Donald Trump’s Mafia Mind-Set

Listening to a legendary American mobster and hearing the president of the United States

Salvatore 'Sammy the Bull' Gravano and John Gotti (Yvonne Hemsey / Getty)

Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the former underboss of the Gambino organized-crime family, is a mass murderer (19 bodies, maybe more, across his distinguished career), and also the most consequential turncoat in the history of organized crime. Gravano, whom I came to know while covering the Mob in the 1990s, had many thoughts about respect and loyalty, which he shared with me in a number of conversations. Like most mobsters—including, and especially, those who became known for their “ratting”—he was preoccupied with matters of honor.

At the time of those conversations, Gravano, whose testimony led directly to the downfall of his former boss, John Gotti, was participating in the federal witness-security program, and we met at a number of locations in the Southwest. I did not know it at the time, but while under federal protection Gravano was leading Arizona’s largest Ecstasy-distribution ring. He was also in the pool-building business.

I have not seen Gravano in a very long time—he has spent most of the past two decades in prison, after having failed to hide his drug-distribution business from his federal monitors—but my thoughts turned to him yesterday, when I read President Donald Trump’s tweet on the subject of loyalty and respect. The president, who is obviously perturbed by the felony conviction of his former campaign chair Paul Manafort and the plea deal taken by his former attorney Michael Cohen, wrote the following: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’”—a cutting reference to the Justice Department, which he oversees as the leader of the executive branch—“took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”

What we see in this astonishing tweet is an implicit endorsement by the president of the United States of omertà, the Mafia code of silence, which has been honored, especially over the past 30 years or so, more in theory than in practice.

Trump expanded upon his views this morning, in an interview on Fox & Friends, in which he seemed to refer, obliquely, though elegiacally, to the dismantling of the Mafia in New York City (an effort led for a time by his current attorney Rudy Giuliani).

“It’s called ‘flipping’ and it almost ought to be illegal,” Trump said. “I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I have been watching flippers. Everything is 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.”

In these statements, Trump displays contempt for the rule of law, and honors criminals who refuse to cooperate with law enforcement. He’s doing nothing less than elevating gangster ideology to the status of high principle. He’s also evincing a gauzy and archaic understanding of the nature of gangsterism. I heard, in his statements, echoes of many conversations I had while trying to understand the culture of organized crime.

A former Gambino Family soldier named Dominick Montiglio told me once, in explaining his decision to turn against the Mob, that “those guys who can stand up to the government, I respect them a lot. Nobody does this anymore. It’s too hard.” (Montiglio was Scorcese-level insightful in explaining the attractions of the organized-crime lifestyle: “When I was in the life, it was great. I mean, we got respect. I got in once at Studio 54 ahead of Burt Reynolds. That’s what we were attracted to, the glitz. It doesn’t exist anymore … The new generation ruined it.”)

On Wednesday night, I went spelunking through old stories and notebooks in search of Gravano statements concerning respect and honor, and the moral implications of turning coat. I was not surprised to find quotations on the subject that framed these issues in a Trumpian way. Here is one representative comment, made over dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Phoenix in 1999: “I got a lot of respect for the guys who don’t break under the pressure, the FBI pressure, or whatever,” Gravano said. “This is the government we're talking about. They can do a lot to you in terms of pressure, but I didn’t do this for the deal, believe me. Okay? I did this because John was a double-crosser. He double-crossed me. So I double-double-crossed him. I'm the master double-crosser. He got his. He thought he was playing chess. No fucking way he was playing chess.”

We had spent much of this conversation talking about Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, who had recently died. “There's no scruples anymore,” Gravano said. “No respect for rules and regulations. The Godfather has respect in it, but that doesn’t exist anymore … You think there’s respect? Some guys have balls—the real gangsters—they respect the rules we have, they’ll do the time. But most of these guys? No respect.”

I understand the milieu in which Donald Trump was raised. Real estate and construction in New York City are not gentle businesses. It is entirely possible to live in this universe without adopting a gangster worldview. But it was not easy, especially in a time when men like Gravano and Gotti still had sway. As Gravano told me, by way of illustrating his influence, “I literally controlled Manhattan, literally. You want concrete poured in Manhattan? That was me. Tishman, Donald Trump, all these guys—they couldn't build a building without me.”