Index: Tinker, Tailor, Mobster, Trump
The Former Guy was, is, and always will be a creature of the criminal underworld.
Below are excerpts of various PREVAIL pieces on Trump’s extensive and longstanding relationship to organized crime—Italian and Russian.
Most of these pieces were written under the expert guidance of Lincoln’s Bible. If you don’t already do so, please follow her on Twitter and listen to her #1 podcast, “The World Beneath,” about the 100 year history of mobsters and spies.
IN ROBERT MUELLER’S famed “Iron Triangles” speech, given to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York on 27 January 2011, the then-FBI Director explains how 21st century transnational organized crime works. (He also, improbably, cracks a joke about Justin Bieber’s haircut, the only sentence in the speech that feels dated). The so-called “mob” is no longer run by a few families, Mueller says, but rather “flat, fluid networks with global reach,” comprised of groups in countries all around the world, which are “more anonymous and more sophisticated.”
What we call the Russian mob is not even Russian, per se. Most of the key players hail from other former Soviet Socialist Republics—Ukraine in particular. Semion Mogilevich was born in Ukraine. So was Dmytro Firtash. Lev Parnas is Ukrainian, as is Michael Cohen’s wife’s family; Igor Fruman was born in today’s Belarus, but owns a club (Mafia Rave) in Odessa. But none of them live in the Old Country anymore. After escaping the Soviet Union via Israel, Mogilevich operated for many years in Budapest, and now resides in Moscow. Vienna is the base of operations for Firtash. Parnas, Fruman, and Cohen’s wife’s family all live in the U.S.
In Dirty Rubles, I wrote that the Russian mob was “more S.P.E.C.T.R.E. than GoodFellas.” Mueller uses a different, but no less relevant, pop cultural reference: “This is not The Sopranos, with six guys sitting in a diner,” he says, “shaking down a local business owner for $50 dollars a week.” The operation is orders of magnitude greater, he tells us.
In Red Mafiya, still the seminal book on the Russian mob, Robert Friedman outlines numerous mob operations that are basically schemes to rip off Medicare. What that means is that these crooks come to the United States and flat-out steal our money—and make medical costs more expensive in the process. That sort of thing is the tip of the iceberg. Mueller goes on:
These criminal enterprises are making billions of dollars from human trafficking, health care fraud, computer intrusions, and copyright infringement. They are cornering the market on natural gas, oil, and precious metals, and selling to the highest bidder.
These crimes are not easily categorized. Nor can the damage, the dollar loss, or the ripple effects be easily calculated. It is much like a Venn diagram, where one crime intersects with another, in different jurisdictions, and with different groups.
How does this impact you? You may not recognize the source, but you will feel the effects. You might pay more for a gallon of gas. You might pay more for a luxury car from overseas. You will pay more for health care, mortgages, clothes, and food.
Remember in The Godfather, when Vito Corleone resists diversifying into heroin? The Russian mob has no such moral qualms. The crimes they commit are complex, and uniformly, often egregiously, heinous. It is no accident that so many of the players in the larger Trump universe have a penchant for pedophilia.
Basically, a modern mobster has no scruples whatsoever, and will do anything and everything—speed along climate change, supply arms to two opposing sides during warfare, peddle nuclear weapons, manufacture and distribute deadly opioids, deal in blood diamonds, crash the entire world economy, blow up skyscrapers in lower Manhattan, trade in underage sex slaves—to make a few extra rubles. Nothing is sacred. Nothing. It’s only about money and power.
And now we come to the key paragraph of Mueller’s speech:
Yet we are concerned with more than just the financial impact. These groups may infiltrate our businesses. They may provide logistical support to hostile foreign powers. They may try to manipulate those at the highest levels of government. Indeed, these so-called “iron triangles” of organized criminals, corrupt government officials, and business leaders pose a significant national security threat.
Iron triangles. Three sides to the triangle: 1) Mobsters, 2) corrupt government officials, 3) crooked business leaders.
In Russia, this is easy to make out. Mogilevich is the mobster. Vladimir Putin is the corrupt government official, along with Sergei Lavrov, Sergei Kislyak, Konstantin Kosachev, and so on. Dmytro Firtash, Igor Sechin, and the other oligarchs are the crooked business leaders. (Although there is a lot of overlap. Mogilevich is also nominally a businessman, while Firtash and Putin moonlight as mobsters.) The point is that the three sides of the “iron triangle” work together, strengthening the other two sides, to fuck over everyone else.
GO: It was in the 1990s when Donald John Trump began laundering money for the Russian mafiya. But his family’s mob ties go back long before that, correct?
LB: Yes. Since Grandpa Drumpf.
GO: Right, the pimp. Classy guy. And Donald’s daddy was also involved with organized crime. Briefly, what was Fred Trump’s deal, mob-wise?
LB: Well, I could be super brief, and just say he was the businessman front for the Genovese crime family. But since that hasn’t been properly covered in the press (only Wayne Barrett had the balls to cover Fred), I should give a little more meat, so that folks can really grasp it.
To best understand Fred, just track his rise from single-family home construction to big residential developments. From Shore Haven (1947) to Beach Haven to Trump Village, all were done with known mafia partners, in Genovese-controlled territory, and eventually with a fully Genovese-owned construction company (HRH Construction).
When the Russian mafiya began rolling in, they landed in Fred’s properties and partnered with the Genovese on some big ticket scams. This was also during the time that Fred and his attorney Roy Cohn set up S&A concrete (via Nick Auletta)—a joint venture between Tony Salerno (Genovese boss) and Paul Castellano (Gambino boss), so that donald could build in Manhattan. Remember donald’s quote, “Even my father, he said, you don’t want to go to Manhattan. That’s not our territory?” That’s because Manhattan, for construction, was Gambino territory. They controlled the concrete and unions. And Fred was a very loyal, shrewd front for the Genovese. To get his idiot, greedy kid into Manhattan, Fred and Roy Cohn had to get those two mob bosses to agree on a joint venture.
A bunch of really terrible Russian mafia capos, tied to the Kremlin and Mogilevich, started landing in donald’s Manhattan properties after that.
IN THE EARLY 1980s it was decided—by whom, and for what ultimate purpose, we can’t say for sure—that Donald John Trump would build a casino complex in Atlantic City, New Jersey—probably the most mobbed-up municipality in the state. Dealing with the mafia might have dissuaded some developers from pursuing a Boardwalk Empire, but not Trump. He was uniquely suited to forge ahead.
Donald’s father, the Queens real estate developer Fred Trump, had worked closely with Genovese-associated and -owned construction entities since building the Shore Haven development in 1947, when Donald was still in diapers (the first time around). Fred was an early mob adopter, the underworld equivalent of an investor who bought shares of Coca-Cola stock in 1919. The timelines are important to remember here. Organized crime did not exist in any meaningful way in the United States until Prohibition. Born in 1905, Fred Trump was just two years younger than Meyer Lansky, the gangster who more or less invented money laundering. Thus, Donald Trump is second generation mobbed-up.
When Donald first ventured from Queens to the pizzazzier borough of Manhattan in the seventies, he entered into a joint business deal with “Big” Paul Castellano, head of the Gambino syndicate, and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, of the Genovese family he knew well through his father and their mutual lawyer Roy Cohn. As part of this arrangement, Trump agreed to buy concrete from a company operated jointly by the two families—and pay a hefty premium for the privilege. Only then, with double mob approval, could he move forward with the Trump Tower and Trump Plaza projects. (Among Cohn’s other clients at the time was Rupert Murdoch, whom he introduced to Trump in the seventies; you would be hard pressed to find three more atrocious human beings).
Atlantic City is in South Jersey, closer to Philadelphia than New York, so to build “his” casino, Trump needed to play ball with the Philly mob. That meant dealing with Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, head of the most powerful mob family in Philadelphia. Land that Trump needed for his casino was owned by Salvie Testa and Frank Narducci, Jr.—hit men for Scarfo, collectively known around town as the Young Executioners (the nickname was not ironic). To help negotiate the deal, Trump hired Patrick McGahn, a Philly-based attorney known to have truck with the Scarfo family.
(The last name should sound familiar; Don McGahn, the former White House Counsel, is Patrick McGahn’s nephew. And Don McGahn is not the only Trump Administration hire with ties to the Philly mob. Among Little Nicky’s associates was one Jimmy “The Brute” DiNatale, whose daughter, Denise Fitzpatrick, is the mother of none other than Kellyanne Conway. A number of wiseguys paid their respects at DiNatale’s 1983 funeral. I don’t want to make the mistake of condemning Conway or Don McGahn for the sins of their relations. But given Trump’s OC background, it’s fair to question why he chose two children of mobbed-up families for his inner White House circle.)
Trump acquired the needed Atlantic City property at twice the market value: $1.1 million for a lot that sold for $195k five years before. But there were legal pratfalls, shady dealings, chicanery with the documents. The New Jersey Gaming Commission was investigating the matter, because casino owners could not, by law, associate with criminals. And most of Trump’s friends were crooks. It looked like Trump was in trouble—not only of losing his gaming license, but of criminal indictment.
And then, something miraculous happened. On 4 November 1986, Scarfo and eleven of his associates were indicted on charges that included loan sharking, extortion and conducting an illegal gambling business in a racketeering conspiracy. Prosecutors had tried for years to take down Little Nicky. And now, after all that time, they finally had their evidence. Not only that, but the investigation into Trump? It went away. Poof—as if it never existed.
* * *
A confidential informant, or “CI,” is a mole run by law enforcement within a criminal enterprise. Not a “rat,” whose treachery is well known to his comrades, but a craftier, more duplicitous breed of rodent. Crimes committed by the CI are overlooked, or allowed to continue unabated, in exchange for good intelligence—“treasure,” as Control calls it in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
A fictional example of a CI is the Greek, a character on the show The Wire (spoiler ahead). Baltimore law enforcement piece together that the Greek is the head of a crime syndicate that deals in narcotics and human trafficking. But when they finally move to arrest him, the operation is kibboshed by the feds, for whom the Greek is a Confidential Informant. This is extremely frustrating for viewers of the show, who rightly regard the Greek as the cause of so much woe in West Baltimore.
In real life, there are two famous examples. The first is Whitey Bulger, the head of the so-called Winter Hill Gang, which operated for decades in Somerville, Massachusetts. In 1975, Bulger became a Confidential Informant for the FBI, handled by a corrupt agent named John Connolly. His intelligence helped take down a rival mob family in Providence, Rhode Island—a city notorious for the influence of organized crime. In exchange, Connolly allowed Bulger and his associates to operate with impunity. At least 19 people were killed by the Winter Hill Gang while the feds looked the other way. When the FBI finally realized its mistake, Connolly tipped off Bulger, who went on the lam for 16 years. He was finally arrested in 2011; by then he was in his eighties. He was killed in prison seven years later.
The second famous CI is Donald Trump’s former associate Felix Sater. Racketeering charges against him back in 1998 ended with a fine of just $25,000—a slap on the wrist. From then on, Sater become a top echelon confidential informant, feeding law enforcement intelligence of “a depth and breadth rarely seen,” as court filings show. “His cooperation has covered a stunning array of subject matter, ranging from sophisticated local and international criminal activity to matters involving the world’s most dangerous terrorists and rogue states.”
The winsome ex-con, still one of the more puzzling figures of Trump/Russia, “continuously worked with prosecutors and law enforcement agents to provide information crucial to the conviction of over 20 different individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud, members of La Cosa Nostra organized crime families and international cyber-criminals,” prosecutors claim. “Additionally, Sater provided the United States intelligence community with highly sensitive information in an effort to help the government combat terrorists and rogue states.”
His intelligence helped prosecutors break up the “Pump and Dump” and “Boiler Room” mob operations in the 1990s. He turned over useful information about the Genovese crime family (note: the same family Fred Trump fronted for), and provided ample dirt on international arms dealing (note: Jeffrey Epstein’s specialty). And his crowning achievement: he helped the United States track down Osama bin Laden (funny how the Russian mob knew where he was). Sater is proud of his CI work, and has talked it up the last few years, probably to counter his association with the mafiya, and with Trump.
We know about Bulger being a CI because his handler turned out to be crooked. We know about Sater being a CI because he outed himself prior to his sentencing in 2009—and because he keeps boasting about it. If Sater had not come forward, Loretta Lynch, the former Attorney General, would not have been legally permitted to reveal his status.
That’s the thing about Confidential Informants: they are confidential. The informant doesn’t want to be made as a mole, any more than law enforcement wants to burn a source. Both sides are bound to secrecy. It is the good guy version of omertà.
The only way to know for sure if Donald John Trump is a Confidential Informant is if he admits it himself (unlikely), or if law enforcement comes forward (illegal). But the circumstantial evidence is compelling. The pattern is: 1) Trump deals with mobsters as usual; 2) Law enforcement begins investigating Trump; 3) Mobsters suddenly get busted, while 4) investigation into Trump is scuttled. This happened three times that we know about. I’m not counting the first known instance of Trump providing information to prosecutors, concerning Cody and concrete, in the late 70s:
I can conceive of no scenario in which Trump was not a CI, and a top echelon one at that. He’s avoided indictment too many times. No one is that lucky.
Or, put another way: How can someone that lucky manage to run a fucking casino into the ground?
So how did a Queens-born front-man and mob money launderer, whose business was overwhelmingly domestic, wind up an asset of a hostile foreign government?
To understand this transformation, it is instructive to think of Trump not as a human being but as an asset, in the strict sense of the word—a piece of property, like a beach house, a private jet, or an HBO Go password. Just as two different families can share a beach house, and your buddy down the street can use your login to stream Succession, so Trump can be utilized by more than one entity at a time. He can also be sold outright—or rather transferred, like the deed to a house. None of this is up to him. At all. To paraphrase Elvis Presley: he’s caught in a trap, he can’t walk out, because the mobsters own him baby. . . .
Donald John Trump’s association with the Russian mafiya—as opposed to the homegrown Italian one—began, best as we can tell, in 1984, when the Soviet soldier-turned-mobster David Bogatin purchased five of his condos for $6 million. Trump Tower was one of just two buildings in all of New York City that allowed units to be purchased by shell companies. Fishy deals like this did not deter Trump, who had traveled in underworld circles all his life.
By ’84, as covered previously, Trump was already a Confidential Informant for the FBI. He’d been on the radar of the KGB since 1977, when he married the former Ivana Zelníčková, a Czechoslovakian national who someone managed to emigrate from that Eastern Bloc country to Canada. . . .
The Russians began to actively cultivate Trump in 1986,1 soon after his landmark real estate deal with Bogatin. As Luke Harding tells it, Trump was invited to Moscow by Natalia Dubinina, the daughter of the Soviet ambassador to the United States, whom he met at a luncheon in New York in ‘86. The following year, he took her up on the offer. “On July 4, 1987, Trump flew to Moscow for the first time, together with Ivana and Lisa Calandra, Ivana’s Italian-American assistant,” Harding writes. “Moscow was, Trump wrote, ‘an extraordinary experience.’ The Trumps stayed in Lenin’s suite at the National Hotel, at the bottom of Tverskaya Street, near Red Square….The hotel was linked to the glass-and-concrete Intourist complex next door and was—in effect—under KGB control. The Lenin suite would have been bugged.”
Donald John Trump was a textbook KGB mark. The agents must have been drooling. Harding cites an internal memo circulated by the agency at the time, advising how to spot potential recruits: “Are pride, arrogance, egoism, ambition or vanity among subject’s natural characteristics?” Like a great baseball prospect, Trump was a five-tool player. Harding continues, writing about the internal memo:
The most revealing section concerned kompromat. The document asked for: “Compromising information about subject, including illegal acts in financial and commercial affairs, intrigues, speculation, bribes, graft … and exploitation of his position to enrich himself.” Plus “any other information” that would compromise the subject before “the country’s authorities and the general public.” Naturally the KGB could exploit this by threatening “disclosure.”
Finally, “his attitude towards women is also of interest.” The document wanted to know: “Is he in the habit of having affairs with women on the side?”
We don’t know what, if any, kompromat was gathered on that first trip to Moscow. But we do know that Trump is a serial philanderer, with a taste for Eastern European women. This wasn’t exactly a state secret; by ‘87, he was already a tabloid legend. Are we really to believe that the KGB—arguably the best intelligence agency in the world at human intelligence gathering—would not have tried to honeypot him?
It was upon his return from that fateful Moscow trip that Trump began to branch out in his interests. “For the first time he gave serious indications that he was considering a career in politics,” Harding points out. “Not as mayor or governor or senator.
“Trump was thinking about running for president.”
And indeed, in 1988, Trump flirted with the idea of entering the presidential race, going so far as to deliver a speech in New Hampshire. He toyed with running again in 2000, on the Reform Party ticket, even hiring his old friend Roger Stone to run the exploratory committee before ultimately dropping out. Is it really a coincidence that his dormant political ambitions manifested themselves immediately after his Moscow trip, and never went away?
GO: But back to the IC and DOJ…who did know about Trump’s activities?
LB: Handfuls of select individuals, across specific agencies, over several decades. Let’s game them out.
First, who would know at the Department of Justice/ FBI?
A: Anyone who used donald as a Confidential Informant. [Note: Not a typo. LB never capitalizes Trump’s first name]. This would include those who had an investigation/case that overlapped with prior information that donald provided and were made privy to his name as a CI (which may or may not be necessary).
Here, it’s important to remind everyone how donald became a CI—because his propaganda trolls have already tried to spin it as his altruism for the rule of law.
donald is a filthy criminal, just like his father. And it isn’t just tax laws he breaks. As early as the 1980s, donald faced indictments for laundering blood money from organized crime syndicates through his development projects and casinos (at the very least). This is a well-reported and exhaustively sourced statement of fact. And there were RICO and organized crime investigations around his business partners—on his projects—in the late 70s. As Greg stated in a prior article, there is no universe in which donald was not used as a CI in these investigations. To think otherwise, you would have to believe the FBI Organized Crime/Criminal Investigative Division to be a bungling gaggle of nincompoops.
GO: Voiceover: The FBI Organized Crime/Criminal Investigative Division is not a bungling gaggle of nincompoops.
LB: So, to get out of the indictment noose, donald ratted on the mobsters who owned him. The evidence of this is that he was never indicted (or, an indictment against him was never unsealed). Considering the largess of the known organized crime bosses that donald worked with/for—Roy Cohn, Tony Salerno, John Cody and Paul Castellano, Nicky Scarfo, Vyacheslav Ivankov, Mogilevich—it’s safe to assume that donald was a top echelon informant.
So, back to your question: Why did they [DOJ/FBI] allow him to become President?
“Allow” is a tricky word. If they “allowed” him to become President, that implies that they could have stopped him. Since I don’t believe any retired or active individual at the DOJ/FBI can stop a Presidential election, I assume that the plethora of folks who ask Greg and me this question (non-stop, BTW) mean, “Why didn’t the DOJ/FBI expose who and what donald really is to the American public before the election?” Or maybe, “Why didn’t they tell donald that if he ran, they would expose him?” In short, what stopped them from stopping him?
Well, what are the rules that these individuals must follow, when it comes to: 1) having knowledge of prior DOJ/FBI investigations into donald’s crimes; and 2) having damning evidence around his associations with bigger criminals?
That’s it, basically. For individuals to have that knowledge, it means they have to keep their mouths shut. Or they wouldn’t have the knowledge in the first place.
GO: To be fair, there are good reasons to maintain secrecy. Protection of sources and methods, to put it as blandly as possible. Even if your IC relation had blinked three times at one of your theories, there might have been unintended consequences. Once a secret is told, it can’t be untold.
LB: Yes, sources and methods and other things we have IC jargon for, which brought us to this moment of peril. We’ll get to the natural arc of secrecy in a minute. First, there’s another, very-uncomfortable-to-talk-about-without-sounding-villainous reason that the Justice Department keeps TE CIs like donald a secret.
The subject of culpability gets Justice and IC people either super defensive or dismissive. But, at this point, I’d argue they’re only hurting themselves by failing to own it. When you get in bed with fucking mobsters and their fronts, your culpability in an informant’s continued criminality is part of the game.
Photo is Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises.
I encourage everyone to read the State of New Jersey Department of Gaming Enforcement investigation report on the allegations against Donald John Trump in the Wayne Barrett book Trump: The Deals and the Downfall.
The late Bob Levinson was the FBI’s best Russian mob fighter. His Ivankov testimony is also essential reading.
In American Kompromat, published after my piece ran, Craig Unger reveals that the KGB recruitment began even earlier, when Trump bought TV sets for his hotel at a Soviet-fronted electronics store in the early 80s.