The Insidious Treachery Behind the Trump Administration's Slanderous Lies About Amazon

The Insidious Treachery Behind the Trump Administration’s Slanderous Lies About Amazon

On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did a pretty common thing. She took to social media to complain about a product or service she had received. As a mother of three, you might have thought Sanders was doing a public service with her warning about Amazon’s Echo device. But even if it had been true, she crossed an ethical line by making her warning an official act of the White House Press Secretary. Not the personal act of a concerned mom.

Like many professionals, Sanders has personal and professional social media accounts. She has a personal Twitter account (@SarahHuckabee) which has 165K followers. Other than some occasional retweets, she has not tweeted from this personal account since late July 2017. This coincides with her elevation to Press Secretary. Sanders professional Twitter account (@PressSec) has 2.53M followers and tweets numerous times daily.

Sanders posted a picture of the Amazon order confirmation on her official Twitter feed, along with the her allegation.

Alexa, Was Sarah Huckabee Sanders Lying… Again?

Even if Sanders did not have a recent history of lying, the claim would still be dubious. In early 2017, there was a similar claim by a mother in Texas. Megan Neitzel alleged Amazon’s Echo ordered a $170 dollhouse and tin of sugar cookies. Her daughter had asked Alexa to play dollhouse with her. Making matters worse were reports that other Echo devices overheard television news reports on the incident. Which then, allegedly, repeated Alexa’s unwanted dollhouse and cookie purchases on behalf of other unwilling consumers.

But for all those supposed victims, myth debunking site Snopes was unable to identify any consumers who unwittingly ordered products. They were also unable to replicate the child’s alleged original order. At the time, Amazon provided the following statement:

You must ask Alexa to order a product and then confirm the purchase with a “yes” response to purchase via voice. If you asked Alexa to order something on accident, simply say “no” when asked to confirm. You can also manage your shopping settings in the Alexa app, such as turning off voice purchasing or requiring a confirmation code before every order. Additionally, orders you place for physical products are eligible for free returns.

This information is also repeated on Amazon’s website. A purchase require a specific intent to order AND a verbal confirmation. Purchases can be cancelled if made by mistake, or returned for free if not cancelled before shipping.

In Sanders’ case, tech site Gizmodo attempted to replicate the order under the conditions Sanders referenced, and by using many similar phrases a two-year old might try. Only “Order Batman” provoked a purchase attempt, and even that would have required additional confirmation steps. A Twitter user got in on the efforts, and recorded a video of his attempts, and Alexa’s responses.

Gizmodo’s experiments led them to make a pretty serious accusation based on their evaluation of the Sanders’ claim:

“Sarah Huckabee Sanders Is Probably Making Up This Crap About Alexa Ordering a Batman Toy.”

Alexa, How Hot Is The Water?

But there is more to the story than just a lie, and it could have the Press Secretary in some hot water.

As noted, Sanders used her official government Twitter account to levy the accusation against Amazon’s Alexa. The Office of Government Ethics offers the following prohibition on endorsements:

An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority
associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise.

Walter Schaub, former director of the United States Office of Government Ethics under President Obama and in the early days of the Trump administration (until Schaub resigned) tweeted several expert suggestions on the matter.

It would certainly appear Sanders committed an ethics violation by tweeting such a negative review of a product from her official government account. The key, as Schaub notes, is the “useless” ethics office of the Trump administration. As with most ethical violations by Trump officials, this will likely be met with a only a warning or reprimand, but no substantive punishment. Schaub also expressed concern that Sanders’ behavior might lead other government employees into ethics violations.

Alexa, Why Does Donald Trump Hate You?

But there is also a third component to Sanders’ misbehavior, beyond the lying and ethical violation. Was this allegation politically motivated? President Trump has certainly targeted Amazon frequently. He accused them of not paying internet taxes, despite internet taxes not being a real thing and Amazon collecting sales taxes nationwide.

President Trump has also repeatedly targeted the Washington Post, which like Amazon, is owned by Jeff Bezos. Just before the 2016 primary season began, Trump linked Amazon and the Washington Post, while accusing Bezos of seeking to avoid taxes.

Amazon was profitable at the time of Trump’s tweet and has recorded profits in all seven quarters since. Remember also, Trump later called himself “smart” during a presidential debate for finding ways to reduce (or avoid) taxes.

Trump also linked the two enterprises when called Amazon a tax shelter in a related tweet.

More recently, Trump urged the United States Postal Service to raise the rates it charges Amazon for shipping.

 

As usual, Trump’s big mouth and his need to make promises he likely cannot deliver form the root of the problem. At a rally during the 2016 primaries, Trump accused Bezos (and the Washington Post) of being biased and issued this warning.

“He owns Amazon. He wants political influence so Amazon will benefit from it. That’s not right. And believe me, if I become president, oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”

It sure looks like President Trump has worked diligently to keep that campaign promise to punish Amazon for Jeff Bezos’ other business endeavors. Could the very public complaint by Press Secretary Sanders be a way to curry favor with the President by piling on his favorite foil? Maybe the accusation stems from Jeff Bezos fortune this month reaching a level where he is now the richest man in history? That would only apply if Trump were the jealous type who thought money was the way a man’s value was assessed though. And if he constantly sought to reinforce his ego by judging himself superior to others?

Last month, when Trump tweeted about Amazon and the Postal Service, Bloomberg wrote the following assessment.

“As with prior missives targeting the company, Trump’s message appeared to concern investors. “

Bloomberg found a direct link between Trump’s attacks on Amazon and a decline in the share price of Amazon’s stock. The President of the United States and his Press Secretary are publicly criticizing an American company adding jobs every month. This is done to further a political vendetta, and in some cases, in violation of ethics rules. The behavior of the President and members of his administration have a direct, negative impact not only on Amazon’s stock price, but on the portfolios of everyday Americans who hold Amazon stock personally or as a component of a 401k.  Perhaps the President should have been more clear during the campaign that his promise to “Make America Great Again” only applied to the parts of America he likes?

 

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Dave Weaver is a freelance political journalist and author. Born in Pennsylvania, which was home most of his life, Dave has called Maryland, New York, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio, and Maine home over the last decade. All the wandering has allowed Dave to experience America (and Americans) from a variety of perspectives. For a political junkie, the insights gained from this exposure are invaluable.