Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Tinker, Tailor, Mobster, Trump
What happens when a Confidential Informant becomes President?
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 is 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?
Salvatore Gravano, known as “Sammy the Bull,” was an underboss of the Gambino crime family. After the assassination of “Big” Paul Castellano in 1985—an audacious hit, done in broad daylight—John Gotti was installed as the figurehead capo. But in practice, the Bull was the one calling the shots. His territory? Manhattan. For as long as he was in power, any construction that took place in New York, New York had to be approved by Gravano. “I literally controlled Manhattan,” he told ABC News. He did a lot of business deals with Donald John Trump, and speaks of him fondly.
After his arrest on 11 December 1990, Gravano turned state’s evidence to help put away Gotti, his nominal boss. The lead prosecutor of the case? Robert Swan Mueller III. (This is why, when Trump found out Mueller was named Special Counsel, he collapsed into a chair and muttered, “I’m fucked.”)
We know that Gravano flipped on Gotti. But who flipped on Sammy the Bull?
On 19 July 1990, the Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) of the State of New Jersey opened an investigation into Donald John Trump, regarding the Trump Organization’s business dealings with Joseph Weichselbaum, a mob associate and embezzler who had been convicted not once, not twice, but three times. Trump hired Weichselbaum’s company to provide helicopter transportation to Atlantic City, conveying high rollers to and from New York. As a casino owner, Trump was prohibited by law to do any business with the serial felon. He not only continued to do so, but he went to bat for the guy, going so far as to write him a letter of recommendation. (There’s more bizarre stuff with Wiechselbaum, whose case wound up being initially tried by Trump’s sister, a federal judge, but I won’t get into it here).
Six months after the DGE opened its investigation, Gravano got pinched. And once again, as if by the wave of a magic wand, Trump’s legal troubles seemed to vanish.
It’s worth noting here that Sammy the Bull likes Trump personally, then and now, and seems not to blame him for ratting him out. There were likely others who informed on Gravano, too. But given the timing, the investigation against Trump, his disastrous finances at the time, and his long familiarity with federal prosecutors, it stands to reason that Trump, too, turned on his longtime business associate.
The Kurt & Courtney decade was unkind to Donald John Trump. The Bush I recession hit his businesses hard. Trump filed for bankruptcy protection for Trump Taj Mahal (1991) and Trump Plaza (1992). Again: our “lucky” guy had managed to go bust in the casino business. In between those bankruptcy filings, he lobbied Congress for tax relief for real estate developers, began phoning reporters claiming to be a publicist named John Barron, had an affair with a D-list actress named Marla Maples, and divorced his wife of 14 years, the mother of his kids Donald, Ivanka, and Eric: the former Ivana Zelníčková. (Sidenote: Ivana Trump’s father was a big wheel in Czechoslovakia’s Státní bezpečnost intelligence service; Miloš Zelníček helped raise his grandchildren, especially Don Jr., who speaks fluent Czech…but this is a subject for another dispatch).
Things were going south fast. Trump desperately needed a lifeline. He found one in Moscow.
The Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day 1991. What the West viewed as the triumph of capitalism over communism was really the subversion of a conventional superpower by the shadowy forces of transnational crime. The Cold War was not over; it just shifted modes of attack. In the early 90s, Russia invaded the United States—not with soldiers, but with mobsters.
The commander of this underworld incursion was a violent ex-con named Vyacheslav Ivankov, known as “Yaopnchik,” or “Little Japanese.” Hardened in the brutal Soviet prison system, Ivankov was a member of the vor y zakone, or thieves-in-law—the arm of the Russian mafiya that originated in the post-Second World War gulags. He was such a nasty, violent motherfucker that when it was necessary to rough someone up to extort them, he didn’t send in a subordinate—he did the job himself.
Ivankov arrived to the United States in 1992, ostensibly to work in the film industry. Even the new Russian government warned the FBI that he was up to no good. The feds lost sight of him almost immediately, even as he traveled from New York to Florida and everywhere in between, consolidating power, and displacing the Italian mob. (That brazen 1985 hit on “Big” Paul Castellano was instrumental in achieving this Vor hegemony, as the Gambino boss neither liked nor trusted the Russians). Per the testimony of Bob Levinson, the FBI’s foremost Russian mob expert:
Ivankov’s organization’s income was derived from a number of sources: his group was implicated by sources to have been involved in the “gasoline tax scam” whereby so-called “daisy-chains” of petroleum handling companies were established with the specific intention of defrauding governmental tax authorities using non-existent or ghost companies to pay the gasoline taxes due.
A primary source of the group’s funds was the collection of “krisha” or protection money from wealthy Russian and Eurasian businessmen operating between North America and the former Soviet republics. In addition, the Ivankov organization organized the collection of, in effect, a “street tax” from Russian-born and Eastern European criminals who were operating their illegal enterprises in North America. Ivankov organization members fanned out across the United States and Canada identifying and then approaching these criminals saying that each now had to contribute to an “obshak” (mutual benefit fund) being collected and organized by the Ivankov group.
In addition, Ivankov and other members of his organization settled business disputes for Russian and Eastern European businessmen operating between North America and the former Soviet Union, receiving in return a percentage of the amount in dispute, usually hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through his authority as a “thief-inlaw” and the head of a criminal organization, Ivankov was able to exercise a kind of informal power in the émigré business community tantamount to decisions made by formal, official courts of law. Those who went against the decisions made by Ivankov and his associates were usually met with violence, including beatings and/or murder.
As Little Japanese worked the States, Semion Mogilevich, the current head of the Russian mob, set up his base of operations in Budapest, Hungary, where he moved in 1992 with his Hungarian girlfriend. “The Brainy Don,” as he is called, soon acquired a bank in Russia, which allowed him access to the global financial system. Meyer Lanksy may have invented money laundering, but it was Mogilevich who took it to Hollywood, so to speak: Lansky wrote the book, and the Brainy Don made it into an international blockbuster. (Note: Levinson, the FBI agent, moved to Budapest around this time, to investigate Mogilevich more closely.)
For three fruitful years, Ivankov did his thing, laying the foundation for what would become the world’s pre-eminent organized crime operation—more S.P.E.C.T.R.E. than GoodFellas. He ran amok. Law enforcement had no idea where he was….until, one day in 1995, they found him living in a deluxe apartment at—you’re not gonna believe it—Trump Tower. And that was not the only Trump property he frequented: Ivankov was also a regular at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. He was arrested in June of 1995, convicted, imprisoned, and deported to Russia in 2004 to face murder changes. Once home, he was promptly acquitted. He was gunned down in Moscow in 2009.
This monster was living in Trump’s building, gambling in Trump’s casino.
What was Donald John Trump doing in 1995? Failing tremendously. That was the year when he declared a loss of an unfathomable $916 million on his tax returns. It was also at this time that Trump Tower became a sort of Moscow on Fifth Avenue, with any number of Russian mobsters scooping up apartments—an arrangement that began in 1984, when the Russian mobster David Bogatin purchased five 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. Why did Trump, virtually alone among New Yorkers, allow these fishy deals?
As the indefatigable Craig Unger writes in the Washington Post, the shady Bogatin deal
began a 35-year relationship between Trump and Russian organized crime. Mind you, this was a period during which the disintegration of the Soviet Union had opened a fire-hose-like torrent of hundreds of billions of dollars in flight capital from oligarchs, wealthy apparatchiks and mobsters in Russia and its satellites. And who better to launder so much money for the Russians than Trump — selling them multimillion-dollar condos at top dollar, with little or no apparent scrutiny of who was buying them.
Over the next three decades, dozens of lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, mortgage brokers and other white-collar professionals came together to facilitate such transactions on a massive scale. According to a BuzzFeed investigation, more than 1,300 condos, one-fifth of all Trump-branded condos sold in the United States since the 1980s, were shifted “in secretive, all-cash transactions that enable buyers to avoid legal scrutiny by shielding their finances and identities.”
The Trump Organization has dismissed money laundering charges as unsubstantiated, and because it is so difficult to penetrate the shell companies that purchased these condos, it is almost impossible for reporters — or, for that matter, anyone without subpoena power — to determine how much money laundering by Russians went through Trump-branded properties. But Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist, put it this way to me: “Early on, Trump came to the conclusion that it is better to do business with crooks than with honest people. Crooks have two big advantages. First, they’re prepared to pay more money than honest people. And second, they will always lose if you sue them because they are known to be crooks.”
It is simply inconceivable that a creature of the underworld, a man who had extensive dealings with mob figures for his entire career, would, in a moment of dire need, be unaware that mobsters were buying his properties, using shell companies to conceal the origin of the dirty rubles.
It is also inconceivable that a mobbed-up real estate developer—a crook whom the government of Australia would not grant a gaming license because of his obvious mob connections; the subject of a 41-page initial investigation by the Department of Gaming Enforcement in the State of New Jersey that, taken together, is positively damning—could have avoided indictment for all these years unless he was covertly helping out law enforcement. Trump is a criminal, yes, but his crimes are not as heinous as Ivankov’s, or Gravano’s, or Scarfo’s. Prosecutors would happily toss a minnow like Trump back into the sea if it helped them catch the big fish.
Nothing about Trump’s term as president suggests he’s turned his back on organized crime. He hasn’t “gone legit.” His Twitter antagonists comprise a “Who’s Who” of the FBI’s Russian mob experts: Robert Mueller, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page. He has attacked the credibility of those who know what he really is. That is what made Trump’s attacks on Mueller so ironic. He impugned the former FBI director as corrupt, while depending on his incorruptibility to not reveal his (alleged) CI status.
To reiterate: we cannot know for sure if Trump was a CI unless he admits to being one (maybe Yamiche Alcindor can goad him into admitting it?), or if the federal prosecutors in the know break protocol to expose him.
As it stands, prominent G-men have given us clues. When McCabe was fired, he began his statement thus: “I have been an FBI Special Agent for over 21 years. I spent half of that time investigating Russian Organized Crime as a street agent and Supervisor in New York City.” The subtext there is that McCabe knows who Trump is.
In the excerpt of his book Higher Loyalty sent to the press, James Comey compared Trump to Gravano. “The [loyalty] demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony—with Trump in the role of the family boss asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.’ ” Of all the famous mafiosos, why did Comey choose Gravano, a relatively obscure figure, as the comp? He wants us to dig into Gravano.
(Gravano himself was asked about the Comey pull-quote by Jerry Capeci of Gangland News; he said, “The country doesn’t need a bookworm as president, it needs a mob boss. You don’t need a Harvard graduate to deal with these people…[Putin, Kim, Xi] are real gangsters. You need a fucking gangster to deal with these people.” This seems to indicate that Sammy the Bull thinks Trump is a “mob boss” and a “fucking gangster.” Takes one to know one?)
Unless he thought it would help him avoid prison, Trump will never cop to being a Confidential Informant. We can only infer that he served that function by presenting the circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis. But plenty of people can confirm or deny (rather than refuse to confirm or deny) Trump’s involvement. Bob Mueller, certainly, but every prosecutor too that dealt with Scarfo, Gravano, and Ivankov, and plenty of smaller cases besides.
When a Confidential Informant is deliberately fucking up the federal government’s response to a pandemic—when his willful negligence will cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of American lives—protocol must be sacrificed for the greater good. Is not the purpose of that law, of all laws, to protect the people from enemies foreign and domestic? And has not the COVID-19 response, or lack thereof, proven Trump to be an active enemy of the United States?
We don’t need more careful legalese. We don’t need more cryptic phrasings along the lines of “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” We need to hear, loud and clear, what the FBI knows. We need to be told, unequivocally, that Trump is an inveterate crook—a real crook; an actual criminal; not just a cute Twitter assertion—and, even more surprising, and contrary to all recent evidence, that he is capable of telling the truth when it serves him.
This piece was written under the expert guidance of Lincoln’s Bible. If you don’t already do so, please follow her on Twitter, check out her mafiya reporting at Citjourno, and listen to her #1 podcast, “The World Beneath,” about the 100 year history of mobsters and spies.
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.
The photo at the top is the Greek, from The Wire—the best show in the history of television.