many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.
.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)
As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.
.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.
.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.
What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.
The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”
The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.
When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”
When members of the American media cover the story of Russian meddling, they implicitly portray Russia as a normal state, and the influence operation as an undertaking of the state aimed at furthering Russia’s national interests. This strikes Russians as absurd. By the measure of national interest, the Trump Presidency has been disappointing for Russia. Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction:
- he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine;
- he has failed to support nato; and
- he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total.
At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.
By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.
Many of those now climbing over the Democrats’ blue walls were willing to live under the original liberal governance model that existed before 1960 because it recognized the legitimacy of private economic life. The wealthy agreed then to pay their “fair share.”
.. Defenders of the liberal model argue that cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are changing into sophisticated, cosmopolitan hubs that attract a new class of young professionals who will restore urban America. Instead, many of these urban revivals are producing a phenomenon economists now call “racially concentrated areas of affluence,” or RCAAs.
An area gets RCAAed when the residents who pack themselves into it are mostly white people whose median incomes are unprecedentedly greater than the city’s poverty level. Some of the most RCAAed cities are liberal duchies like Boston, Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Today, private economic life, especially that of the urban middle class, is no longer a partner in the liberal model. It’s merely a “revenue source” for a system whose patronage is open-ended welfare and largely uncapped public-employee pensions. I’d describe the liberal-progressive governing strategy as ruin and rule.
.. Not widely noticed is that liberalism’s claimed beneficiaries—black Americans—are also fleeing its failures. Demographers have documented significant black out-migration from New York, Michigan, California and Illinois into Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. North to south.
.. They are now asking the federal government, meaning taxpayers who live in parts of the U.S. not hostile to capitalism, to give them nearly $15 billion to replace the 100-year-old train tunnel beneath the Hudson River. Why should they? Why send money to a moribund, dysfunctional urban liberal politics that will never—as in, not ever—clean up its act or reform?
Maybe we need a new default solution to the urban crisis: Let internal migration redistribute the U.S. population away from liberalism’s smug but falling-apart plutonomies.
On May 18 Trump was asked: “Did you, at any time, urge former F.B.I. Director James Comey, in any way, shape or form, to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?” The president’s response: “No. No. Next question.”
Comey, in his statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says that in a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting Trump did precisely what he denies.
.. a president who had already tried through a veiled threat to establish a “patronage relationship,”
.. No doubt Mueller is also wondering what possible benign motive could lead Trump to clear the Oval Office before asking the F.B.I. director to spare Flynn.
.. “Trump’s business is infecting the people around him. To show loyalty you have to engage in the corrupt or mendacious behavior he engages in. So he’s a form of contagion — and Comey did not want the investigation infected.”
.. if Mueller suggests the president could be indicted, impeachment proceedings will be hard to resist — and then, as Burbank put it, “what we might colloquially call ‘obstruction of justice’ might be deemed a high crime or misdemeanor even if it would not violate federal criminal law.”
Trump’s defenders will be trying to portray Trump’s pressuring Comey to drop the Flynn investigation as an isolated incident, a president who simply didn’t know any better going a bit too far trying to get a friend off the hook.
.. The president asked Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to pledge his loyalty and to shut down one part of the investigation. When the director didn’t comply, he was fired.
And the intelligence committee hearing on all of this proceeded like it was just another partisan fight about tax cuts. The word “surreal” comes to mind.
.. the specific takeaway is actually something we already knew: Comey said: “I take the president, at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve.” Comey was clear Trump didn’t ask him to stop the Russia investigation. But the president wanted to change the course of what the F.B.I. was doing. In this context, whatever his rationale, and whether or not he broke the law, is that acceptable conduct for an American president?
.. including a cryptic reference by Trump to the “the McCabe thing,” suggesting that our president might have his cross hairs on the acting FBI director.
.. The statement by Trump’s lawyer that the president feels “completely and totally vindicated” by Comey’s testimony was particularly bizarre given that Trump and the White House had both flatly denied the president ever made such a request. True, Comey’s testimony confirms that as of March 30, the F.B.I. wasn’t investigating Trump himself, but that’s hardly proof of innocence. After all, as Comey points out, that could change.
.. David French describes Comey’s account of the exchange in which Trump asked him for loyalty and concludes:
“There’s no serious argument that this is appropriate behavior from an American president. Imagine for a moment testimony that President Barack Obama or a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton had a similar conversation with an F.B.I. director. The entire conservative-media world would erupt in outrage, and rightly so. The F.B.I. director is a law-enforcement officer, loyal to the Constitution, not the president’s consigliere.”
.. The Department of Justice has long taken the position that criminal charges can’t be brought against a sitting president because that would “undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions”
.. Attorney General Jeff Sessions couldn’t bring charges even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t.
.. an aggressive accusation that the Trump administration “defamed” him and the agency to justify his firing. “Those were lies, plain and simple,”
.. Comey wants to be providing the facts, and his gut reaction — “disturbing” — while leaving the legal conclusions to the senators questioning him, and to Bob Mueller
.. Rich Lowry’s argument in Politico that Comey’s willingness to talk about ongoing investigations helps explain why Trump thought he could ask Comey to publicly say that the president himself wasn’t under investigation.
.. there something to the underlying idea, that Comey himself scrambled the rules for what should and shouldn’t be public, in the context of a highly politicized F.B.I. investigation?
.. how telling is it that the former director of the F.B.I. testified that he felt he needed to document every encounter with Trump because, given “the nature of the person,” he felt Trump might lie? He actually used the “L” word!
.. Trump is right about the “cloud” hanging over him. Comey set a bad precedent last summer and I hope the F.B.I. ditches it.
.. Senator Marco Rubio’s line of questioning, is that the defense of Trump is taking form
.. One Comey subtheme is Sessions’s failure to protect the F.B.I’s independence from the White House.
.. it sounds like Sessions is more mixed up in the Russia investigation than we know.
.. And if it turns out the campaign assisted Russia in any way, that’s a political crime that would make the Watergate break-in look benign.
.. He didn’t order Comey to shut down the whole Russia investigation, he merely asked Comey to shut down the inquiry into Flynn
.. I’ll stipulate that much of Comey’s conduct strikes me as bizarre: The vicarious leaking of his memo probably tops that list, and his reason for not alerting Sessions of Trump’s misconduct, at a time when Sessions was still overseeing the Russia investigation, is pretty thin.
.. I’m still getting my mind around Comey’s statement that he asked a friend (Dan Richman, a Columbia University law professor has confirmed he was that person) to leak Comey’s memo about Trump to the press in order to trigger the appointment of a special counsel. Wow! Trump doesn’t play chess, but that’s what Comey was doing. It also suggests that he didn’t think the Justice Department should handle the investigation through normal channels.