon emissions from companies. Yes, Amazon would be the first, and at the time only, signatory. But this was a bigger push, Mr. Bezos said.

It was Amazon news, couched as something grander.

The event reflected Mr. Bezos’ approach to the nation’s capital. He has jumped at opportunities to cast himself as a statesman — the savior of The Washington Post, who holds court among the country’s elite. At the same time, he has eschewed the day-to-day grind of bolstering Amazon’s influence with policymakers.

But that changes on Wednesday, when Mr. Bezos testifies before Congress for the first time. He will be joined by the chief executives of Alphabet, Apple and Facebook as part of lawmakers’ investigations into the power of the largest tech companies. He is expected to face an onslaught of critiques, with questions as varied as Amazon’s labor conditions and market power and his status as the richest person in the world.

It’s the kind of appearance Mr. Bezos had steadfastly avoided.

“It’s not traditional lobbying,” Steve Case, the America Online co-founder, said of how Mr. Bezos, whom he considers an old friend, had approached Washington until now. “It is much more of a longer-term relationship-building — a little bit of a reputation-building — effort that has to be sustained over decades.”

Amazon declined to comment on Mr. Bezos.

He arrived in Washington with a splash in 2013, when he bought The Washington Post from its longtime owners for $250 million and gave the paper new life. In 2016, Mr. Bezos bought the biggest home in the city, a 27,000-square-foot manse that used to be a museum in the Kalorama neighborhood, where former President Barack Obama and other political leaders live.

ImageMr. Bezos’ $250 million purchase of The Washington Post seven years ago marked his arrival in the capital.
Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

While Mr. Bezos’ presence in the city grew, so did Amazon’s, as it began pouring money into the traditional modes of influencing policymakers. It spent $16.8 million on federal lobbying in 2019, up from less than $10 million in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, it gave $11.1 million to think tanks and associations, more than twice as much as the previous year, according to its disclosures. In 2018, it selected Crystal City, Va., a Metro ride away from Washington, as the site of its second headquarters.

Mr. Bezos occasionally appeared in support of the company’s efforts. In 2017, for example, he was interviewed by the head of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents Amazon and other tech giants, at its annual gala.

But as he does with many parts of Amazon, Mr. Bezos took a hands-off approach with its policy and communications group, which has grown to more than 800 employees globally. He’d come through Washington for the annual Amazon board meeting, with a few quiet visits sprinkled throughout the year.

He has avoided high-profile meetings with his company’s sharpest critics, like the one Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, held a few weeks ago with organizers of an ad boycott of his company. Mr. Bezos has not made a habit of glad-handing worried lawmakers, the way Sundar Pichai, who runs Alphabet, Google’s parent company, did in 2018. And unlike Tim Cook of Apple, Mr. Bezos has not developed a close relationship with President Trump.

The work of Amazon’s political relations was left to other executives. In 2013, when Mr. Obama toured an Amazon warehouse, it was Dave Clark, a rising star at the company, who showed him around. In more recent years, Jay Carney, Mr. Obama’s former press secretary, has become the face of Amazon’s interactions with lawmakers.

Mr. Carney was the one who called Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to say Amazon was backing out on its commitment to place a second headquarters in the state after facing a backlash from local activists and politicians. And he managed the crisis when Senator Bernie Sanders, the progressive independent from Vermont, pushed the company to raise its minimum wage.

When Mr. Trump was still a long-shot candidate, Mr. Bezos tweeted that he wanted to “#sendDonaldtospace.” But since Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Bezos has remained quiet even as the president attacked The Washington Post, stating, without providing evidence, that the paper was doing Amazon’s bidding. The newspaper is owned privately by Mr. Bezos, not Amazon.

Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times

“Jeff kind of shrugs his shoulders and says it kind of goes with the territory,” Mr. Case said. “I’m sure he doesn’t like it, but he takes it.”

By 2018, Washingtonian magazine reported that Mr. Bezos had “quietly become a freewheeling D.C. socialite” alongside a photo illustration that showed him towering over the Washington Monument. Washington Life — which breathlessly tracks the area’s wealthy residents — named him one of the 100 most powerful people in the city. In November, he received an award at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery gala, which had commissioned his portrait for its collection.

Mr. Bezos’ celebrity has also increased in recent years. Last year, he announced that he and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, were divorcing, which was followed days later by a National Enquirer exposé of an extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former television host. Then he accused the tabloid of “extortion and blackmail,” saying it had threatened to publish lewd photos unless he said the outlet, which is close to the White House, was not politically motivated in reporting on his relationships.

In January, he finally debuted his mansion, hosting prominent figures in politics and business. The invitations, sent from an email address at The Post, were signed simply “Jeff.”

Mingling in the home’s downstairs area and terraced backyard, the guests included administration figures like Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner; corporate titans like Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase; and cultural celebrities like the actor Ben Stiller.

Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, was there as well. “It’s very much consistent with its original design and is tastefully done,” he said of the house a few weeks later.

Mr. Romney said he had spoken only briefly with Mr. Bezos at the party to thank him for his hospitality but said he had gotten to talk with another notable guest, Bill Gates, about climate change and nuclear power.

“So it was most enjoyable,” Mr. Romney said.

The environment on the Hill this week is likely to be far less hospitable. Mr. Bezos’ wealth has grown by more than $50 billion in recent months, just as unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic, making him an avatar for inequality. Questions about Amazon’s dominance have also grown louder, as more Americans have been forced to shop online because of the coronavirus. Warehouse workers have said that Amazon is putting them at risk of contracting the virus in the company’s pursuit of speedy deliveries.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Even as the concerns of politicians became more pronounced, Amazon resisted sending Mr. Bezos before Congress. The company agreed to send him after lawmakers threatened to subpoena his testimony.

“No one is above the law, no matter how rich or powerful,” Representative David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, said in a May tweet.

Mr. Case said lawmakers should not expect Mr. Bezos to get rattled. He recalled when Mr. Bezos appeared onstage two years ago at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., with David Rubenstein, a private equity magnate. Mr. Bezos expounded on a variety of topics, including his just-announced $2 billion fund to support education and the homeless.

Mr. Case, who shared a table at the event with Mr. Bezos’ parents, said that many people in the room did not know Mr. Bezos, but that they had left impressed. Mr. Bezos bounced between clearly prepared talking points and “unplugged Jeff just being Jeff,” Mr. Case said. “His best ambassador is himself.”

David McCabe reported from Washington, and Karen Weise from Seattle.