After Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” it’s now former FBI director James B. Comey’s turn to release a book that will almost certainly agitate the White House.
While there are many takeaways from Comey’s book — of which my Washington Post colleagues obtained a copy before its scheduled release on Tuesday — the title already implies a key theme: “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.”
Comey doesn’t hide where he believes President Trump fits into that title. He describes Trump as an unethical leader and a liar who is driven by his ego and even suggests that the president bears certain similarities to a leader in the Mob, a term that is usually associated with the mafia.
Dealing with Trump, Comey writes, gave him “flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
Let’s break down the characteristics of the sort of mob Comey was referring here, based on what we know about the mother of all mobs: the Italian Mafia.
1) “The silent circle of assent”
The mafia relies on circles of enablers — often forced to remain silent — to take control of entire regions or cities. Their strategy to achieve this is multifaceted and ranges from targeting low-level shop owners with extortion schemes such as “protection rackets” to bribing or threatening top officials. Often, the Mafia also offers incentives, such as a reduction of competition, rather than only relying on threats.
Known as the “code of silence,” mafia groups like Cosa Nostra have derailed investigations by exerting so much pressure on the victims of their extortion schemes that they refused to cooperate with authorities — if authorities were even willing to launch an inquiry in the first place. When a victim of an extortion scheme came forward in 2015, Italian authorities celebrated the rare revelation as a first in the country and as a possible sign that Cosa Nostra’s code of silence may be weakening.
In the United States, the code of silence has eroded since the 1980s, as author George Anastasia wrote in an opinion piece for The Post last year:
Many of those who now make the mafia a career choice are driven primarily by economics. These mobsters, unlike earlier generations, never embraced Cosa Nostra as a way of life. For them, it was a business, a way to make money. And when they found themselves under indictment and facing 20 years to life, they made a business decision: How do I cut my losses?
2) “The boss in complete control”
In Italy, organizations such as Cosa Nostra appear to have been more successful at maintaining high loyalty. That’s why mafia leaders have long been known as the “boss of all bosses,” or godfathers. While that particular position does in fact not exist in Sicily’s mafia hierarchies, mafia networks provide their leaders with a unique kind of power over members who pledged allegiance to them.
“But how can a boss be sure that his members will continue to be loyal under pressure? That’s the big mafia dilemma which you could apply to Trump,” said Federico Varese, a professor of Criminology at Oxford University and author of the recently published book “Mafia Life.” He cautioned that any comparisons between Trump’s circle and the mafia were “obviously only metaphorical.”
But he still agreed with certain assertions Comey made in the book. “It’s the case that mafia bosses have total obedience, but there is always tension within the organization. That’s why people get killed,” he said.
“What we also know from the mafia — and which may also happen to Trump — is the possibility of betrayal and people defecting from the organization. Especially when there is police pressure, people start to defect,” said Varese.
3) “The loyalty oaths”
A pledge of allegiance or “oath of loyalty” is frequently depicted in movies but it has only been caught on a real-life camera once.
In 2014, Italian police managed to record a secret mafia initiation rite on camera in the north of the country.
In the video, a leader within the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta group can be heard saying that the new members should be prepared to die, should violations of the group’s code occur.
“Either you poison yourselves or you take this (gun) which shoots. There must always be a bullet reserved; one for you,” the leader says, according to the video. All members seen in the video were subsequently arrested.
Comey specifically refers to mafia initiations in his book while describing a key incident during his time as FBI Director under Trump.
“I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told Comey during a dinner, according to the book, as my colleague Philip Rucker writes.
According to another quote referenced by ABC, Comey concludes in his book that “the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.” (Comey was referring to a notorious former underboss in the U.S.-Italian mafia.)
4) “The us-versus-them worldview”
Let’s go back to Italy’s ’Ndrangheta initiation ceremony that provides some insights into how the group imagined life following the induction.
Based on the footage, Italian prosecutor Ilda Boccassini argued in 2014 that the affiliation with the group “is in their DNA and under their skin and they can leave the ’Ndrangheta either by collaborating with the state or through death.”
What Boccassini meant was that members of such tight-knit groups also develop a strong sense of belonging that comes with a pre-defined worldview. Anyone who doesn’t agree with that worldview and the rules defined by the group automatically becomes an enemy.
5) “The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
Here it seems Comey’s ideas about the mafia may diverge a bit from the experts’. Mafia leaders demand absolute loyalty and of course subordinates will routinely lie to authorities. However within the organization, truth is a must.
“Mafia members are meant to lie to the authorities, including about the existence of their group,” said Varese. “But they’re always meant to tell the truth to the people within the organization, most importantly of course their boss.”
In other words: At a certain point, people in the inner circle must be ready to tell their boss the truth.
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