The FBI indictment of former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone contains the unsurprising revelation that Stone threatened an associate, and his pet dog, to prevent him from cooperating with authorities. He expressed his threat using the familiar trope of the Mafia movie. “On multiple occasions,” the special counsel reports, Stone told his associate (reportedly Randy Credico) to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli,’” a reference to a Godfather: Part II capo who was prepared to inform on the boss before Congress, before recanting his testimony (and ultimately committing suicide to protect his family from reprisal.)
The Russia scandal has provided us with relatively few Russia cultural references, but a proliferation of mafia references. The fact that Stone expressed himself this way is not mere color, nor is organized crime even a metaphor for the mindset and Trump and his inner circle. It is actually a reasonably literal description of the Trump organization.
In the fall of 2017, a source close to the administration warned, “this investigation is a classic Gambino-style roll-up. You have to anticipate this roll-up will reach everyone in this administration.” This turned out to be one of the most prescient descriptions of what was to come. A roll-up of an organized crime family generally starts at the bottom, and uses evidence against lower-ranking figures to compel testimony against their superiors, until it ultimately reaches the top of the organization. Mueller has followed this pattern, beginning with indictments against low-level characters like George Papadopoulos and Russian hackers, and working its way up to the inner circle of the campaign and, quite likely, the boss himself.
The crucial dynamic in these cases is prevent lower-level officials from ratting out their superiors. For that very reason, the ethos of not flipping on your superior is the foundational ethos of organized crime. It is also a foundational ethos for Donald Trump. One way organized criminals protect themselves against flipping is to rely heavily on family members, whose loyalty cannot be questioned. Trump has obviously done this, giving several of his children enormous authority to conduct his various business affairs.
The other way they guard against betrayal is to instill an ethos that treats flipping as a grave moral offense. Trump does this too, and has not bothered to disguise it. He is definitely the first president who has ever said — in public! — that flipping should “almost ought to be outlawed.”
Trump knows whereof he speaks. “I know all about flipping, for thirty, forty years I’ve been watching flippers,” he boasted. “I’ve had many friends involved in this stuff.” Trump, of course, relied on his contacts with the mafia as a key business resource, hiring the mafia lawyer Roy Cohn early in his career. Later in his career, Trump worked closely with Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, both of whom came out of the world of Russian-American organized crime. Sater committed multiple felonies, including stabbing somebody in the throat. Cohen used Mafia-style lingo to threaten people who got in Trump’s way. (“I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”)
It is not coincidental that Stone can be heard in the indictment using the same kind of language. “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends — run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds,” Stone allegedly told Credico, in addition to threatening to “take that dog away from you.” (Perhaps Stone was thinking of the iconic Godfather scene in which a troublesome movie producer had his pet horse killed.)
The Trump Organization does not kill people, which is certainly an important moral distinction. It has undertaken a wide array of shady, fraudulent, or clearly illegal schemes. Trump has surrounded himself with criminals and prized loyalty at the expense of traditional qualifications. Mueller seems to be in the process of demonstrating that Trump’s organization is not like an organized crime family, it actually is one.