David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” the long-running HBO series about the New Jersey mob, once explained to me the uncanny brilliance of the show.
“Everything that everybody says is untrue. Complete falsehoods, self-justifications, rationalizations, outright lies, fantasies and miscommunication,” he said. “There’s always sort of a joke going on, which is that these people aren’t communicating at all.”
With that guiding philosophy, Chase might have scripted our current presidential administration. And not just because he’d get the chronic fibbing right — but because he would, once again, be writing about a bumbling, brutal, bargain-basement mob.
In a widely circulated excerpt from “A Higher Loyalty,” former FBI director James B. Comey’s meditation on leadership — it really is a book about leadership, not merely an effort to extenuate his mistakes in the 2016 election — the mob is represented as both metaphor and model for the Trump syndicate.
In the early 1990s, Comey, then an assistant U.S. attorney, aided in the demolition of the New York mafia. When he says in his book that Trump and his coterie reminded him of a 1980s mafia social club, Comey is not broadsiding Trump so much as describing a specific dynamic that is Trump’s modus operandi as a leader.
“The Life begins with a lie,” Comey was told in 1992, by Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, a cooperating witness who had just flipped on his fearsome mob boss, John Gotti. By “the Life,” Gravano seemed to designate the violent crime and perks of brotherhood that make up the underworld of wiseguys and made men.
The biggest mystery of Trump’s presidency, to me, is the prostrate compliance of former alpha males.
At the goofy goth initiation into made-man paradise, that first lie, Comey explains, is the programmed response to “Do you know why you’re here?” Of course, every recruit knows why he’s at the dreamed-of christening, but each also knows his answer in this catechism: “No.”
Comey remembers Gravano saying that with that “no,” he was off and running. His bosses now had Lie No. 1 on him, and knew he was willing to invert the truth on command.
Likewise, in Comey’s book — and in his memos, which were declassified and released Thursday night — the former FBI director recounts being isolated with the Oval Office capo, who tested his willingness to lie as a prelude to demanding loyalty.
As in Gravano’s scenario, the falsehoods that Comey is expected to go along with at first seem trivial. On Jan. 28, 2017, at a private dinner, it was “inauguration and crowd size,” as Comey’s memos record.
Trump’s exaggeration of the attendance figure was, of course, a foundational lie of his presidency. It was also one he insisted his flunkies, notably former White House spokesman Sean Spicer, recite on command. By testing whether Comey would accept that absurdity, Trump seems to have been priming the pump for later, bigger lies he’d ask Comey to cosign.
(Of course, he had already intimated to Comey that he wasn’t a man who’d ever have to pay for sex, and Comey had not protested. Maybe the lies about the crowd were nothing compared to that howler.)
You get the sense that if Comey swallowed the lies (and better yet, amplified them in the media), he might have been made — one of Trump’s guys, like Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. And then Comey would enjoy what, exactly? Huzzahs on Twitter, and a 10% discount on a Mar-a-Lago membership?
In any case, something infinitely, deliberately hazy. The “Life”? Or La Cosa Nostra — “that thing of ours.”
Why in the world would anyone willingly bind himself to woolly non-promises from men like John Gotti or Donald Trump? Why choose to submit to the caprices, contempt, hazing and inevitable betrayal of tyrants?
At least with the original mafia, you got a social network for your wife and children, the best cuts of bresaola, elaborate weddings and funerals. But what does Trump give? No community, no faith, no language, no signature red sauce binds the Trump syndicate together.
In fact, the biggest mystery of Trump’s presidency, to me, is the prostrate compliance of former alpha males — Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Devin Nunes, and on and on — for nothing.
What kind of bribes are these men taking, what blackmail are they enduring? Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor who also helped bring down the New York crime families, gave me an answer I didn’t expect: none. The bosses don’t bother with carrots and sticks, they just exploit psychological vulnerabilities.
The mob is like a cult, she told me.
Strong and not-so-strong men and women become toadies not because a boss gives them reflected glory or even money — though there may be some of that — but because they crave an idol, a reason for being and the feeling of belonging in … this thing of ours. Whatever that thing is.
The good news is that that spell can break. “Breaking away … is hard,” Rocah told me, “but it happens all the time.”
If the consequences they face are severe enough, and especially if they’ve learned their superiors slagged them off, some mob underlings will flip.
Trump Organization fixer Michael Cohen, in the hot seat after the FBI raided his office and hotel room on April 9, may be in that process now. Cohen could well be terrified of prison or fines. He might also now know that Trump’s loyalty to him is as wispy a concept as “ that thing.” (On Friday, Trump confidant Roger J. Stone said the president treats Cohen “like garbage.”)
Or maybe Cohen will simply be exhausted by the lies, big and small. If so, he could start by admitting that the statement he’s best known for — ”I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president” — is the biggest hokum of all.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook