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If for some reason it wasn’t before, it’s become clear in the weeks since FBI director James Comey’s firing by the president and Comey’s testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to fancy himself the next George Washington, Abe Lincoln or even James Buchanan. No, Trump looks in the mirror in the morning and mistakenly sees Michael Corleone. You know, the version of Michael played by Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II — suave, smart and ruthless Mafia don.
In truth, only in his wildest narcissistic dreams could Don Donald approach Michael Corleone’s people skills. Unlike The Godfather, Trump fails to keep his promises. He blabs — just can’t keep a secret — gets little done, has few friends and takes things “very, very personal,” as Michael’s late brother Sonny would say.
A Corleone would never tweet, “Frankie Pentangeli is an overrated gangster and a stoolie. SAD.” Trump would, which is why White House staff tried to fill his hours during the day of Comey’s questioning with a speech and other fun activities to keep those twitchy little thumbs away from his iPhone.
In the opening statement that Comey released the day before his Senate testimony, his memory of Trump’s words during their various meetings and phone calls was all too reminiscent of B-movie gangster talk. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” he told Comey at that odd, two-man dinner in the Green Room. A real mob boss — or chief executive — wouldn’t have to ask.
That was on Jan. 27. On Feb. 14, the day after national security adviser Mike Flynn was forced to resign after lying to Vice President Pence about Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump asked Attorney General Sessions and Son-in-Law-Also-Rises Jared Kushner to leave the Oval Office while he and Comey had a private chat alone.
“I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” Trump said, according to Comey. “… He is a good guy and has been through a lot. I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” As in, “I hope you can see your way clear to giving me complete control of your olive oil business, if you get my drift.”
Comey’s final contact with Trump was an April 11 phone call in which he said the president continued complaining about “the cloud” of investigation that was getting in the way of what Comey described as Trump’s “ability to do his job.” He told the FBI chief that he would do as Comey suggested and have his people ask the acting deputy attorney general whether they should announce that he was not personally under investigation.
Trump does share some attributes with Michael Corleone… But the crowd he often appears most enamored of is not his own band of miscreants but the Russian gang of crime bosses and kleptocrats that surround Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself the capo di tutti capi, Kremlin-style.
Then Trump added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” As in, hey Jimmy, you remember that thing about the thing I asked you to do? Aficionados of organized crime also will recall that in English, Cosa Nostra, once a familiar synonym for the Sicilian Mafia, translates as “Our Thing.”
So okay, Trump does share some attributes with Michael Corleone. He keeps at least some of his family close, although to a far creepier degree, and he does seem to surround himself with a motley assortment of white-collar racketeers and ideological knuckle-draggers. But the crowd he often appears most enamored of is not his own band of miscreants but the gang of crime bosses and kleptocrats who surround Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself the capo di tutti capi, Kremlin-style.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chairman of the intelligence committee, described it at Thursday’s hearing as Trump’s “odd and unexplained affection for the Russian dictator.” Comey later agreed with Sen. Angus King that Putin is an “opportunist” and opened up with both barrels when he said — with none of Trump’s tepid equivocation about Russia — that their hacking was very real:
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government… It is a high-confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community and the members of this committee have seen the intelligence. It’s not a close call. That happened. That’s about as unfake as you can possibly get.”
While there was much Comey said he could not discuss in an open session, it was his certainty and candor — or at least an excellent imitation of forthrightness — that came through loud and clear at Thursday’s hearing, especially in contrast to the petulant dissembling we’ve come to expect from Trump’s pallid imitation of leadership. Comey made it no secret that even if Trump was not actively a subject of the investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, the former FBI director believed Trump to be a liar, especially when it came to defaming him and the agency he led.
Comey admitted to leaking one of his memos to The New York Times via a friend, in the hope, he said, of triggering the appointment of a special counsel to dig deeper for the truth of the Russia scandal. And while he may have stumbled every which way when it came to handling the Hillary Clinton personal email server investigation, on Thursday he claimed that it had caused him “a whole lot of personal pain,” expressed reservations about then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and at least fessed up to some of his own failings. He’s the un-Trump.
“I know this is a subject of passionate disagreement but I knew there was no case there,” he said, adding that in the Clinton case calling for the appointment of a special counsel to probe further would have been “brutally unfair.”
This, of course, made no difference to several Republican members of the committee, including a seemingly befuddled John McCain, who continued to try to distract us from Trump’s alleged misdeeds by seeming to insist that Hillary Clinton’s bad email habits remain a scandal equal to or even greater than his. For McCain, this appeared to involve a convoluted thought process jumbling the Clinton investigation with the ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia.
Nor did Donald Trump himself believe that Comey’s words had landed with any clout. In his Orwellian doublethink world, where ignorance is strength and lies are truth, when finally freed to indulge his Twitter compulsion Friday morning, he declared, “total and complete vindication.”
But face it: Russia is the story that won’t go away, at least anytime soon, despite a continuing round of denials and cries to move it along, nothing to see here, from both the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill. And if Trump wants to keep living his Godfather fantasy, newly minted special counsel Robert Mueller may be planning a future for him less like the movies and more like the sad fate of many, real-life crime bosses.
On Tuesday, Darren Samuelsohn at Politico reported that Mueller
“is assembling a prosecution team with decades of experience going after everything from Watergate to the Mafia to Enron… a potent team whose members have backgrounds handling cases involving politicians, mobsters and others — and who know how to work potential witnesses if it helps them land bigger fish.”
As Mueller’s sleuths dig, chances are their work will lead them in unexpected directions. In Comey’s own words on Thursday, “In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation that are criminal in nature.”
Watch this space.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.