Murray Kempton, the greatest newspaper columnist New York has ever known, was both a moralist and an ironist, particularly as he chronicled the lives, the crimes, and the decline of the Cosa Nostra in the pages of Newsday and the Post. Dressed in a black suit and listening to Verdi on his headphones, Kempton would bicycle to arraignments at Foley Square and interviews at the Ravenite Social Club, on Mulberry Street. He had no illusions about the mafiosi. But, in describing their ordinariness, their codes of behavior and self-delusions, their modest houses in Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, he seemed to say that the Five Families were merely a more lurid reflection of the rest of us.
“You know, most of these guys, when you meet them, are just as bad as respectable people,” he once told me. As John Gotti, the “Dapper Don” of the Gambinos, headed off to federal prison—doomed, in part, by his prideful indiscretions and by the bugs planted amid the espresso cups at the Ravenite—Kempton saw him as the end of something. “Do you remember that moment in Henry Adams’s ‘Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres’ when Adams speaks of the Virgin and Child looking down on a dead faith? Well, John Gotti believed in all of it. He believed in a dead faith.”
I once asked Kempton if he ever really liked any of the mobsters of his acquaintance. He told me that he had “tremendous admiration for Carmine Persico,” the longtime boss of the Colombo crime family. He was a killer, of course, but the wiretaps brought out an appealing side to his character. Kempton recalled an episode in which Persico, Carmine Galante, and others were playing cards, and Galante, a widely loathed capo of the Bonanno crime family, kept insulting a player of Irish extraction. “Galante just kept it up with all manner of obscene anti-Irish comments,” Kempton said. “Finally, Persico said, ‘Get out of the game!’ and Galante did, slinking off for home. The next day, Galante came back to the card game, begging, ‘Please! I’m sorry! I’ll never do it again!’ It was wonderful. Persico said about Galante, ‘He’s not such a bad guy. He was just brung up wrong.’ ”
Yet even Kempton, who died in 1997, might have struggled to find a shred of virtue in another fallen Don—Donald J. Trump—who is finally confronting a judicial system that he cannot bully into submission. This week, the forty-fifth President, who built his early fortune on casinos and construction, and Rudolph Giuliani, the former “hero mayor” of New York, whose early legal reputation came from locking up mobsters and bankers on racketeering statutes, will turn themselves in with a gaggle of co-conspirators on forty-one felony charges in Fulton County, Georgia. Fani Willis, the county’s district attorney, is employing a state version of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, to make her case. Easy ironies are blooming like dandelions.
I wish I could discuss those ironies with Kempton, who always had time for a struggling colleague on deadline. As a connoisseur of Mob wiretaps, he would have relished Trump’s long telephone call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, on January 2nd, 2src21, in which the sitting President adopts a mob-boss tone as he asks Raffensperger to “find 11,78src votes,” which were needed to steal the state from Joe Biden.
In Kempton’s absence, I turned to others who have spent time prosecuting or chronicling the Mob. To them, Trump’s gangsterish ways are unmistakable. “Jim Comey picked this up from the beginning,” Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor, and a friend of Comey’s, told me. Richman recalled when Trump invited Comey, then the director of the F.B.I., to dinner in the Green Room of the White House. Trump leaned across the table and said, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” As a young prosecutor, Comey had encountered the Gambino underboss, Sammy (the Bull) Gravano, and Trump’s behavior called the mobster to mind, Comey wrote later in his memoir, “A Higher Loyalty.” “The demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.” Such gangsters, Comey went on, created a particular kind of atmosphere around them: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. Loyalty oaths.”
Trump, Richman added, has “the affect and sometimes the communication style of a mobster. It’s a combination of clear signalling as to who has power and the source of that power with an obliqueness of expression that, intentionally, barely conceals the threat.” Trump used the same tactics, Richman said, during a 2src19 phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, in which Trump leaned on him to “look into” the Biden family in exchange for unlocking a weapons sale. Richman said that in many RICO cases, the government will display charts that resemble the orderly hierarchy of the Ford Motor Company. But the Oval Office in the Trump years seemed more like a mob social club, in which “people come in and out without clear titles, and access is freely given as long as they pledge fealty. If you say you have a good idea, you’re told to run with it.”
Paul Attanasio, who wrote “Donnie Brasco,” a 1997 Mob film starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, told me that Trump, though he deploys the swagger of a mafia boss, is in no way a wise mafia boss. “It would be highly unusual for the boss to get involved and make a call like the one to Raffensperger,” Attanasio said. “There’s no way Vincent (the Chin) Gigante would make that call. He’d have someone do it for him. But it’s Trump’s arrogance, his belief that he can do it better and successfully intimidate Raffensperger.”
Nearly all the legal experts I spoke with are of the opinion that the RICO case in Georgia is compelling and well-constructed, but, with its immense cast of defendants and sprawling criminal narrative, it will probably take a very long time to resolve. Andrew Weissmann, a former chief of the Fraud Section of the Department of Justice and a lead prosecutor in Robert Mueller’s Russiagate investigations, pointed out that another of Willis’s RICO cases in Georgia is, after seven months, still in the jury-selection phase. (The advantage of the Georgia prosecution is that it is a state case, not a federal one, and therefore Trump could not pardon himself as President.) Although the Florida documents trial is, as a matter of evidence, a grim prospect for Trump, the prosecution there faces a potentially hostile judge and an uncertain jury pool. Alvin Bragg’s hush-money case in New York is, by far, the least urgent of the four prosecutions. The January 6th case, brought by the special counsel Jack Smith, in Washington, and alleging an attempt to overturn a national election, is an immensely daunting prospect for Trump.
This week, the former President, hoping to shift the imagery away from his imminent fingerprinting-and-mugshot session in Georgia, has declared it beneath his dignity to engage in a debate with his rivals in the race for the Republican nomination. Instead, he will subject himself to the feathery inquisition of Tucker Carlson on social media.
Yet Trump, the unwise wise guy, will eventually face less kindly examiners. Although he has long enjoyed the sleazy glamour and cynical counsel supplied by Mob-adjacent figures like Roy Cohn, his mentor in matters of conscience and the law, Trump has no code and shows no loyalty. Despite his mobster cosplay, in short, he lacks even a gangster’s sense of dignity. Carmine (the Snake) Persico, for all his many sins, would have found Trump unworthy of the Cosa Nostra. Before the Mafia’s disintegration, a boss was obliged to help a fallen or legally entangled soldier. And yet Trump won’t even pay the legal bills of Giuliani, his loyal sidekick. The most lasting image of Giuliani will not be of a valiant public servant inspiring a grieving city but of a cynical mook lying about stolen votes on Trump’s behalf while rivulets of hair dye course down his cheek. Is there no honor among thieves? Or, as Murray Kempton put it, “Where are the scungilli of yesteryear?” ♦