The reason it is so difficult to convict high-level criminals — including crooked politicians — is that they are usually well insulated. This is something that is conferred by power. The more powerful, the more insulated.
If you’re a Mafia boss, for example, you don’t need to talk on the phone when you’re ordering an assassination. When you’re that powerful, lieutenants come to you. One word, one wave — even one expression can be an instruction. And it’s almost never in a group.
There is a brilliant bit of narration in the film Good Fellas where Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is describing how it works. As Hill verbally paints the picture, the camera moves across a backyard barbecue of wise guys. At the center of it all is the boss, Pauly Cicero (Paul Sorvino, pictured), slowly eating a big Italian sausage. Here’s the most important part of Liotta’s voiceover:
“For a guy who moved all day long, Paulie didn’t talk to six people. If there was a union problem, or, say, a beef in the numbers and only the top guys could meet with Paulie to discuss the problem, everything was one-on-one. Paulie hated conferences. He didn’t want anyone hearing what he said, and he didn’t want anybody listening to what he was being told.”
In the scene, guys are looking at each other and nodding and then whispering in Sorvino’s ear. And all that you see Sorvino do is listen, nod, and take another bite of his sausage.
Mob cases are built from the outside in. When Feds finally get someone who took direct orders from a boss, they pressure that suspect until he flips or takes the rap. Flippers are also known as “rats.”
Henry Hill was a real criminal. He worked for the Lucchese crime family until he became an FBI informant. The evidence he provided to investigators led to more than 50 convictions, including mob captain Paul Vario.
Hill turned state’s evidence and entered the Witness Protection Program to save him and his wife from going to prison.
“Teflon Don” John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family, lost his Teflon in 1992. He was convicted on multiple counts of murder and racketeering. One of Gotti’s underbosses, “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, testified against Gotti. The Don got life in prison. Gravano served less than five years.
In politics, people elected to prominent chief executive positions have immense power — none more so than the president of the United States.
If a president wants to do something illegal, he or she does not necessarily need to spell it out loud.
Which means, the case against them often gets built from the outer edges — building blocks — until it comes closer and closer to the principals. Accusations must be corroborated — but executive branch officials can often claim executive privilege. If the courts allow that privilege to stand, it can be that much harder for Congress to convict and impeach a president for crimes committed.
But even when presidents do this, it can be very hard to hold them accountable. The case still needs to be built from the outside in. Accusations must be corroborated — but executive branch officials can often claim Executive Privilege under White House order. If the courts allow that privilege to stand, it can be that much harder for Congress to convict and impeach a president for crimes committed.
In Watergate, White House Counsel John Dean blew the whistle on himself and President Nixon for running a criminal conspiracy in the form of a cover-up. Even so, it was not until the Supreme Court ruled in favor of public disclosure of Nixon recordings that the tide turned and bipartisan leadership in Congress told Nixon his time was up.
Will Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney ever be forced to testify under oath and answer questions about direct orders he (likely) received from Donald Trump to extort Ukraine? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? National Security Advisor John Bolton?
Without them, will the case the Democrats are making against Trump resonate enough to substantially sway public opinion?
That’s all that this is about — public opinion. Roughly 50% of Americans are now in favor of convicting and removing the president from office. That’s not enough.
No one knows the precise magic number that must be reached in order for GOP Senators to start worrying about their own self-preservation.
Even as much as Donald Trump talks about what he shouldn’t talk about — regarding things he shouldn’t be doing in the first place — it may not be enough to move enough of America.
People respond to drama. The Nixon tapes were incredibly dramatic.
This is not a court of law. Congress, and, by extension, we Americans are the jury. There is no “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for us jurors to follow. There is a possibility that testimony provided by Ambassador Gordon Sondland and his aide next week will match perfectly and make it thoroughly clear that the president gave a direct order over the phone. If so, it may change the game. But there’s also a good chance that it won’t if Republicans frame the testimony as incomplete, circumstantial evidence.
That’s been the pattern thus far, and if a smokier gun isn’t presented to the public, the Trump-commandeered GOP just might win its case.