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In yet another historic indictment, Donald Trump was charged by an Atlanta prosecutor with essentially being a mob boss.
With this expansive set of charges that accuses Trump and 18 others of mounting a wide-ranging and illegal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election—emphasizing actions taken to fraudulently reverse the results in Georgia—Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis declared Trump the head of a “criminal enterprise.” The first of 41 counts in the indictment alleges Trump and his co-conspirators violated the state’s version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law that has been used by local and federal prosecutors—including defendant Rudy Giuliani, when he was a US attorney in the 1980s—to pursue Mafia chieftains who were often able to insulate themselves from the criminal deeds of their henchmen. Given Trump’s past ties with mobsters—a significant piece of his biography that has often been overlooked—the use of RICO has an especially sharp resonance.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, I was one of the few reporters who examined his shady record of organized crime connections—particularly his history of making false or contradictory statements about these relations. As I noted then, “when asked about his links to the mob, Trump has repeatedly made false comments and has contradicted himself—to such a degree it seems he has flat-out lied about these relationships, even when he was under oath.” I detailed several of these instances—which have even greater relevance now that Trump is the lead defendant in a RICO case. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
* In 2007, Trump sued journalist Tim O’Brien for libel—asking for $5 billion in damages—after O’Brien in his book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald reported that Trump was no billionaire and only worth between $100 million and $250 million. That book referenced an already established fact: that in the early 1980s Trump began his casino empire in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by leasing property owned by Kenneth Shapiro and Daniel Sullivan. Shapiro, O’Brien wrote, was a “street-level gangster with close ties to the Philadelphia mob,” and Sullivan was a “Mafia associate, FBI informant and labor negotiator.” (Trump also had obtained Sullivan’s assistance when he had trouble with undocumented Polish workers who were demolishing the Bonwit Teller building in Manhattan to make way for Trump Tower.)
During a deposition for that libel case—which Trump would lose—Trump was asked, “Have you ever before associated with individuals you knew were associated with organized crime?” Trump, who was testifying under oath, answered, “Not that I know of.” Yet when O’Brien had interviewed Trump two years earlier, Trump had told the journalist that he believed that Sullivan was mobbed up and “the guy that killed Jimmy Hoffa.” He also described Shapiro as a “mob guy.”
Moreover, after New Jersey regulators in 1982 granted Trump a casino license, they compelled him to buy the property that he had leased from Shapiro and Sullivan because of their backgrounds. Shapiro later told a federal grand jury that he had illegally funneled thousands of dollars to the Atlantic City mayor on Trump’s behalf—a charge Trump denied. So though Trump was well aware that Sullivan and Shapiro were mobbed up, in that 2007 deposition he stated he had never associated with persons with such ties.
* In 1999, when Trump was considering running for president as the candidate of the Reform Party, he was interviewed on Meet the Press by Tim Russert, who asked Trump about his “relations with members of organized crime.” Trump denied having any such connections. He neglected to mention that he got his start in Atlantic City via that business deal with Shapiro and Sullivan. Nor did he refer to working with a cement company owned by Mafia captains and with a mob-linked union official when he was building Trump Tower. Yet eight months earlier—when Trump was not making moves to run for president—he acknowledged that he had done business with organized crime figures. Talking to the Associated Press, Trump remarked, “Usually, I build buildings. I have to deal with the unions, the mob, some of the roughest men you’ve ever seen in your life.”
* Trump also denied interacting with Robert LiButti, a famous horse breeder and high-stakes gambler with ties to infamous Mafia boss John Gotti. In 1991, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Trump about his connection to LiButti. At the time, New Jersey regulators were investigating allegations that the Trump Plaza casino had repeatedly removed women and Black people from craps tables after LiButti griped about their presence while playing. “I have heard he is a high roller, but if he was standing here in front of me, I wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump told the newspaper. And when Yahoo News in 2016 asked Trump about this 1991 investigation, which resulted in a $200,000 fine, Trump answered, “During the years I very successfully ran the casino business, I knew many high rollers. I assume Mr. LiButti was one of them, but I don’t recognize the name.”
Edith Creamer, LiButti’s daughter, had a different take. She told Yahoo News that Trump’s account was false and that he and her father knew each well. “He’s a liar,” Creamer said. “Of course he knew him. I flew in the [Trump] helicopter with [Trump’s then-wife] Ivana and the kids. My dad flew it up and down [to Atlantic City]. My 35th birthday party was at the Plaza and Donald was there. After the party, we went on his boat, his big yacht. I like Trump, but it pisses me off that he denies knowing my father. That hurts me.”
The Yahoo News story by Michael Isikoff (my occasional co-author) also reported that a 1991 book written by John O’Donnell, the former president of the Trump Plaza casino, recounted a 1988 meeting between Trump and LiButti aboard Trump’s private helicopter. On this flight, according to O’Donnell, Trump discussed buying a racehorse for $500,000 from LiButti. Isikoff also obtained the transcript of a wiretapped meeting in 1990 between LiButti and a top Trump executive in which LiButti made numerous references to his conversations with Trump and described an occasion when Trump personally handed him a check after he lost $350,000 at the craps table. (It was supposedly a gift to keep LiButti happy so he would continue gambling at the Trump Plaza.)
To Yahoo News, Trump claimed he did not even recognize LiButti’s name. Yet a few months later he told the Wall Street Journal, “LiButti was a high-roller in Atlantic City. I found him to be a nice guy. But I had nothing to do with him.”
All these episodes establish a pattern: Trump associated with mobsters and lied about these relationships. Yet Trump’s links to criminals never became an issue during the 2016 campaign or subsequently. (No coincidence, Trump’s longtime attorney and mentor, Roy Cohn, who died in 1986, was also a lawyer for such mobsters as Fat Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti.) Yes, the United States was led for four years by a failed casino owner with ties to organized crime. And Trump’s criminality in office was hardly shocking, as he often behaved like a Mafiosa (Nice little country you got there, President Zelenskyy. You want more weapons from us? Well, I’m gonna need you to do us this little favor.) Now Trump has been indicted the way a mob boss gets nabbed. There is no telling how this case—or Trump’s other criminal prosecutions—will play out. But this much is clear: Willis has delivered one of the most poetic indictments in American history.