America’s mob boss at work

I spoke to a lively group of organized crime aficionados last week at the Mob Museum downtown as part of a gathering called “The Summit.”

Set amid the handsomely curated displays of a former federal courthouse, now officially known as the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, my bit was a reminiscence of some of the criminal cases I worked and the notorious characters I met — fellows with nicknames like “Charlie Moose,” “Fat Herbie,” and “Springfield Sam.” You could almost hear the ghosts of Las Vegas past grouse from the grave about how the town was better when the mob ran it.

It brought back memories of the capers some of those criminals pulled. They couldn’t help themselves. Gangsters steal, grifters grift.

A scam that’s basic throughout the hoodlum hierarchy sometimes goes by the name “create and alleviate.” In brief: You create a problem for a businessman or politician, then offer to fix it — for a fee or a favor, of course. It’s not the most sophisticated hustle on the street. Corporate America and the Congress have refined it to a high art, but it’s a staple of a crowd that counts extortion as just another business practice.

From the look of things, the create-and-alleviate is in full effect these days in Washington. It’s being practiced not by some treacherous mug with a grade-school education, but by America’s “Boss of Bosses,” President Donald J. Trump. For those who have followed Trump’s scam-riddled career, it’s no surprise. Anybody whose admiration for the late mob mouthpiece and fixer Roy Cohn borders on hero worship is bereft of conscience and capable of anything. 

Even mobster diplomacy. Even working the create-and-alleviate with the president of Ukraine.

What we’ve already learned in recent days thanks to a courageous whistleblower puts America’s Boss in a stark light that promises to make even some of his unabashed acolytes cringe. But in the coming weeks, those who watch the House impeachment investigation into allegations that Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Joe Biden and his son are going to learn a lot about the create-and-alleviate hustle as it was practiced by a master of corporate gangsterism.

The whistleblower, identified by The New York Times Thursday as a CIA agent, wrote in the complaint that he’d “received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” In addition to arm-twisting for an investigation into Biden and his son, who serves on the board of a Ukrainian petroleum company, the whistleblower wrote, “The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General (William) Barr appears to be involved as well.”

Biden in 2015 courted controversy as vice president when he persuaded Ukraine officials to fire a prosecutor during an investigation of the country’s natural gas giant, Burisma. Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma in 2014. Nonpartisan fact-checkers have shot holes in the tawdry tale of Biden & Son corruption that is circulating cyberspace.

In a July 25 phone conversation with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, following the administration holding back (just days earlier) $400 million in allocated U.S. military aid to the country, Trump quickly dispensed with the pleasantries and almost immediately “sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid,” according to the whistleblower complaint. The information was confirmed by multiple White House sources, the whistleblower said.

Then America’s Boss of Bosses spelled out the deal: continue an investigation into his likely presidential rival, Biden, and his son; assist in shifting the blame for the site of the hacking of servers used by the Democratic National Committee from Russia to the Ukraine; meet and confer with Trump representatives Giuliani and Barr. 

Trump didn’t ask Zelensky once or twice, according to The Wall Street Journal, but at least eight times.

Trump had Zelensky at hello. After reminding Trump that he had friends at Trump Tower in New York, according to the official transcript, the Ukrainian leader enthused, “I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington, DC. On the other hand, I also wanted to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.” 

It’s not much to speculate that a $400 million delay created a problem for Ukraine and opened the door to a request for assistance — none dare call it an extortionate threat. Nor was it mentioned during the phone conversation. There was no need.

Good relations would mean not only the delivery of that delayed military aid, but another prized perquisite, a White House visit.

Zelensky was no dummy. He knew who was boss.

Think Trump insiders weren’t scared when word of the conversation began to leak? From the complaint: “In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced — as is customary — by the White House situation room.” If they could do that, then, as any mob guy might say, “Nobody heard nothin’.”

But somebody did hear. Numerous persons, in fact. And now it’s all playing out in ugly detail. As the nation is learning day by painful day, America’s real “Boss of Bosses” isn’t in some sweaty East Harlem social club, but gets his mail at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Under increasing pressure Thursday, in true gangster fashion, Trump resorted to tough-guy patter in a private event at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York: “I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little bit differently than we do now.”

Nice. The leader of the free world pops off about whacking whistleblowers. 

Back in Las Vegas, it’s easy to imagine what the apparitions of the Strip’s mobbed-up past would say after learning of the create-and-alleviate hustle pulled by America’s Boss of Bosses. For one thing, they’d be impressed. They might even forgive the guy for talking on the phone for his long-distance shakedown.

Listen closely and you’ll hear those ghosts of gangsters groan, “Maybe we should have dreamed bigger.”

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith