Why Pres­i­dent Trump of­ten sounds like a movie mob­ster

The Post’s Marc Fisher says wiseguys helped form Trump’s world­view

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - [email protected]­post.com

Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­ac­tion to a new guilty plea Thurs­day from his long­time at­tor­ney and fixer, Michael Co­hen, was pre­dictably pug­na­cious: Co­hen, one of Trump’s strong­est de­fend­ers for more than a decade, was “a weak per­son and not a very smart per­son.” Asked why he had kept such a char­ac­ter on his pay­roll for so many years, the pres­i­dent sounded like a par­ody of a lousy mob flick: “Be­cause a long time ago, he did me a fa­vor.” That was pre­dictable, too. An affin­ity for mob­sters and their rhetoric has been a con­sis­tent thread through Trump’s adult life. From his early pro­fes­sional men­tor, the New York lawyer and power bro­ker Roy Cohn, to his many years of deal­ing with mob-con­nected union and con­struc­tion in­dus­try bosses, Trump has formed close al­liances with rene­gades and rogues who some­times ended up on the wrong side of the law. He’s long learned from and looked up to tough, street-smart guys who didn’t mind break­ing some rules to get things done. Trump also ad­mires mob­sters’ no-non­sense lan­guage and bais for ac­tion; he cites “The God­fa­ther” and “Goodfel­las” among his fa­vorite movies.

His at­tacks on spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller III’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the 2016 cam­paign of­ten in­clude lan­guage usu­ally re­served for sto­ries about mob­sters. In Au­gust, when Co­hen first pleaded guilty and agreed to co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Trump lashed out at peo­ple he called “rats” — his ad­vis­ers, em­ploy­ees and erst­while friends who had been talk­ing to the feds about his cam­paign. “I know all about flip­ping,” Trump said in a Fox News in­ter­view. “For 30, 40 years, I’ve been watch­ing flip­pers. Ev­ery­thing’s won­der­ful, and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on who­ever the next high­est one is, or as high as you can go.”

Be­fore Trump’s ex-cam­paign chair­man, Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy charges, the pres­i­dent com­pli­mented him on Twit­ter be­cause “he re­fused to ‘break’ — make up sto­ries in or­der to get a ‘deal.’ ”

The pres­i­dent last sum­mer also praised his out­go­ing White House coun­sel, Don McGahn, tweet­ing that the lawyer was no “John Dean type ‘RAT,’ ” a ref­er­ence to the for­mer Nixon White House coun­sel who co­op­er­ated with Water­gate pros­e­cu­tors, help­ing to end Richard Nixon’s pres­i­dency in 1974. Trump didn’t ar­gue that Dean got his facts wrong, just that he’d flipped — mak­ing him, in Trump’s con­cep­tion, a snitch.

So when Trump told his fa­vorite in­ter­view­ers on “Fox and Friends” in Au­gust that the stan­dard pros­e­cu­to­rial prac­tice of grant­ing le­niency to crim­i­nals who co­op­er­ate with in­ves­ti­ga­tions into larger mat­ters “al­most ought to be il­le­gal,” and when he ac­knowl­edged that “I’ve had many friends in­volved in this stuff,” the idea that a pres­i­dent of the United States might lean to­ward the side of wrong­do­ers seemed not so much out­ra­geous as very much in char­ac­ter.

Trump’s work as a devel­oper put him in close touch with mob­sters from the very start. Early on, he be­lieved that pol­i­tics and real es­tate were dirty busi­nesses, rid­dled with cor­rup­tion, and he re­solved to mas­ter the game.

On his first build­ing project in Man­hat­tan, the 1970s re­hab of the Grand Hy­att New York, Trump hired a no­to­ri­ous de­mo­li­tion com­pany partly owned by a Philadel­phia mob­ster, as well as a con­crete firm run by a man later con­victed of be­ing part of a mob-run car­tel, and a car­pen­try com­pany con­trolled by the Gen­ovese or­ga­nized-crime fam­ily. He used some of the same con­trac­tors that his fa­ther, real es­tate devel­oper Fred Trump, had em­ployed, in­clud­ing S&A Con­crete, which worked on Trump Tower and was owned in part by An­thony “Fat Tony” Salerno, who ran the Gen­ovese mob.

In 1981, as he made his first move into casino gambling, New Jersey’s gam­ing reg­u­la­tors con­cluded that Trump had been in con­tact with or­ga­nized-crime fig­ures.

Two men — Daniel Sul­li­van, a for­mer truck driver and Team­ster, and Kenny Shapiro, an ex-scrap-metal dealer and real es­tate devel­oper — played vi­tal roles in find­ing and ac­quir­ing the land on which Trump would build his first casino ho­tel, Trump Plaza. Sul­li­van and Shapiro were mob as­so­ciates. Sul­li­van had served time for lar­ceny and was listed in FBI records as some­one in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with La Cosa Nos­tra — the Mafia. Shapiro worked in At­lantic City for Ni­codemo “Lit­tle Nicky” Scarfo, a Philadel­phia mob boss. Ac­cord­ing to an FBI re­port, Trump said at the time that he knew Sul­li­van was “in a very rough busi­ness” and “knows peo­ple,” some of whom “may be un­sa­vory.”

But in this murky un­der­world, things aren’t al­ways as they seem: Sul­li­van had been an FBI in­for­mant, and when FBI agents vis­ited Trump to talk about his deal with Sul­li­van and Shapiro, Trump told them he wanted to co­op­er­ate, even sug­gest­ing that the feds put un­der­cover agents inside his casino, an FBI re­port said.

Trump’s loy­alty runs in two di­rec­tions. One of Cohn’s clients, John Cody, ran the Team­sters union that con­trolled ce­ment truck­ers in New York, and Cody turned out to be greatly help­ful to Trump as his sig­na­ture project, Trump Tower, rose on Fifth Av­enue in 1982. Cody — whom the House Sub­com­mit­tee on Crim­i­nal Jus­tice later cited as “the most sig­nif­i­cant la­bor rack­e­teer prey­ing on the con­struc­tion in­dus­try in New York” — warned Trump be­fore a strike shut down work on many ma­jor build­ing sites that sum­mer. Work on the tower didn’t miss a beat.

When the tower opened the next year, Trump ar­ranged for Cody’s girl­friend, Ve­rina Hixon, to ac­quire three large du­plexes on the 64th and 65th floors, just be­low Trump’s own apart­ment. Hixon in­sisted on adding an in­door swim­ming pool to her spread. The build­ing had not been de­signed to with­stand the weight of an in­door pool, so Trump’s struc­tural en­gi­neers built a spe­cial frame to sup­port it.

For six months, Hixon had more than 30 work­men in her units ev­ery day, in­stalling a sauna and cedar and lac­quer clos­ets. At one point, when Cody said Hixon wanted space that had been planned for a hall­way to in­stead be added to one of her apart­ments, Trump replied, “Any­thing for you, John,” as Hixon later re­called to Trump bi­og­ra­pher Wayne Bar­rett.

Work­ing with un­sa­vory types was sec­ond na­ture to Trump, who watched closely as his fa­ther suc­ceeded, in good part by tire­lessly mas­sag­ing his bonds with the Brook­lyn and Queens Demo­cratic or­ga­ni­za­tions and mob-in­flu­enced con­struc­tion busi­nesses and trade unions. As Fred Trump built thou­sands of mid­dle-in­come hous­ing units in New York’s outer bor­oughs, he made deals with con­trac­tors such as Wil­lie To­masello, who had worked with the Gen­ovese or­ga­nized-crime fam­ily on sev­eral New York real es­tate projects.

Af­ter his fa­ther, Trump’s pri­mary tu­tor on the power cal­cu­lus of New York was Cohn, the first and most im­por­tant in a long se­ries of lawyer-fix­ers he would em­ploy. Cohn’s client list in­cluded al­leged crime bosses, and his rep­u­ta­tion for un­bri­dled ag­gres­sion in de­fense of his clients was hard-earned.

Like the real-life and movie mob­sters he’d stud­ied so closely, Trump con­cluded that the way to in­su­late him­self from the be­tray­als and back­stab­bing of the busi­ness world was to place a pre­mium on loy­alty — to con­struct his or­ga­ni­za­tion as a tight fam­ily cir­cle, as­sisted only by a hand­ful of long-stand­ing, to­tally com­mit­ted out­siders. That struc­ture al­lowed the or­ga­ni­za­tion to sur­vive bank­rupt­cies, busi­ness fail­ures, oceans of bad pub­lic­ity, and le­gions of an­gry com­peti­tors, con­trac­tors and for­mer em­ploy­ees.

In the pres­i­dency as in the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, Trump listens mainly to a close co­terie of fam­ily mem­bers and long­time as­so­ciates. The re­volv­ing door of top aides is a symp­tom of his deep be­lief that only life­long loy­al­ists can truly be trusted.

In the Fox in­ter­view in Au­gust, Trump grum­bled about his then-at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions, ask­ing, “What kind of a man is this?” The pres­i­dent re­called “the only rea­son I gave him the job: be­cause I felt loy­alty.” When Ses­sions re­cused him­self from su­per­vis­ing the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump’s 2016 cam­paign, the pres­i­dent felt be­trayed.

Much of Trump’s per­son­al­ity and pro­fes­sional style over­laps with the folk­ways of the mob — his sense of how power works, his be­lief in the pri­macy of strength and the supreme im­por­tance of be­ing sur­rounded by loy­al­ists who share cul­tural bonds. He prefers the com­pany of plain-speak­ing men who talk a big game and never back down. On breaks from work at Trump Tower, he of­ten stepped out onto Fifth Av­enue to hang out not with his top ex­ec­u­tives but with his body­guards.

He can even sound like a mob­ster, or the movie ver­sion of one, any­way. In con­ver­sa­tion, Trump has a chummy, in­ti­mate way of con­nect­ing with peo­ple — of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by thinly veiled threats. He loves to share se­crets, shower with praise and warn, ami­ably enough, that if things don’t go as he ex­pects, he will take ag­gres­sive ac­tion.

In 2016, when Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter Michael Kran­ish and I were in­ter­view­ing Trump for The Post’s bi­og­ra­phy, “Trump Re­vealed,” Trump re­peat­edly told us that if he didn’t like the book, he would take ac­tion against it. He point­edly told the story of his $5 bil­lion law­suit against an ear­lier bi­og­ra­pher, Ti­mothy O’Brien. Al­though that suit was dis­missed, Trump con­tended that he had never ex­pected to win any money; his pur­pose, he told us, was sim­ply to de­stroy the au­thor, to force him to spend his sav­ings and time de­fend­ing him­self against the suit.

“If you think enough of your­self, you have a legacy,” Trump told us. “And you don’t want peo­ple read­ing in a hun­dred years a book that you were best friends with Two Ton Tony So­prano and all of the dif­fer­ent peo­ple.” So, in the case of O’Brien’s book, Trump said, “I knocked the hell out of it.” Marc Fisher, a se­nior ed­i­tor at The Wash­ing­ton Post, is a co-au­thor of “Trump Re­vealed: An Amer­i­can Jour­ney of Am­bi­tion, Ego, Money, and Power.”

AN­DREW KELLY/REUTERS

Michael Co­hen leaves court in New York af­ter his guilty plea Thurs­day. Asked why he had em­ployed Co­hen for so long, Pres­i­dent Trump said, “He did me a fa­vor.”

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