Trump holds his fire on Twitter as Amazon and Bezos do battle to win key defence deal

President Trump with Jeff Bezos, far right, and Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft, during the American Technology Council round-table event hosted at the White House in 2017
President Trump with Jeff Bezos, far right, and Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft, during the American Technology Council round-table event hosted at the White House in 2017

Donald Trump often tweets about the many ways he dislikes and its founder Jeff Bezos – from the president’s contention that the online merchant has a sweetheart deal with the US Postal Service to Bezos’s ownership of what Trump calls “the Amazon Washington Post”.

Yet Trump hasn’t tweeted a word about the $10bn Pentagon cloud contract that technology rivals complain Amazon is favoured to win.

The impulsive president could weigh in anytime, but there’s probably a good reason for his reticence so far: criticism from the commander-in-chief probably wouldn’t derail the deal, and it might even help deliver it to Amazon.

“If it were demonstrated that Amazon was denied the opportunity based on the president’s business interests or inappropriate criteria, that would raise eyebrows,” said Steven Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School with expertise in government procurement.

Strict regulations govern what federal agencies can consider when awarding a competitive contract. If Amazon lost the deal after Trump interfered, the Seattle-based company could have grounds to challenge the decision, according to Schooner and other government-contracting experts.

The Pentagon is sticking with its plan to pick a single winner for the contract that it calls the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure cloud, or JEDI, in a hat-tip to the fictional heroes of ‘Star Wars’. Proposals from contractors are due in September, and a contract award isn’t expected until next April.

The Defence Department has said using a single provider is the best way to deliver advanced, secure cloud services to warfighters who now depend on multiple outdated platforms.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who has championed the project as a priority, has praised the Central Intelligence Agency’s cloud project, which is run by Amazon.

Oracle, IBM and Microsoft lobbied unsuccessfully for the Defence Department to split the broad contract among multiple suppliers, and Oracle lodged a challenge with the Government Accountability Office to the final request for proposals that the Defence Department issued last month.

While Amazon could protest about any intervention by Trump, no law flatly prohibits a president from publicly or privately urging a federal agency to choose a particular vendor for a contract or change the requirements of a solicitation, procurement experts said. “The president can basically speak to anyone in the government he wants to,” Schooner said.

Trump hasn’t been shy about his opinions on other multibillion-dollar defence contracts.

He shocked the contracting world a month before he took office by criticising Boeing’s deal with the Pentagon to build a new Air Force One. He also tweeted that he asked Boeing to determine a price for an alternative to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that Lockheed Martin is building for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, a project that Lockheed won over a competing bid from Boeing in 2001.

In both those cases, Trump was tweeting critical remarks about a deal after the company won the contract, when the risk of tainting the procurement process was less, said Rick Holgate, a research director for consulting firm Gartner. “I’m not sure the president would be likely to weigh in on this at this point,” Holgate said of the JEDI contract. “He’s probably going to wait to see how this plays out.”

Under the law, federal agencies have to make clear in the final request for proposals the requirements and criteria they will use to choose a winning bid. While agencies have a lot of latitude to make their vendor choices, losing bidders can challenge a decision contending that the ground rules weren’t followed.

“There’s obviously some judgment calls involved in how proposals are rated, but those judgments have to at least be defensible and consistent with the factual record,” procurement lawyer Frank Murray Jr said. “If the evaluation shows that Amazon is the best value and should win” the award, “it would be a violation of procurement law for Trump” or another high-ranking official “to say, ‘You can’t award to Amazon, pick again’.” (Bloomberg)

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