In Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, dialogue from The Godfather is presented as the urtext, the key to the masculine code, “the sum of all wisdom,” as Tom Hanks’s character emails Meg Ryan’s at one point in the film. In the shadowy, conspiratorial circle that so often seems to surround Donald Trump, the Mafia’s cryptic lingo plays the same role.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone charges that Stone urged Randy Credico, the radio personality who Mueller says served as Stone’s intermediary with WikiLeaks, to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli’ ’’ and lie to the House Intelligence Committee, rather than contradict Stone’s 2017 testimony that he and Credico had not exchanged any messages during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In fact, Mueller’s indictment alleges, Stone and Credico had texted and emailed each other often during the campaign, including exchanges about WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that spread stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In the end, Credico took the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify.
Frank Pentangeli, or Frankie Five Angels, is a character in The Godfather: Part II, a Corleone-family capo turned rival prepared to tell a Senate committee that Michael Corleone heads the most powerful organized-crime family in the nation, controls gambling throughout the country, has ordered numerous murders, and has committed a couple himself. Then, after a single intimidating glance from his Sicilian brother, whom Michael has flown in for the occasion, he recants and soon slits his wrists in a bathtub suicide.
The character is indelible in part because of Michael V. Gazzo’s mumbling, raspy-voiced, understated portrayal (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and lost only to his co-star Robert De Niro, who played the young Vito Corleone). But Pentangeli is also the epitome of the corrosive moral and human toll that organized crime takes on all who touch it. In the end, he dies with a perverse kind of honor while Michael Corleone, at least as bad and utterly unrepentant, lives to fight another day.
Trump’s invocation of the Mafia’s code of honor and omertà has been noted by many writers, including the editor of this magazine.
No less an expert than Nicholas Pileggi has explained how Trump’s vocabulary often echoes the idiom of the Brooklyn mob. Trump himself has called his former lawyer Michael Cohen a “rat” for agreeing to cooperate with Mueller, and has praised his campaign chief Paul Manafort’s initial refusal to “break” as worthy of “such respect for a brave man!” Trump’s recent claims that Cohen is cooperating with Mueller to mask shady dealings by his father-in-law smack of a classic don’s intimidation tactics.
Still, Stone’s language as recounted in Mueller’s latest indictment is striking. “Stonewall it. Plead the fifth. Anything to save the plan,” Stone texted Credico in November 2017, according to the indictment. By last spring, Stone had escalated his tone sharply. “You are a rat,” he emailed Credico. “A stoolie. You backstab your friends—run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds.” In the next sentence, Stone threatened to “take that dog away from you,” referring to Credico’s emotional support dog, a tiny white Coton de Tulear named Bianca.
“I am so ready,” Stone added. “Let’s get it on. Prepare to die …”
It is perhaps remarkable, and pitiable, enough that the president of the United States for years employed Cohen, a lawyer who is unself-consciously also described as a “fixer,” as his own personal Michael Clayton (to cite another movie), the in-house “janitor” on call to clean up his every mess. It is yet another thing to learn that Stone, the man who may be as responsible as anyone for helping to shape Trump’s view of political strategy and sparking his presidential run, is on the record as threatening canine kidnapping and even death to a colleague whose mere telling of the truth could subject him to perjury charges. If a horse’s head turns up in somebody’s satin sheets, should anybody still be surprised?