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Trump lashing out at Amazon on Twitter could have serious consequences

  • Trump lashed out at Amazon this week on Twitter following a story in the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, about a fake Time magazine cover featuring Trump that hangs in some of his golf courses.
  • Trump diminishes his credibility when he launches Twitter attacks like this.
  • This could have serious consequences if the US ever faces a threat to national security and needs to take action.
  • It isn't wise for Trump to alienate CEOs like Jeff Bezos — he needs them to be creating jobs and stimulating growth to achieve his economic growth target.

President Trump is shooting himself in the foot with ill-advised Twitter attacks like the one he did this week on Amazon.

The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, reported earlier this week that a number of Trump's golf properties were displaying a fake issue of Time magazine with Trump on the cover. Trump proceeded to attack Amazon and the Washington Post in a tweet accusing the "fake news" paper for protecting Amazon for not collecting sales taxes from online purchases:

This attack was ill-advised for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the underlying accusation is unfounded. If Trump were more up on the real news he would have known that Amazon started collecting sales taxes nationwide as of April 1, and even before April 1, Amazon collected sales taxes in most states.

Trump diminishes his credibility a little more each time he launches an unfounded accusation. He would do well to the words of Albert Einstein: "Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters."

He would also do well to consider George Will's observation, in a "Meet the Press" appearance in March, that Trump's lack of credibility, undermining of the intelligence community, and constant labeling of various reputable news organizations as "fake news," will become a serious problem when the country has to take bold action in the face of a threat from North Korea or elsewhere and the threats and the president need to be believed.

The president is setting himself up to be "the boy who [tweeted] wolf," and that will be a problem when wolves appear.

The president is also shooting himself in the foot with the attack on Amazon because he may have blown up the bridge the administration was trying to build last week by inviting tech CEOs to the White House. Jeff Bezos sat close to the president at that meeting, but he might not the next time. Other tech executives might also reconsider how close they want to be to this volcanic and vindictive president. Hosting a person one week and then publicly attacking them the next is an odd approach to bridge-building.

Launching an assault on Amazon is also a bad idea because Trump's agenda, including an ambitious 3 percent GDP growth target, require the widespread cooperation of business leaders. Unprovoked and unfounded public attacks on businesses and business leaders certainly will not leave any business leader more inclined to collaborate with the president.

"The president is setting himself up to be 'the boy who [tweeted] wolf,' and that will be a problem when wolves appear."

The attack might also leave business leaders wondering who the target of Trump's next attack will be and just how far he would be willing to go if he feels he has been disrespected or treated unfairly. Could his displeasure with Amazon lead him to try to block the company's acquisition of Whole Foods on antitrust or other grounds?

The attempt would likely fail because it would be hard to make a case for an antitrust problem when the companies involved in a merger come from different industries. (A proposed merger between Kroger and Whole Foods might be a different matter.) Regardless, from what we've seen it would not be beyond him to try to attack a company for a perceived slight. That could have a chilling effect on business leaders.

Finally, the president shoots himself in the foot with his attack on Amazon because it draws continued attention to the Post story on the fake Time cover. And the president has not challenged the accuracy of that story.

Looking at that picture of the fake cover I am reminded of how Trump shoved the prime minister of Montenegro aside in May to get to the front of the NATO group photo. Body language expert, Patti Wood, described the president's behavior as "peacocking" by showing off that he had made it to his rightful place at the front of the pack.

Before any further peacocking, the president would do well to consider what Pope Francis had to say to church leaders on the problem of vanity:

"An example I often use to illustrate the reality of vanity, is this: look at the peacock; it's beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth ... Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them."

When the president launches unwarranted Twitter attacks on a company or on a person — as he did in some vicious tweets aimed at cable news hosts Mike Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough this week, we are looking at the peacock from behind — and it's not pretty.

Commentary by Joseph Holt, a business ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. Follow him on Twitter @busethicsdude.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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Correction:
An earlier version of this story stated that the Washington Post was owned by Amazon. It is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and a holding company he controls, not Amazon.