Mafia Don

“The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth,” writes James Comey in his book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, comparing President Donald Trump to mob bosses Comey prosecuted early in his career. (News organizations received advance copies of the book, released on April 17, 2018.)

James Comey is no doubt right in likening Donald Trump to a mob boss, but Comey’s opinions on the president do not obscure the fact that the fired FBI chief is disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Democrats will not soon forget his role in the 2016 presidential election.

Historians will analyze the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat, weighing the relative significance of Russian interference, the meddling of data-mining groups like Cambridge Analytica on behalf of the Trump campaign, the abuse of social media by a number of bad actors, errors on the part of the Clinton campaign, Clinton’s penchant for secrecy (read private email server), voter suppression, and Trump’s effective appeals to racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. Add to that potpourri James Comey’s reopening of the Clinton email investigation. 

History does not grant do-overs, so there is no way to know what would have happened had Comey not informed members of Congress on October 28, 2016 — 11 days before the election — that the FBI was looking into emails found on a laptop computer used by disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Comey later told lawmakers — on Novermber 6, two days before the polls opened — that an analysis of the emails led the FBI to maintain its opinion that Clinton should not face criminal charges. 

FBI Director James Comey testifying before Congress in July 2016 about Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

There is no way to weigh adequately all the reasons for Clinton’s defeat, but there is also no doubt that Comey’s (very late) “October surprise” upset the election calculus. Clinton enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls heading into the last two weeks of the campaign, yet lost in the electoral college when Trump scored surprising and close wins in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Comey may have had his reasons for reexamining Clinton’s emails. Still, Comey cannot escape the verdict of history: He contributed significantly to Trump becoming president.

Trump should thank Comey for his role in aiding the president’s surprise victory (that is, unless Trump wishes he had lost to avoid being president, a plausible theory). But, instead of treating Comey to dinners at Mar-a-Lago, Trump fired the FBI director last year and now calls him an “untruthful slime ball” and “ a proven LEAKER & LIAR.” Trump, no doubt, harbors resentment toward Comey for the Russia investigation, but part of Trump’s animosity may be directed at Comey’s role in the election. Trump-the-narcissist simply cannot accept the suggestion that he is an “accidental” president dependent on some quirk of history to win. That is why he insists, repeatedly and erroneously, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” (His Electoral College margin was not a “landslide.”) Any suggestion that Comey — or anyone else, for that matter, besides the candidate himself — played a part in Trump’s victory somehow wounds Trump’s vanity.

Ego may also be part of Trump’s repeated attacks on what he calls the “fake news” media. Again, Trump should bow down in gratitude to the news media for coddling him during the first months of his campaign. Because his outrageous behavior and comments made for good copy— and high ratings — cable television, in particular, was eager to have him on the air  — as often as possible with little concern for equal time. Trump either appeared in person or phoned in to the morning shows, a grant of free air time that allowed the candidate to avoid spending money on political ads as he rose in the polls.

As Comey notes in the already released excepts of his book, Trump’s leadership is “transactional, ego driven[,] and about personal loyalty,” qualities valued by mob bosses. But, for Trump, loyalty is a one-way street: It is what others owe him, not what he owes them. So, James Comey and the news media, no thank you for your role in his electoral win. Instead, you get the presidential equivalent of the dead horse’s head in the bed. 

Fired FBI Director James Comey appearing on ABC News to discuss his new book.

In his book, Comey references Mafia initiations while describing a dinner during his time as head of the FBI under President Trump. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told Comey, who concludes, “The demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.” Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, was a notorious boss in the Gambino crime family. Gravano’s testimony helped convict mob boss John Gotti. (A young Comey worked on the prosecution of members of the Gambino family.)

Trump, like Mafia bosses, demands loyalty as a tool of control. In the mob, people get killed when bosses believe they have been disloyal. In Trump’s orbit, they get fired and “slimed” on Twitter. Yet, for all the violence of the Mafia, pressure from the authorities often leads to betrayal and defection. 

Sound familiar? No wonder Trump fears Comey’s revelations and special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Posted April 17, 2018

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