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The White House’s Godfather Fantasy

If the Trumps are the Corleones, that makes us the marks. ILike a crime boss, Trump has emphasized loyalty above all other qualities, and his management style reflects a justifiable fear of betrayal by his subordinates.

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Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images // New York Magazine,

“Do a Frank Pentangeli.” That’s what Donald Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone urged an associate who was set to testify against him to do, according to a federal indictment. During the 2016 campaign, Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks, which had obtained stolen Democratic emails from Russian hackers through an intermediary named Randy Credico. In 2017, Stone falsely testified to Congress that he had no records of his discussions with Credico. When he learned Credico planned to testify, he texted and emailed him on multiple occasions, once counseling him to “start practicing” his Pentangeli. “You should do Pantagela [sic] on Erin Burnett,” Stone wrote soon after.

Pentangeli was a capo of the Corleone family in The Godfather: Part II who planned to testify against Michael Corleone but was threatened into changing his mind and ultimately committed suicide rather than rat out the boss. Recently, prosecutors asked to show a clip of the film to jurors in Stone’s trial for charges including witness tampering and making false statements to Congress. Stone’s lawyers objected on the grounds that screening the scene “will instantly create a connection in the minds of the jurors that Stone is somehow similar to a murderous mafioso.” Mercifully for Stone, the judge denied the motion, but will permit prosecutors to share a transcript of the scene.

Stone’s case underlines a principle that’s long been clear: It is impossible to understand the Trump administration’s cast of characters, their lingo, and their governing ethos without a working knowledge of La Cosa Nostra and its Hollywood lore. If the Kennedy administration created Camelot, the Trump presidency has built a kind of cultural gangster state. The Francis Ford Coppola films are a classic piece of 1970s-vintage social criticism, presenting gangsters as stylized heroes and legal authorities as villains. “My father’s no different than any other powerful man,” Michael Corleone tells his future wife, Kay, “like a senator or a president.” When she calls him “naïve,” saying, “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed,” he devastatingly retorts, “Who’s being naïve, Kay?” The most satisfying scene in the sequel is one in which Michael is extorted by a corrupt politician and calls out his hypocrisy to his face.

The films’ most fervent enthusiasts include gangsters themselves (though obviously the vast majority of fans, myself included, are not members of any crime syndicate). While their left-wing indictment of American society is presumably lost on rank-and-file mafiosi, who are not generally Chomsky- and Zinn-toting radical social critics, the films romanticized their ethos of clannish loyalty and contempt for the law. Mafia members adopted terms and methods from the movies. One of the realistic touches of The Sopranos was its depiction of 21st-century gangsters binge-watching and endlessly quoting The Godfather. Art imitating life imitating art.

In his days as a builder — before he went bankrupt and transitioned into the branding business — Trump worked closely with mobsters, who controlled the city’s concrete trade and influenced its building contracts. (“I have met on occasion a few of those people,” he told David Letterman in 2013. “They happen to be very nice people. You just don’t want to owe them money.”) Former FBI director James Comey said in a 2018 interview that Trump’s style was eerily reminiscent of that of the kingpins he had prosecuted. “I had a flashback to my days investigating the Mafia,” he recalled of his early meetings with the president. Trump was trying to create a patronage relationship and demanding loyalty, Comey wrote, “like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.’ ” Comey’s successor at the FBI, Andrew McCabe, endorsed the comparison. “That kind of overwhelming or overriding focus on loyalty and sorting everybody out immediately — like, you’re either with us or you’re against us,” he said of Trump’s methods, “those are all traits that you see in organized-crime enterprises.”

Like a crime boss, Trump has emphasized loyalty above all other qualities, and his management style reflects a justifiable fear of betrayal by his subordinates. (A source close to Trump warned in 2017 that Mueller was conducting a “Gambino-style roll-up” of the administration.) He frequently speaks to them one-on-one, reducing the potential for hostile witnesses. The president went “absolutely bonkers” when his lawyer John Eisenberg took notes during official meetings, a former White House official told Politico, because “his sense was people were taking notes because they were going to write a book or testify against him.” Trump likewise told White House counsel Don McGahn, “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” When McGahn replied that this is what lawyers do, Trump retorted, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.” Which seems like a sensible precaution for the former counsel to such clients as Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, Carmine “the Cigar” Galante, and John Gotti.

Trump has done surprisingly little to cleanse his history. During the primaries, Trump boasted about using donations to buy politicians. He has bragged about the number of his business associates who have been prosecuted on the basis of testimony by their underlings, not normally a point of pride. “I know all about flipping — for 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers,” he told Fox News. “I’ve seen it many times, I’ve had many friends involved in this stuff; it’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal.” He’s even invoked The Godfather directly to disparage his enemies, like when he mocked CNN anchor Chris Cuomo by repeatedly calling him “Fredo.”

As Michael Cohen, who once described himself optimistically as the Trump Organization’s Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall in Coppola’s films), put it, Trump encourages his cronies to lie by speaking in “code,” like when he instructed Cohen that Trump had no business with Russia during the campaign, when both men knew otherwise. Trump grasped over the summer that his bureaucrats objected to trading diplomatic favors to Ukraine for an investigation of his rivals, so he coded his demand as an effort to root out “corruption” even though he was in fact working in conjunction with the country’s most corrupt figures and against its reformers. And Trump is surely the only president in American history to publicly attack the act of cooperating with law enforcement on principle. He has called John Dean, who testified truthfully against President Nixon, a “sleazebag” and a “rat.” When Trump railed against the FBI as “crooked, dirty cops,” he channeled Michael Corleone’s justification for murdering a policeman who had been bought by a rival family (“a dishonest cop — a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him”). Trump’s subversion of bourgeois morality is a key pillar of his support. He can’t be expected to tell the truth or follow the rules, because they all cheat, right? In the absence of virtue, all you can expect from your leader is loyalty, a man who will make your enemies his own.

The Trump era has inverted many familiar cultural tropes.Liberals have had the odd sensation of rooting for, and sometimes even lionizing, Mueller and his team of FBI agents. The Godfather has joined a long list of classic art that feels very different to watch now. In the 1970s, it was subversive to imagine a world in which Paulie Gatto, Sal Tessio, Frank Pentangeli, Carlo Rizzi, and poor Fredo all have to die for betraying the family; politicians and judges are bought and sold; and the goddamn FBI don’t respect nothing. Surely Coppola never imagined that what was once a radical critique of power would one day become a justification for it.