Trump’s Mafia Lessons

Trump has been wrapped in Mafia con­nec­tions for decades. Here’s how he learned to talk like a don

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY JEFF STEIN @Spytalker

On a rainy day in the spring Of 1976, FBI Spe­cial Agent My­ron Fuller took the New York sub­way to Brook­lyn to in­ter­view Don­ald Trump. The fu­ture ty­coon, about 30, was just get­ting his real es­tate ca­reer off the ground, aided by se­cret pay­ments from his fa­ther. Fuller found Trump work­ing out of a tem­po­rary of­fice in a dou­ble-wide trailer on a muddy con­struc­tion site. “There were boards cov­er­ing wet dirt, in lieu of ce­ment walk­ways,” Fuller re­calls to Newsweek. He knocked on the door and went in. “His sec­re­tary sat there by the en­trance, and Trump was a door away from there.” Ush­ered in, he found Trump sit­ting be­hind his desk. The busi­ness­man did not get up to wel­come the agent. “He never came around, and

I do not re­call him shak­ing my hand,” Fuller says.

The FBI agent was car­ry­ing out an er­rand for the bureau’s Mi­ami of­fice, to fol­low up on a tip that mob­sters had asked Trump to front for them in a pur­chase of the Fon­tainebleau ho­tel. Once a beach­side fa­vorite of movie stars and the rich, the ho­tel was also a no­to­ri­ous han­gout for Mafia king­pins like Sam Gian­cana, who fa­mously met with CIA agents in the ho­tel’s Boom Boom Room to plot the as­sas­si­na­tion of Fidel Cas­tro. But in 1976, the Fon­tainebleau was tee­ter­ing on bank­ruptcy, and the mob­sters needed a straw man to buy it.

Fuller asked Trump a sim­ple ques­tion. “Why would your name come up as a pos­si­ble buyer for them?” The fu­ture pres­i­dent of the United States re­sponded calmly that “he did not know.” He had “heard about” some peo­ple want­ing him to buy it, he told Fuller, but not much more. Fuller, with noth­ing else to go on, closed his note­book. Trump sum­moned his limo driver to take the agent back to the city.

More than 40 years later, Fuller, who gained fame for the FBI bribery sting dra­ma­tized in the movie Amer­i­can Hus­tle, chuck­les rue­fully about the en­counter, re­ported here for the first time. “See­ing who he is now, learn­ing more about him in the last two or three years, I do have some re­grets that I didn’t have a bell and whis­tle go­ing off there and go fur­ther,” he says.

And noth­ing fur­ther did con­nect Trump to the Fon­tainebleau’s even­tual sale to a mob front. Nor do pub­lic records show the bud­ding real es­tate op­er­a­tor was ever in­dicted, much less con­victed, in any of the big cases that brought down the five Mafia fam­i­lies who ruled New York. But Fuller’s en­counter of­fers a timely win­dow into a his­tory that ex­plains how Trump learned to talk—and act—like a don, even in the hal­lowed precincts of the White House.

To be sure, Trump’s up­bring­ing in Queens, where the Mafia was ubiq­ui­tous, helped form his wiseguy per­sona. So did an ap­par­ent be­hav­ioral dis­or­der that caused him to buy switch­blades and start fights in school. But it’s also ev­i­dent that by the time he was 30, the fu­ture pres­i­dent was on the FBI’S radar as some­one the Mafia might turn to in a pinch. And by the time he was 70, with a busi­ness tra­jec­tory stud­ded with mob­sters, it should’ve come as no sur­prise that he was pay­ing hush money to women, al­legedly of­fer­ing a se­cret ho­tel deal to Vladimir Putin, call­ing his long­time for­mer lawyer Michael Co­hen a “rat” or de­nounc­ing pros­e­cu­tors for pres­sur­ing his as­so­ciates to “flip.”

This was the life he had cho­sen.

In De­cem­ber, as the pres­i­dent dis­par­aged Co­hen with Mafia lingo (the one­time fixer told a fed­eral court that Trump had di­rected him in vi­o­lat­ing cam­paign fi­nance law), a flurry of cov­er­age noted the ori­gins of rat and how Trump had used it be­fore, along with flip, more wiseguy slang for co­op­er­at­ing with the feds. The press clutched its col­lec­tive pearls. But lost in the hor­ror over Trump’s lan­guage were the much darker in­flec­tion points of his jour­ney through the un­der­world, re­la­tion­ships ar­guably more re­veal­ing about the pres­i­dent and his busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tions than still-un­proven the­o­ries about his col­lu­sion with Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion.


Trump’s de­scent into the gang­land may have be­gun with Roy Cohn, the ruth­less lawyer whom Trump hired to help nav­i­gate the bare-knuckle New York real es­tate busi­ness. Long no­to­ri­ous for help­ing Sen­a­tor Joseph Mc­carthy un­leash the 1950s “red scare” that ru­ined the ca­reers of scores of Hol­ly­wood fig­ures, fed­eral work­ers and jour­nal­ists, Cohn in the 1970s rep­re­sented lead­ers of the Vito Gen­ovese crime fam­ily dur­ing a fed­eral rack­e­teer­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion. As it turns out, around the same time Fuller was in­ter­view­ing Trump in 1976, Cohn was adding a for­mer Con­necti­cut at­tor­ney gen­eral to his law firm who, on the side, was rep­re­sent­ing a lo­cal mob­ster by the name of An­drew D’amato in a bid to buy the Fon­tainebleau.

Look­ing back on the events years later, Fuller says, “I pre­sume that Mi­ami’s knowl­edge of D’amato’s ef­forts to pur­chase the Fon­tainebleau ho­tel is what led them to Trump.” In 1977, D’amato was con­victed of con­spir­acy in a fi­nan­cial swin­dling scheme in Hawaii with other known mob­sters. Now in his 90s, D’amato did not re­spond to mes­sages left at his home in Con­necti­cut.

Some of Cohn’s Mafia clients con­trolled New York’s con­struc­tion unions, whose bless­ings Trump needed to com­plete his pro­jects. So he “hired mobbed-up firms to erect Trump Tower and his Trump Plaza apart­ment build­ing in Man­hat­tan, in­clud­ing buy­ing osten­si­bly over­priced con­crete from a com­pany con­trolled by Mafia chief­tains An­thony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno and Paul Castel­lano,” Pulitzer Prize win­ner David Cay John-

“New York was so to­tally cor­rupt and so con­trolled by the mob in the ’80s that you had to have some way to work that world.”

ston wrote in Politico in 2016. Vil­lage

Voice in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter Wayne Bar­rett, who chron­i­cled Trump’s deals in books and ar­ti­cles through the years, wrote that Trump prob­a­bly met Fat Tony through Cohn. “This came at a time when other de­vel­op­ers in New York were plead­ing with the FBI to free them of mob con­trol of the con­crete busi­ness,” John­ston wrote.

One ben­e­fit of such con­nec­tions was that work­ers tear­ing down the Bon­wit Teller build­ing where Trump Tower was planned could take al­legedly il­le­gal short­cuts around strict city reg­u­la­tions for dis­pos­ing of con­struc­tion waste. Ac­cord­ing to a Newsweek source who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause his fam­ily is well-known in the con­struc­tion busi­ness, the as­bestos and con­crete were dumped near aban­doned docks in Brook­lyn and other dis­crete places in­stead of pre­scribed sites farther away—sav­ing time and money. The White House re­ferred Newsweek to the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which did not re­spond to an in­quiry.

“On pa­per,” as one of sev­eral news ac­counts put it, the de­mo­li­tion work­ers were mem­bers of Lo­cal 95, a Gen­ovese-con­trolled union. But in re­al­ity, they were un­doc­u­mented work­ers from Poland and South Ko­rea. Ronald Fino, son of a Buf­falo, New York, Mafia capo, told Newsweek they were known as “the sneaker bri­gade” for “re­mov[ing] the as­bestos il­le­gally.” (Through the years, Trump de­nied know­ing about the il­le­gal work­ers, but in 1998, af­ter years of lit­i­ga­tion, he qui­etly paid a to­tal of $1.38 mil­lion “to set­tle the case, with $500,000 of it go­ing to a union ben­e­fits fund and the rest to pay lawyers’ fees and ex­penses,”

The New York Times re­vealed in 2017.) “New York was so to­tally cor­rupt and so con­trolled by the mob in the ’80s that in or­der to be a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, you had to have some way to work that world,” for­mer FBI agent Walt Stowe, who grew close to Trump through the years and says he never saw the de­vel­oper do any­thing il­le­gal, told The Wash­ing­ton Post’s

Robert O’har­row Jr. in 2016. But by 1988, Trump was feel­ing so com­fort­able as­so­ci­at­ing with Mafiosi that he did his first name-li­cens­ing deal with a lux­ury limo rental com­pany owned by John Staluppi, a made mem­ber of the Colombo crime fam­ily, ac­cord­ing to Wil­liam Ba­s­tone, found­ing ed­i­tor of The Smok­ing Gun web­site. And by that time, Trump was deep into his quest for an At­lantic City for­tune.

But early on, Trump re­lied on his asso­ciations with un­der­world char­ac­ters to open his grandiose (and ul­ti­mately bank­rupt) gam­bling dens on the board­walk. One of the more in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters back then was Daniel Sul­li­van, “a 42-year-old giant of a man with great charm and a crim­i­nal record,” who “dealt with la­bor prob­lems at Trump’s con­struc­tion sites,” ac­cord­ing to O’har­row’s deep­dive story. Trump went into a dry­wall man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness with Sul­li­van, which was “among the firms im­pli­cated in a rack­e­teer­ing scheme in­volv­ing the car­pen­ters’ union and the Gen­ovese crime fam­ily” rep­re­sented by Cohn, O’har­row wrote. Sul­li­van also brought Trump into an At­lantic City land-leas­ing deal with Ken­neth Shapiro, whom law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties had iden­ti­fied as a fi­nancier and agent for Philadel­phia mob­ster Ni­codemo “Lit­tle Nicky” Scarfo.

Ad­vised by the head of New Jersey’s Gam­ing En­force­ment agency that the Sul­li­van con­nec­tion could hurt his chances for casino li­censes, Trump bought him out and told the FBI that he was sev­er­ing all ties with the big guy. But they stayed in touch, ac­cord­ing to a 1983 civil suit Sul­li­van filed against New Jersey au­thor­i­ties: At one point, Trump of­fered him a job as his or­ga­ni­za­tion’s chief la­bor ne­go­tia­tor, with a $75,000 salary, he swore in court doc­u­ments. In the end, no ev­i­dence has sur­faced show­ing Trump was ever charged in any Mafia-re­lated probes.


For­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say Trump had a close and cu­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship with the New York divi­sion of the FBI. “We saw Trump in the of­fice all the time,” for­mer FBI Spe­cial Agent Mark Rossini tells Newsweek. He was a “hip-pocket source,” Rossini says, for James Kall­strom, a wire­tap­ping ex­pert who su­per­vised Mafia in­ves­ti­ga­tions in New York, and Rudy Gi­u­liani, the top fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in Man­hat­tan who would later be­come mayor of New York and, even­tu­ally, Trump’s per­sonal lawyer amid the “Rus­si­a­gate” probe. (Kall­strom de­nied that Trump was a source. Gi­u­liani did not re­spond to a

Some thought Trump was an in­for­mant. “How did he deal with the mob all these years and never ap­pear be­fore a grand jury?”

re­quest for com­ment.) Rossini won­ders whether Trump’s cul­ti­va­tion of FBI agents pro­tected him in the Mafia probes. “All the con­struc­tion unions were mobbed up” in the 1980s, Rossini noted. “How did he deal with the mob all these years and never ap­pear be­fore a grand jury?” Fuller also thinks “Trump was an in­for­mant for some­body in the FBI New York of­fice.”

But Bruce Mouw, who headed the New York FBI’S in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Gam­bino crime fam­ily, dis­misses in­sin­u­a­tions that Trump was ei­ther a mob as­set or con­fi­den­tial bureau source. “I don’t be­lieve it,” he tells

Newsweek. Con­tacts with mobbed-up union chiefs, he says, “were done through the con­struc­tion com­pa­nies, not the de­vel­op­ers.”

But a re­mark Trump him­self made at an event years later suggested he was well placed to share tips on Mafia per­son­al­i­ties with fa­vored FBI of­fi­cials. Dur­ing the height of his fame as star of The Ap­pren­tice, Trump claimed that “ev­ery net­work“tried to get him to do a re­al­ity show, but he re­fused.

“I don’t want to have cam­eras all over my of­fice, deal­ing with con­trac­tors, politi­cians, mob­sters and every­one else I have to deal with in my busi­ness,” he told a 2004 panel at the Mu­seum of Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio in L.A. “You know, mob­sters don’t like, as they are talk­ing to me, hav­ing cam­eras all over the room. It would play well on tele­vi­sion, but it doesn’t play well with them.”

What’s clear is that Kall­strom, a for­mer Ma­rine, grew close to Trump over the years. The real es­tate de­vel­oper do­nated over $230,000 to Kall­strom’s Ma­rine Corps–law En­force­ment Foun­da­tion and pro­vided it free space in his At­lantic City casi­nos for fundrais­ers, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral ac­counts. Kall­strom’s foun­da­tion, in which Rush Lim­baugh is a di­rec­tor, was also “the sin­gle biggest ben­e­fi­ciary of Trump’s prom­ise to raise mil­lions for veter­ans” in a lead-up to the 2016 Iowa Re­pub­li­can de­bate, Bar­rett wrote. “A foun­da­tion of­fi­cial said that Trump’s mil­lion-dol­lar do­na­tion this May, atop $100,000 that he’d given in March, were the biggest in­di­vid­ual grants it had ever re­ceived.”

Kall­strom be­came an in­flu­en­tial Trump de­fender and Hil­lary Clin­ton critic dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, bash­ing then–fbi Di­rec­tor James Comey for fail­ing to nail Clin­ton on her pri­vate email server and ac­cus­ing Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials of com­mit­ting “per­jury” in their pur­suit of Rus­sian ties to Trump and his as­so­ciates. In March 2018, he went fur­ther, ac­cus­ing Comey and dis­graced for­mer FBI coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence chief Peter Str­zok of hav­ing “a backup plan to frame Don­ald Trump” as a Rus­sian agent.

Nei­ther fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors nor U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have re­ported ev­i­dence of any “plot to frame Trump.” To the con­trary, for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor Robert Mueller was ap­pointed spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate al­leged Rus­sian plot­ting to tilt the elec­tion to Trump— with the can­di­date’s knowl­edge and

“Mob­sters don’t like hav­ing cam­eras all over

the room. It would play well on tele­vi­sion, but it doesn’t play well with them.”

ap­proval. One of Mueller’s sub­jects of in­ter­est has been a now-in­fa­mous 2016 meet­ing that Trump’s son Don­ald Jr., then–cam­paign chief Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kush­ner ea­gerly took with a Rus­sian agent of­fer­ing “dirt” on Clin­ton.

Rus­sia’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, oli­garchs and gang­sters are seam­lessly con­nected, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple news ac­counts through the years. And since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Rus­sian mob has made huge in­roads into the Amer­i­can un­der­world, some­times form­ing al­liances of con­ve­nience with La Cosa Nos­tra. As a teenager, Trump’s fu­ture lawyer Co­hen,

The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported last year, “fre­quented Brook­lyn’s eth­nic Rus­sian neigh­bor­hoods and mar­ried into a Ukrainian fam­ily.” At a friend’s wed­ding, he “bragged to an­other guest that he be­longed to the Rus­sian mob.” The friend didn’t be­lieve it, but when Trump pur­sued a ho­tel deal in Moscow, Co­hen was dis­patched to seal the deal, work­ing through shady char­ac­ters to of­fer Putin a top-floor pent­house, ac­cord­ing to Buz­zfeed News.

The Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion had long been awash in il­licit Rus­sian money, au­thor Craig Unger claimed in a 2018 book, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Un­told Story of Don­ald Trump and

the Rus­sian Mafia. “It started out as a sim­ple money-laun­der­ing op­er­a­tion at Trump Tower in 1984, when a Rus­sian mob­ster came to Trump Tower with $6 mil­lion in cash and bought five con­dos. This is the tem­plate for what be­gins to un­fold. At least 1,300 Trump con­dos in the United States have been sold sim­i­larly. All cash pur­chases through anony­mous sources,” Unger told Newsweek last Au­gust.

Rus­sian mafia ex­pert Mark Ga­le­otti says it’s all about greed. “I have seen no se­ri­ous ev­i­dence of any ex­plicit link be­tween Trump and Rus­sian mob­sters. Rather, what I have seen is ev­i­dence of the ex­tent to which the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion seems to have been will­ing to en­gage with du­bi­ous in­vestors and buy­ers—some Rus­sian, many not— whom more rep­utable cor­po­ra­tions would not have touched,” Ga­le­otti re­cently told Vice.

That seemed the case all the way back in 1976, when Trump calmly told FBI agent Fuller that he had “heard about” a pitch for him to buy the no­to­ri­ously mob-con­nected Fon­tainebleau ho­tel. There was no shock in his re­sponse, no in­dig­na­tion that the FBI would present him with such an al­le­ga­tion. Fuller thinks back to that mo­ment in the con­struc­tion site trailer, and he won­ders how his­tory might have taken a dif­fer­ent course if he or some­one else in the FBI had kept a more crit­i­cal eye on Trump.

“At that time, the only peo­ple who were in­ter­ested in buy­ing the Fon­tainebleau were the mob,” he says. “Had I been a lit­tle bit sharper, I think I might’ve—well, it might’ve been a di­rec­tion we could have gone.”

WISEGUYS Trump hired Cohn, the ruth­less New York lawyer, to help nav­i­gate the city’s real es­tate busi­ness. Some of Cohn’s clients, like the Gen­ovese crime fam­ily, con­trolled con­struc­tion unions.

GOODFELLAS Trump em­ployed “mobbedup firms” to build pro­jects in Man­hat­tan, ac­cord­ing to one writer. From top: Trump Tower; mug shots of Salerno and Castel­lano, who con­trolled a com­pany that re­port­edly did busi­ness with Trump. Op­po­site: Co­hen.

OF RATS AND MEN One for­mer FBI agent says Trump was a “hip-pocket source” for Gi­u­liani, the top fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in Man­hat­tan who would later be­come the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal lawyer amid the “Rus­si­a­gate” probe.

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