Does this sound kind of … swampy? Only if it works. Concerns began percolating upward about the award of a $10 billion cloud computing contract to Amazon by the Pentagon over the past week, with allegations of impropriety in the bidding process. On Thursday, Donald Trump injected himself into the controversy, declaring that he might intervene in the process — no doubt fueled in part by his dislike of Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.
If you’re Jeff Bezos, how do you protect the big Pentagon payday? Pay one of Trump’s closest allies to argue on your behalf:
Amazon’s cloud services business recently hired one of President Donald Trump’s campaign bundlers, Jeff Miller, to lobby on its behalf, according to a recently posted disclosure form.
Amazon Web Services hired Miller, who is CEO of Miller Strategies, to lobby on “issues related to cyber security and technology,” according to a lobbying registration form. The filing was posted to the Senate lobbying disclosure database on Wednesday. The document said Miller was registered to lobby for Amazon effectively on June 5.
Miller, as CNBC reported, is one of more than 400 bundlers helping the Trump campaign raise funds for its reelection effort. Throughout the second quarter, he helped raise just more than $110,000 for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee that brings in campaign cash for the campaign and the Republican National Committee.
The computer project is called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), and it’s the Pentagon’s project to consolidate all of its computer-cloud operations under one vendor. It’s a massive project that will result in long-term profits for whoever is lucky or skilled enough to get the contract. The winner will not just keep the Pentagon for years, but will be positioned to be the contractor of choice for other federal departments and agencies, and likely state governments as well.
Small wonder, then, that the project had “cloud companies going nuts,” Tech Crunch reported last year. At that time, Tech Crunch envisioned Amazon in the driver’s seat, as they had already built a smaller version of the system for the CIA in 2013. They had been “happy to let the process play out” while their competitors rushed to catch up, so the hiring of Jeff Miller at this late stage suggests that the cool approach has given way to real worry about losing their edge on the award.
But is there a legitimate concern over the bidding process, one that would require an unusual presidential intervention in a contract award? The New York Times notes that the process appears to be unremarkable thus far:
In fact, the contract has not yet been awarded and has been the subject of a monthslong competition involving Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM. Pentagon officials decided in April that only Amazon and Microsoft had the capacity to meet the military’s requirements, and they have said they expect to choose the winner in late August.
Mr. Trump called JEDI “a very big contract, one of the biggest ever,” and noted that he had heard “complaining from different companies like Microsoft and Oracle and IBM.”
“Great companies are complaining about it,” he said, “so we’re going to take a look at it. We’ll take a very strong look at it.” He did not repeat his longstanding criticism of Amazon or Mr. Bezos.
IBM and Oracle might be complaining because they just got weeded out of the process based on the first round of bidding. Microsoft is still in the hunt, so if they have complaints, it might be reason to take it more seriously. Trump’s not the only one questioning the process, either:
Some members of Congress have recently expressed concerns about the JEDI contracting process, notably Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who wrote last week to Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, asking that the contract award be delayed.
Mr. Rubio wrote that JEDI “suffers from a lack of competition” and could “well result in wasted taxpayer dollars and fail to provide our warfighters with the best technology solutions.”
The NYT also notes that Oracle’s Larry Ellison has been a major funder of Rubio’s PACs in the past, but Rubio’s not the only one complaining. Sen. Ron Johnson also expressed concerns last month about conflicts of interest between the Pentagon and Amazon, including an ongoing IG probe of a former Pentagon official who now works for Amazon.
Axios’ Jonathan Swan got ahold of a letter from Rep. Mark Meadows to acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper outlining even more concerns about conflicts of interest. Meadows touches on a somewhat obscure but critical issue in contract bids — how the request for proposal (RFP) was written:
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) July 20, 2019
It’s very easy to throw work to preferred vendors by writing RFPs to match up to one vendor’s unique capabilities. Everyone else would bit, but it was pretty clear right off the bat who’d win. This happened quite a bit in the defense and aerospace industries back in the days before consolidation; it was sometimes excused by the notion that the government had a national-security interest in spreading the wealth around. Consolidation has mostly mooted that idea, but it was likely more a rationalization for skewing contracts toward favored vendors. Like, for instance, the ones who hired your pals. Miller wouldn’t be the first to fall into that category.
At least at the moment, this doesn’t appear any more swampy than defense procurements usually look. They’re all swampy. Don’t be surprised if this slips quietly off the front pages, or even the back pages, and Amazon gets the contract it was always supposed to get.