Free advice: one way for an administration to avoid the ire of an International Criminal Court (ICC) is not to act like a mafia crime family. Appearances and all. Only discretion has never been Donald Trump’s game. The kid from Queens – who built a casino empire in mobbed-up 1980s Atlantic City – thrives in another (under)world entirely. So, when the ICC had the temerity to even investigate America’s spies and soldiers in Afghanistan, Trump tried rather stronger(-arm) tactics: Mafia-style intimidation. I’m no Martin Scorsese, but here’s how it basically went down, in lay(“made-“)man’s terms:
Youse foreign snowflakes from sissy Netherlands wanna stick your noses in our business? Alright then, my associates here got somethin’ for ya: Badabing! Suck on these! [sanctions, canceled visas, and endless threats]
Well, why not? Team Trump has a flair for knockoff La Rosa Nostra-antics – more Analyze This than The Godfather. As for me, I can smell even off brand racketeering a mile away, having been raised in the onetime Mafia haven of Staten Island – New York City’s only Trump-friendly borough (where he’s reportedly more popular even than Robert DeNiro!)
Growing up in the forgotten borough during the 1990s was to live amidst the culture – and in the not-so distant shadow – of the Mafia’s dangerous denouement. Some of it was realer than most: like the father of my friend (since kindergarten) suddenly disappearing into the system, pinned with bodies in the Columbo crime family’s then ongoing civil war; or regularly meeting a high school flame at her pizza joint job – where the owner had been gunned down just a couple years earlier.
Beyond my own tenuous touchstones, there was plenty of (oft-inflated) borough crime lore to go around. I’d often thought one could – and wouldn’t you know someone eventually did – run a macabre tour of famous Island mob-spots (and hits): Snoope’s Bar and Grill (site of John Gotti’s first murder); the Todt Hill mansion of a Gambino Family boss (who Gotti later had killed); the sprawling fictional home of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) in The Godfather; and the Hillview mob mausoleum in Moravian Cemetery (where an uncle dug graves during my youth), for starters.
Look, I was no gangster and – besides distant tangential ties – neither were my relatives. Heck, I’m only one-quarter Italian and sport blue eyes and Irish cheeks. And most of the "Staten-Italy" hoopla is grounded – yet another Trump link! – more in desperate-mob-wives or MTV-reality shows, than reality. Still, coming of age in a borough where lots of folks really do sound (and pretend) like they’re in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, let’s say I know the type and their tactics.
Unsurprisingly, Queens-raised Trump has his own ties to the Island. The borough bred both accusations of racial discrimination at his father’s local apartment complexes, and a staggering 57 percent of votes (75 percent on the hyper-white south shore) for The Donald in 2016 – this in a city that otherwise loathes its native son.
By the way, the gangland allegory seems less absurd when one stops to consider the administration’s unique familial nepotism and containing a self-proclaimed "West Point Mafia” running defense and diplomacy. (Side note: of the hundreds of critical articles – and one antiwar book – I’d published on active duty, it was that naughty "nepotism" descriptor that the army "indicted" me for.)
Of course, unlike The Donald (or Don Jr., naturally) I’ve also spent some of my post-bridge-and-tunnel life fighting in Afghanistan – where I observed war-torn corruption and extortion that put the Gambinos to shame. There, I also witnessed some borderline war crimes – mainly perpetrated by U.S.-trained and partnered Afghan troops – and it is there that the ICC’s lead investigator concluded there was enough evidence that some U.S. forces had "committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence [mainly in 2003-04]" to warrant a full investigation. And yes, you read that right: an ICC investigation decided there was enough "there" there to investigate further. This still seemed an easy call, since the misdeeds in question were widely known, and credibly reported enough to substantially inform the plot for 2019’s star-studded Amazon original film, The Report.
Well this litigious exercise in the esoteric was just too much for Don Donald and the Trump Crime Family. So last month, though largely lost in the twin pandemic and protest crises, the administration’s "enforcers" retaliated against the ICC with some textbook tactics taught in International Racketeering 101 (I assume that’s a existing elective Pompeo carried over from Langley to Foggy Bottom University, right?).
Of course, American presidents – from Clinton to Bush to Obama – have been lukewarm at best about any ICC oversight of their decidedly unaccountable nation. In each of their fashions: Clinton hedged, Bush balked, Obama waffled, and Trump, well…he hit back. George W. even signed (and Obama failed to abrogate) what’s sarcastically – but not inaccurately – been dubbed the "Hague Invasion Act," reserving a US"right" to use "all means necessary…to bring about the release of any US or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by" the ICC in the Netherlands.
To announce his recent retaliation strategy, the current Godfather-in-chief dispatched a quartet of his best "made" guys: two consiglieres (Secretary of State "Mikey" Pompeo and National Security Adviser "Bobby" O’Brien), a capo with longtime ties to "legit" financial [or defense] industries (Defense Secretary Mark "Troop” Esper), and his legal counsel (Attorney General "Billy" Barr). Now, there’s room for intelligent debate on the efficacy, limits, and proper jurisdiction of international courts. But that’s not what Trump’s quartet offered.
Instead, these lead enforcers peddled language-stretching hypocrisy, flagrant intimidation, and petty extortion. Befitting their outspoken style and influence, predictably Mikey P and Billy Barr led the rhetorical and retaliatory charge. Their key gripes involved "sovereignty" – Afghanistan and everything we do there is our gang’s turf – and jurisdiction.
Trump’s less than diplomatic top diplomat described the sanctions as a rebuke of the ICC investigation’s "affront to American sovereignty." The otherwise Trump-critical New York Times report, failed to note how odd – and almost Orwellian – a charge this was, coming from a rogue [US] state. After all, Pompeo inherited and further militarized a State Department that’s spent decades as little more than a propaganda and apologia arm of the globe’s leading violator of ground and airspace sovereignty. But of course, might makes right in the underworld.
Regarding jurisdiction, Pompeo proclaimed that "When our own people do wrong, we lawfully punish those individuals, as rare as they are, who tarnish the reputation of our great US military and our intelligence services." On the surface, this might be mob-translated as a clear preference for street-justice against the rare few who dishonor the family. (Think Al Pacino’s quip in The Godfather: "Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t you ever go against the family again.") Only even that doesn’t hold up! Mikey P kisses-the-ring of a real-life Godfather who pardons convicted and (as yet untried) accused American war criminals with unapologetic relish.
Stretching the boundaries of traditional legal ethics – and mirroring typical tactics of 1980s-era attorneys for New York’s Five Families – is Trump’s in-house mob lawyer, Attorney General Billy Barr. He questioned the court’s legitimacy and offered some unsubstantiated misdirection: that the ICC is vulnerable to manipulation by "foreign powers, like Russia." Now I’m hardly an enthusiastic Russiagater, but invoking Moscow amidst an establishment liberal witch-hunt seems beneath a savvy Mafia counselor. Then again, we are talking the guy who put out a contract on the Venezuelan president in public – rather than putting word in the streets from the archetypal backroom of a Brooklyn social club. Still, in classic mob-fashion, the manipulator Barr described the ICC’s vulnerability to manipulation (isn’t that what the US is actually doing?). Gangland translation: Nice international court you’ve got there; be a shame if something happened to it.
Still, Machiavelli Mikey Pompeo takes the prize for most on-the-nose Mafia allusion. He and his indicted kingpin chum, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, must’ve recently rewatched The Godfather. For if his warning – "your people could be next" – to the other families (NATO countries) against supporting the ICC’s investigation didn’t quite rise to Marlon Brando’s "make him an offer he can’t refuse,” delivery, the message was crystal clear. If Washington’s errand boys like their security umbrella and low-military/high-social spending budgets, they better well stand with Trump. Otherwise, when the Hague comes for them, NATO partners shouldn’t count on an obliging audience with the Godfather.
There’s no denying the ample wisdom in the best work of that rare American art form: the Mafia motion picture. Still, as my father warned me many times, behind the alluring romance and gentlemanly veneer, ultimately the mob is venal and vicious. The victimized form the foundation of its code of honor, and the crime family hardly serves justice. So it is with Washington’s gangster class. The cruelty and misdeeds of their soldatos – troops, spooks, or proxies – in Afghanistan are real. Recently, the United Nations concluded that Americans and their local allies now kill more civilians than their Taliban foes.
Furthermore, according to former State Department official William Burke-White, the administration applies reprisals against the ICC with "strong parallels to those imposed…against terrorist groups and dictators." Which puts – per a prominent NGO’s international justice director – "the US on the side of those who commit and coverup human rights abuses." Trump’s ICC vendetta exposes the old, if inconvenient, core truth that the US security state inverts democracy and liberty. Washington wages a war in which the people, and justice, are the enemies.
This range of retaliation – and it’s rank absurdity – suggests that the appropriate legal weapon against Trump was never Nancy Pelosi’s narrowly conceived impeachment distraction, but the full on RICO charges (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) that brought down La Rosa Nostra. (We’ll table, for the moment, the Act’s more civil liberties-problematic aspects and applications.) Oh, and mark my words: if that RICO hammer ever did fall, Eric and Don Jr. – who, as it happens, hired a real-life mob lawyer in 2017 – will be the first to "flip" on dear old dad; leaving First Lady Melania to cash-in on the hit reality-TV hybrid "Desperate Mob Wives of the District of Columbia." Such is the stuff that dreams are made of; but I digress.
Point is, whether he’s tweet-threatening to deploy military "leg-breakers" or MAGA-goons to bust up recent protests, or intimidating and obstructing ICC investigators, Don Donald continually behaves like a countrywide crime boss. These days the symbols he will “not even consider” renaming or removing are Confederate, but he really ought to fill his newly ordered "National Heroes Garden" with statues of his true forebears like Paul Castellano, Sammy "the bull" Gravano," and the recently gunned-down Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali. All of whom, incidentally, called Staten Island home.
Look, my Mafia analogy is an admittedly absurdist stretch, driven in part by frustration and its salve of self-amusement. But is it so far off?
Recall one last quote from the eminently-quotable Godfather – Michael [Al Pacino] deflects his future wife Kay’s [Diane Keaton] concerns about his dad the don’s criminal business thus:
"My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator."
Now there’s some mob-flick wisdom…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen