As a politician unlike any before him, President Donald Trump has elicited no shortage of analogies from journalists seeking to understand and explain him. He’s a “drunk uncle” or “carnival barker.” He’s a “heel,” the scripted villain in professional wrestling. He’s a “human Molotov cocktail” and a “dumpster fire” and a “wrecking ball.” He’s the worst boss you’ve ever had, a failing CEO. He’s Richard Nixon, but worse. No, he’s Juan Perón or George Wallace or Silvio Berlusconi—or even Mussolini or Hitler.
In the wake of former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate testimony last week, where he revealed that Trump demanded loyalty from him, there’s a new analogy du jour.
The president “came across in Comey’s testimony like a mob don, demanding fealty and calling on Comey to do him a service by seeing his way clear to letting the nefarious Michael Flynn go,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in her Sunday column, titled “Comey and Trump, the G-Man vs. the Mob Boss.” Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last week that Comey’s written opening statement sounded like “someone from the outside with some integrity commenting on the nature of a mafia family. That’s essentially the way I view President Trump now, as the Godfather—as the member that orchestrates everything within his team and expects loyalty, honest or otherwise.” In the Globe and Mail, Sarah Kendzior argued that Trump’s encounters with Comey sounded like “a cross between a Mafia shakedown and an audition for The Apprentice.”
It’s hardly surprising that Comey’s account of his private conversations with Trump, so redolent of implicit threats, should call to mind gangster movies where the mob boss asks for loyalty in exchange for protection. As Comey described his mortifying one-one-one dinner party with Trump in late January:
My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.
I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President.
A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.
On Sunday, Preet Bharara, who was the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York until Trump fired him earlier this year, said that Trump also tried to “cultivate some kind of relationship” with him. “When I’ve been reading the stories about how the president has been contacting Jim Comey over time, it felt a little bit like déjà vu,” Bharara said on ABC’s This Week, going on to say it was “a very weird and peculiar thing.” Bharara said Trump called him three times—twice as president-elect, and again as president. Bharara didn’t return the third call, “and 22 hours later I was asked to resign.”
The mafia analogies aren’t just casual gibes, but speak to something fundamental in Trump’s background and character. In his younger days, Trump was mentored by Roy Cohn, a mob lawyer, and he consorted with criminals, notably convicted felon Felix Sater. Trump’s record shows “repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks,” David Cay Johnston, who has extensively investigated Trump’s mafia ties, wrote in Politico last year, and “Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would run into conflict with the likes of Comey, Bharara, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (whom Trump also fired, after she refused to defend his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries). Trump supporters might dismiss these figures as Washington insiders—inhabitants of “the swamp”—but they are more accurately seen as representatives of the legal and administrative state. They are all experts in the law and bureaucracy; they know the rules, understand why the rules exist, and enforce them. In other words, they are the polar opposite of Trump, an anti-professional to whom laws were meant to be broken.
But the mafia shouldn’t be seen as the antithesis of government, and rather as an alternative apparatus. The mafia tends to thrive when the administrative state is weak or corrupt, and thus unable to protect and provide for its citizens. Trump’s message as an outsider candidate was that normal politicians were unable to protect ordinary Americans, in part because they were too hamstrung by laws and regulations. Like a mafia don, Trump promised he’d deliver for the people, even if it meant breaking the rules (as when he boasted he’d break the Geneva convention to fight terrorism).
Trump didn’t just want loyalty from Comey and Bharara; he expects it from everyone. As White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said last month, the president “expects people who are serving in his administration to be loyal to the country and to be loyal to the administration.” That goes for the public, too. During campaign rallies last year, he’d occasionally ask his followers to raise their hands and pledge allegiance to him:
Trump is implicitly offering the mobster’s bargain: You remain loyal to me, and I’ll protect you. But when the would-be Godfather is running a country instead of a mafia family, there’s a different word to describe him.