The old-school Mafiosi are fading into the past, pale imitations of their pharaonic forefathers. As the late Murray Kempton, the greatest of all New York columnists, once wrote, “Where are the scungilli of yesteryear?” In the late nineties, federal agents insinuated an informer into the ranks of the DeCavalcante crime family, of New Jersey, and the resulting wiretaps and transcriptions revealed a dying language of secrecy, petty schemes, and blood oaths gone wrong. Sad old veterans of the Punic Wars of Essex County talked about selling old comic books and Viagra to make money, and yet they knew they were losing touch with the new world.
“They make money with the computer,” a gangster named Joseph (Tin Ear) Sclafani said incredulously about the young. To which another associate replied, “These [expletive] kids—twenty-five, twenty-six years old—will teach you things you could not ever believe.”
“You know, I’m computer-phobia,” a DeCavalcante soldier named Lenny replies.
“That’s the whole thing,” another says. “In this [expletive] life that we live, every day if you ain’t like a chameleon, if you can’t change, you’re finished.”
I thought of this exquisite sampling of the DeCavalcante tapes after reading the riveting serio-comic report in the Washington Post by Adam Entous describing a meeting in June, 2016, on Capitol Hill, at which Republican Party leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, gathered to talk business. Let’s not be unfair, much less libelous. It’s not that the members of Congress present were involved in crimes or illegal activity of any kind; no, it’s that they seem so craven, cynical, and, ultimately small-time. They have sunk so low that they are willing to get behind a candidate for whom they clearly have no regard. Because, well, that’s “this [expletive] life that we live.”
In the transcript published by the Post, McCarthy speculates that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computers and, in the process, discovered whatever opposition-research materials the Democrats had gathered on Trump.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said, according to Entous, a superb reporter who heard a tape recording of the colloquy. “Swear to God.”
Dana Rohrabacher is a Republican from California with a peculiar amalgam of views: pro-marijuana, dubious about climate change, pro-torture. For this last position, in 2007, Keith Olbermann awarded him his periodic “Worst Person in the World” award on his old MSNBC show. Like Trump, Rohrabacher has been highly solicitous of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last year, Politico ran an article on Rohrabacher called “Putin’s Favorite Congressman.”
In the Post piece, McCarthy’s remark is met with laughter, and Ryan cautions his colleagues, “This an off the record . . . No leaks! . . . All right?”
And then, amid more laughter, Ryan says, “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
“That’s how you know that we’re tight,” Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip, says.
“What’s said in the family stays in the family,” Ryan concludes.
Spokesmen for the various parties at first denied that the conversation took place. But when the Post apprised them of the audiotape, they went into an oh-well-it-was-just-a-joke mode. Another participant, Evan McMullin, an ex-C.I.A. operative who ran for President last year as an independent, confirmed to the Post that the conversation took place. He attended as the policy director of the House Republican Conference.
In fairness, Entous makes clear in his report that there was laughter throughout the exchange and it is entirely possible that McCarthy was not serious at all about his conjectures. And yet the tape and the transcript do deepen the impression of blithe hypocrisy when it comes to the business of electing an obviously erratic man as President. Almost everyone in the room endorsed Trump. McCarthy was so ardent in his support that Trump referred to him as “my Kevin.” Ryan made distancing gestures from time to time, expressing oblique disgust at Trump’s hosannas for Putin and his pussy-grabbing braggadocio, but those faint stirrings of a moral conscience soon passed, and his endorsement of Trump before the nominating Convention and his fealty ever since have been consistent. Ryan—like the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell—could hardly assume a position in immediate opposition to a President of his Party, and the leaders of the Republicans in Congress decided to muffle their misgivings and moments of revulsion in service of their conservative agenda: tax cuts, “repeal and replace,” and a generalized rollback of the Obama years.
These men must know that they are still defending the increasingly indefensible: an unstable and incompetent man flailing in the wind. It’s hardly different at the White House. In the West Wing, senior aides have become increasingly disgusted by the behavior of the President, as he spends his days wallowing in fury, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, distraction, defensiveness, and delusion. During the campaign, President Obama routinely called Trump “uniquely unfit” to be Commander in Chief; now Trump’s aides (some of them) and Republicans in Congress (some of them) seem to be reaching a similar conclusion. The political question that may matter most is this: At what point will private misgivings tip over into a withdrawal of support and a demand for an end to this prolonged emergency?
Meanwhile, Trump has gone from one graduation speech to the next, unloading his grievances at the podium. “You have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight,” he declared to the hopeful young. “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say with surety, has been treated worse, more unfairly.” Sir Winston could not have said it better.
In both reporting and thinking about the avalanche of information about the Trump Administration and its congressional supporters, it is essential to avoid getting ahead of what is known. Jokes–if they were jokes–are not evidence. Theories are not evidence. What’s needed is the deepest and most unprejudiced investigation possible of the campaign and this Presidency’s possible crimes or misdemeanors. Whatever evidence James Comey or Paul Manafort or Carter Page or anyone else has to provide, it must be heard and seen.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has announced that Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I. between 2001 and 2013, will be special counsel in the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. If Mueller, who is widely respected in Washington, can maintain his independence from any meddling, subtle or broad, by the White House, this will count as a step forward.
What recent weeks have also made clear is that, outside government, the Fourth Estate has worked hard to put pressure on power, its most essential role. And a large measure of that pressure has been the result of the daily battle between the Times and the revitalized Washington Post. What fresh horror will tomorrow bring?