Can Amazon really depose Trump? Explaining the tech giant’s rare legal move in $10B cloud dispute

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President Donald Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The relentless ambition that brought customers same-day delivery and a new category of home speakers apparently extends to Amazon’s legal strategy. The Seattle tech giant prides itself in being a pioneer — and if the company is successful in its effort to depose President Donald Trump, it will mark another first.

Amazon is asking a federal judge to order depositions from Trump and several current and former Department of Defense officials in a legal dispute over a lucrative cloud contract. Amazon sued the federal government in November, after the Pentagon awarded the $10 billion JEDI contract to rival Microsoft. The lawsuit claims political influence from Trump compelled the Defense Department to choose Microsoft despite Amazon’s “technical superiority.”

It is extremely rare for a sitting president to be deposed, especially in a civil case. But Amazon says extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Trump waded into the JEDI bidding process last summer with several unorthodox moves. He mentioned concerns about the fairness of the contest in a news interview, then ordered a review of the procurement process.

At the time, he and others said they were concerned that JEDI, a nickname for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project, was tailor-made for Amazon.

Previously: Amazon asks to depose Trump in lawsuit challenging Pentagon’s award of major cloud contract to Microsoft

The lawsuit says Trump’s political animus toward Amazon — evidenced by tweets, campaign speeches, and public interviews — made it impossible for the Pentagon to fairly review JEDI bids on their merits.

The judge weighing Amazon’s request to depose Trump will balance the necessity of the president’s testimony with the “burden it presents,” said Jeffrey Feldman, a University of Washington professor and constitutional lawyer.

Even if Amazon is successful, it would be the start of a long road toward getting the president to sit down for a deposition. The decision would almost certainly be appealed and likely rise to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even then, the deposition “would occur only if the president complies with the court’s decision,” Feldman said. That is far from a certainty, given the U.S. Congress was unsuccessful getting Trump and his subordinates to cooperate with the impeachment proceedings.

The question of whether a sitting president could be deposed was settled during the impeachment proceedings for President Bill Clinton in 1998. Previous presidents, like Ronald Reagan and George Bush, had been interviewed during investigations but “never before had a sitting president given testimony in a case in which he was so clearly a potential target of prosecution or impeachment,” according to the New York Times.

Trump, notably, did not testify in his own impeachment proceedings over the past few weeks.

“Bill Clinton isn’t the only president who has been deposed, but there aren’t many,” Feldman said. “Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman all sat for depositions — some in criminal cases and some after they left office. Depositions in civil cases of sitting presidents are very uncommon.”

In addition to the president, Amazon is seeking to depose former Defense Secretary James Mattis, current Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Dana Deasy, information chief at DoD, and others. The judge’s decision is expected in the next few weeks.

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