Protester outside the Manafort trial after the verdict was announced. | Victoria Pickering
Seth Hettena,  August 23

That Thing They Have

Tuesday’s big-ticket convictions and Trump’s Mafia code

Protester outside the Manafort trial after the verdict was announced. | Victoria Pickering
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In former FBI director James Comey’s account of his final conversation with Donald Trump, he pauses just once to quote the president verbatim. In a footnote, Comey explains that he gave this part of the exchange on the record because the president’s words did not fit with the flow of the call, which by that point had moved away from any request Trump was making to the FBI director. This, according to Comey, is what the president said: “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing, you know.”

Comey went on to note that he did not know what the president was specifically referring to by “that thing,” but the FBI director had heard the phrase before. As a young federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Comey served under then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani in the 1980s. In 1992, the future FBI director worked on the case of John Gambino, a senior leader in one of New York’s five original organized crime families. With the help of Mob hitman “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the prosecution’s star witness, Comey was introduced to the rules of the Mafia life. For starters, Mafia was an outsider term; insiders called it La Cosa Nostra—“this thing of ours.”

Throughout his life, Trump has surrounded himself with criminals. They were his friends, his business partners, and his customers.

Sooner or later, the United States will have to come to grips with the true nature of the man it has elected as president. Trump’s incessant lying, his distrust of the FBI, his feelings of persecution, his demands for loyalty, and what Comey called “the silent circle of assent” surrounding the president—these are the hallmarks of a crime boss. That’s not surprising, given that Trump built his business with the help of members of La Cosa Nostra who secretly owned the cement company that built Trump Tower, and that he’d later expand his holdings with the aid of money from Russian crime lords. Throughout his life, Trump has surrounded himself with criminals. They were his friends, his business partners, and his customers. The latest Trump confreres to earn this distinction are Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who simultaneously became convicted felons in federal courtrooms two hundred miles apart.

Trump’s dies horribilis was dominated by Cohen’s stunning admission in a Manhattan courtroom that directly implicated the president in a crime. Cohen acknowledged that, acting at Trump’s direction, he illegally paid a porn star and a Playboy Playmate during the 2016 election to keep them from speaking about affairs they said they had with the future president. Court papers damningly identified Trump as “Individual-1,” a historical echo of the “unindicted co-conspirator” label that attached itself to Nixon forty-four years earlier. Before the president’s defenders could say it all had nothing to do with Russia, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis was all over TV, suggesting that his client was witness to a conversation between the president and his son, Don Jr., about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Russia, of course, has everything to do with both Cohen’s and Manafort’s current plight, for the riches of the former Soviet Union were the lodestar they followed that led them into Trump’s inner circle. According to former federal investigators, Cohen’s connection to Trump came through the intercession of his Ukrainian-born father-in-law, Fima Shusterman. It was well known among members of “Red Star,” an informal group of federal and local law enforcement agents investigating the Russian Mafia in New York in the 1990s, that Shusterman was funneling money into Trump ventures. Cohen was introduced to Trump as a thank you of sorts, and one reason why Cohen has not yet decided to cooperate with prosecutors is because it could imperil his family.

Moments after Cohen violated Trump’s law of omertà, the Mafia code of silence, the jury’s verdict in the trial of Paul Manafort was read out in Alexandria, Virginia. Trump’s former campaign chairman was found guilty in a case that showcased the riches he hid in overseas accounts to finance his lavish lifestyle back home. Manafort’s entree into the world of $15,000 ostrich jackets came through Oleg Deripaska, a wealthy and powerful Russian oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska would become Manafort’s patron, paying millions of dollars for consulting services as well as loaning him money and investing in his business deals, as well as introducing him to Ukrainian oligarchs. During the 2016 presidential election, while serving as Trump’s campaign chairman, he tried to offer Deripaska private briefings about the campaign. Often overlooked amid all the speculation over Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is the tantalizing hint last year that may or may not point to Deripaska: in an application to search Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, FBI agents said they were seeking records relating to contributions by an unnamed foreign national into a U.S. election.

What we are witnessing is a classic FBI investigation that is slowly, steadily dismantling a criminal organization.

It’s no coincidence that both Manafort and Cohen have ties to Russia; with Trump, it always comes back to Russia. Trump has been chasing Russian criminal money for decades. In 1984, a Russian criminal named David Bogatin purchased five apartments in Trump Towers as an investment, only to have them seized three years later by the government, who accused Bogatin of buying them “to launder money, to shelter and hide assets.” His casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey became a favorite destination for Russian Mafia figures on the East Coast; they regularly laundered cash in Trump’s Taj Mahal. And after Trump’s casino empire collapsed in bankruptcy, Russian criminals helped power his comeback by investing in towers bearing his name in New York, Florida, and around the world. When Russians came knocking on the door of the Trump campaign in 2016, the door opened. These were familiar faces to the Trump Organization.

NO COLLUSION, the president and his defenders remind us every chance they get. What they mean is there is no evidence that Trump personally colluded with Russia. The meeting the president’s son, Don Jr., accepted with a “Russian government attorney” offering incriminating information on Hillary Clinton to Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” was at the very least, an attempt at collusion. No wonder former White House communications director Hope Hicks allegedly said Don Jr.’s emails “will never get out”—they were damning evidence. And former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon seemed sure that Trump knew about the whole affair when he presciently told author Michael Wolff that prosecutors would “crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV,” just as they now have done to Cohen.

What we are witnessing is a classic FBI investigation that is slowly, steadily dismantling a criminal organization. It began with the lower ranks, people like George Papadopoulos, the so-called coffee boy who learned early on that Russia had “thousands of emails” that could damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Since then, FBI agents have been working their way up the ladder. We still don’t know just how far and how deep the investigation will reach into Trump’s criminal enterprise—but by landing Trump’s former personal lawyer and campaign manager in the same day, Mueller has helped revive the battered but indispensable civic conviction that not even the president is above the law.

Seth Hettena is an investigative journalist and author of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History (Melville House, 2018).

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