Donald Trump's Mafia Connections: Decades Later, Is He Still Linked to the Mob?

PER_Spytalk_01_578551334_USE AS BANNER
Donald Trump, left, owner of the now-defunct USFL's New Jersey Generals, said his league’s $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL will crack “one of the great monopolies in the is country.” At right is his attorney Roy Cohn. Bettmann Archive/Getty
PER_Spytalk_01_578551334_USE AS BANNER
Donald Trump, left, owner of the now-defunct USFL's New Jersey Generals, said his league’s $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL will crack “one of the great monopolies in the is country.” At right is his attorney Roy Cohn. Bettmann Archive/Getty

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.

Going to the Dark Side

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.

Paul Castellano mugshot from 1985. FBI/Getty

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 Johnston 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 deep-dive 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.

The Snitch?

Former law enforcement officials say Trump had a close and curious relationship with the New York division of the FBI. Former FBI Special Agent Mark Rossini tells Newsweek that Trump was frequently seen in the bureau's New York offices and may have been a "hip-pocket source" 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 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 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."

Update: Former FBI agent Mark Rossini implied in a previous version of this story that he had personally seen Trump in the FBI's New York office. Following the story's publication, Rossini contacted Newsweek to clarify that he had not personally witnessed Trump in the bureau's office, though others had.