The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump borrows his rhetoric — and his view of power — from the mob

The president’s background in New York real estate taught mob values that still persist.

President Trump talks with reporters on Thursday at the White House. His longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, is cooperating with federal prosecutors, which Trump dislikes. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

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.

President Trump on Nov. 29 said his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is lying to federal prosecutors about a Trump real estate project in Moscow. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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.

Witness ‘flipping’ does corrupt justice. But not because they’re ‘rats.’

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.

Trump’s problem isn’t that he has bad lawyers. It’s that he’s a bad client.

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.”

Read more from Outlook:

To Trump, all criticism is a lie

Trump could still have obstructed justice even if he didn’t break the law

Trump says collusion isn’t a crime. He’s right. It’s actually many crimes.

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.