Political News

With a Vocabulary From ‘Goodfellas,’ Trump Evokes His Native New York

Posted August 23, 2018 11:59 p.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2018 12:00 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — For much of the 1980s and 1990s, “the Dapper Don” and “the Donald” vied for supremacy on the front pages of New York’s tabloids. The don, John J. Gotti, died in a federal prison in 2002, while Donald Trump went on to be president of the United States.

Now, as Trump faces his own mushrooming legal troubles, he has taken to using a vocabulary that sounds uncannily like that of Gotti and his fellow mobsters in the waning days of organized crime, when ambitious prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani tried to turn witnesses against their bosses to win racketeering convictions.

“I know all about flipping,” Trump told Fox News this week. “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.”

Trump was referring to the decision by his former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to take a plea deal on fraud charges and admit to prosecutors that he paid off two women to clam up about the sexual affairs that they claimed to have had with Trump.

But the president was also evoking a bygone world — the outer boroughs of New York City, where he grew up — a place of leafy neighborhoods and working-class families, as well as its share of shady businessmen and mob-linked politicians. From an early age, Trump encountered these raffish types with their unscrupulous methods, unsavory connections and uncertain loyalties.

Trump is comfortable with the wiseguys-argot of that time and place, and he defaults to it whether he is describing his faithless lawyer or his fruitless efforts to discourage the FBI director, James B. Comey, from investigating one of his senior advisers, Michael T. Flynn, over his connections to Russia.

“When I first heard that Trump said to Comey, ‘Let this go,’ it just rang such a bell with me,” said Nicholas Pileggi, an author who has chronicled the Mafia in books and films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” “Trump was surrounded by these people. Being raised in that environment, it was normalized to him.”

Pileggi traced the president’s language to the Madison Club, a Democratic Party machine in Brooklyn that helped his father, Fred Trump, win his first real estate deals in the 1930s. In those smoke-filled circles, favors were traded like cases of whiskey and loyalty mattered above all.

Trump honed his vocabulary over decades through his association with lawyer Roy Cohn, who besides working for Sen. Joseph McCarthy also represented Mafia bosses like Gotti, Tony Salerno and Carmine Galante. He also gravitated to colorful characters like Roger J. Stone Jr., the pinkie-ring-wearing political consultant, and Stone’s onetime partner, Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who was convicted Tuesday of eight counts of tax and bank fraud.

“It’s the kind of subculture that most people avoid,” said Michael D’Antonio, one of Trump’s biographers. “You cross the street to get away from people like that. Donald brings them close. He’s most comfortable with them.”

Trump’s current lawyer, Giuliani, said that as a U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, he listened to 4,000 hours of taped conversations of Mafia suspects — a discipline that he claims makes him an expert in deciphering Trump’s intent in recorded exchanges with Cohen about paying off women. It has also steeped him in the language and folkways of the mob.

Giuliani was an enthusiastic fan of “The Sopranos,” once joking that HBO set its celebrated series about an everyday mob family in New Jersey because he had done such a good job driving the Mafia out of New York.

During Giuliani’s days as a U.S. attorney, his office was labeled the “House of Pancakes” for the parade of suspects who “flipped” to try to reduce their prison sentences.

In his Fox interview, Trump expressed a fleeting moment of sympathy for Cohen’s desire to do likewise.

“If somebody defrauded a bank and he’s going to get 10 years in jail or 20 years in jail, but if you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you’ll go down to two years or three years, which is the deal he made,” the president said. “In all fairness to him, most people are going to do that.”

Still, Trump added, “it almost ought to be illegal.”

At other times, he has made clear that he views disloyalty pretty much the way Gotti would have viewed the decision of his underboss, Sammy Gravano, to cooperate with the government in 1991 and testify against him in the trial that sent him away for life.

Defending the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, after a report in The New York Times that he had spent 30 hours speaking to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, Trump wrote on Twitter that McGahn would never sell out his boss like a “John Dean type ‘RAT.'”

Dean, whose testimony as White House counsel about Watergate helped bring down President Richard M. Nixon, fired back. Trump, he tweeted, “thinks, acts and sounds like a mob boss.”

“There is nothing presidential about him or his actions,” Dean added.

Sometimes Trump’s gangland references can be baffling. This month, he defended Manafort by comparing him to Al Capone. Manafort, he suggested, was getting rougher treatment than Capone, whom the president called a “legendary mob boss, killer and ‘Public Enemy Number One.'”

His references are also unlikely to impress prosecutors like Mueller, for whom the mob is old hat. But they, too, have been struck by the parallels. Comey, in his recent book, “A Higher Loyalty,” likened his first meeting with the future president at Trump Tower in Manhattan to paying a call to a Mafia don.

“I thought of the New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s,” Comey said. “The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Café Giardino. I couldn’t shake the picture. And looking back, it wasn’t as odd or dramatic as I thought at the time.”

Trump, he wrote, seemed to be trying to make Comey and his colleagues from the intelligence agencies “part of the same family.”

To D’Antonio, the president’s tough-guy language mostly sounds quaint — the vocabulary of a man who grew up with a comic-book view that real men wore fedoras and carried .38-caliber revolvers.

“He thinks other people understand the ‘Guys and Dolls’ dialogue the way he does,” said D’Antonio, whose next book is about Vice President Mike Pence. “He doesn’t realize in 2018 that it sounds ridiculous to talk about rats.”