"Slickest Con Man Out of NYC": Donald Trump Set to Be GOP Nominee Despite Links to Organized Crime

StoryMay 04, 2016
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Tom Robbins

investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He was a longtime columnist and staff writer at The Village Voice and the New York Daily News.

As Donald Trump virtually clinches the Republican presidential nomination after Senator Ted Cruz suspends his campaign following a devastating defeat in the Indiana primary, we are joined by Tom Robbins, investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, who has reported on Trump’s history of close relationships with organized crime figures in the United States. We examine some of the characters and connections Robbins helped expose as a reporter who covered politics, labor and organized crime for the Daily News and The Village Voice from 1985 to 2011. His recent article for The Marshall Project is "Trump and the Mob." Robbins also critiques the media’s coverage of Trump on the campaign trail.

NEXT"A Voice from Another Part of New York": Hear Juan González's NY Journalism Hall of Fame Speech
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Atlanta, Georgia. Juan González is in New York. Hello, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hello, Amy. And welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. Well, Donald Trump has virtually clinched the Republican nomination after Senator Ted Cruz suspended his campaign following a devastating defeat in the Indiana primary. Trump won about 53 percent of the vote, capturing 51 delegates in the winner-take-all state. In his concession speech last night, Ted Cruz shocked his supporters by announcing his withdrawal.

SEN. TED CRUZ: From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on, as long as there was a viable path to victory. Tonight, I’m sorry to say, it appears that path has been foreclosed. Together, we left it all on the field in Indiana. We gave it everything we’ve got. But the voters chose another path. And so, with a heavy heart, but with boundless optimism for the long-term future of our nation, we are suspending our campaign. But hear me now: I am not suspending our fight for liberty. I am not suspending our fight to defend the Constitution, to defend the Judeo-Christian values that built America. Our movement will continue. And I give you my word that I will continue this fight with all of my strength and all of my ability.

AMY GOODMAN: With Senator Ted Cruz dropping out, Ohio Governor John Kasich becomes Donald Trump’s only remaining challenger. Reaction among the Republican establishment to Trump remains divided. Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus tweeted, "@realDonaldTrump will be presumptive @GOP nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeating @HillaryClinton #NeverClinton." However, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, "If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed.......and we will deserve it." During a victory speech in New York, Donald Trump set his eyes on November.

DONALD TRUMP: We’re going after Hillary Clinton. She will not—she will not be a great president. She will not be a good president. She will be a poor president. She doesn’t understand trade. Her husband signed, perhaps in the history of the world, the single worst trade deal ever done. It’s called NAFTA. And I was witness to the carnage, over the last six weeks especially.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, in the Democratic race, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pulled a surprise upset by winning just over 52 percent of the vote.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I understand that Secretary Clinton thinks that this campaign is over. I’ve got some bad news for her. Tonight, we won a great victory in Indiana. Next week, we’re going to be in West Virginia. We think we have a real shot to win in that great state. Then we’re going to Kentucky, and we’re going to Oregon; we think we have a pretty good chance to win there, as well. Then we’re going to another bunch of other states, culminating in the largest state in the United States, with the most delegates, and that is the state of California. And we think we have a pretty good chance to win there. And I think that as more and more delegates to the Democratic convention take a hard look at which candidate is generating the kind of enthusiasm, excitement, voter turnout that we need to make sure that somebody like a Donald Trump does not become president, I think we’re going to see more and more delegates concluding that that candidate is Bernie Sanders.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite Bernie Sanders’ victory, Hillary Clinton still holds a commanding lead in the delegate count. To talk more about Donald Trump’s rise to power and also the upset by Bernie Sanders, we’re joined by Tom Robbins, investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Journalism School. He was recently named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on the culture of violence in New York’s prisons. In the 1980s, he covered politics, labor and organized crime for the Daily News and The Village Voice from 1985 to 2011. His recent article for The Marshall Project is "Trump and the Mob."

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tom. Well, why don’t you begin by talking about, really, this historic night in Indiana? Start with Donald Trump now becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, with Ted Cruz pulling out.

TOM ROBBINS: All right. Good morning. Who would have thunk it? Right? I mean, you have the slickest con man out of New York City, and has just been basically made the Republican nominee by the Hoosiers of Middle America. It’s an astonishing thing. And I guess it goes to show that the Republicans have just as little idea as to who their base is as the Democrats.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Tom, you’re one of the few people who has touched on Trump’s amazing history in relationship to organized crime in America, that’s gotten virtually no attention. Could you talk about some of the characters that you and other reporters have unearthed years ago, but is not being paid attention to in this campaign, starting with the infamous Roy Cohn?

TOM ROBBINS: Yes, Roy Cohn is a figure in American history who is well known to people at least of our generation, probably not so much to the one that’s casting a lot of ballots now. But Roy Cohn was the sidekick and chief witch hunter for Senator Joseph McCarthy, a guy who reminds a lot of people of Ted Cruz. You know, they both look alike, and they talk alike. And after Roy—after Roy Cohn had left the Senate, he went into private practice, and he set himself up basically as the house counsel to a couple of the crime bosses in New York City—the Genovese crime family and the Gambino crime family. And at the same time, he adopted a young developer from Queens looking to make his first mark as a developer in Manhattan named Donald J. Trump. And Donald J. Trump will tell you, to this day, that he learned how to play politics and he learned how to play development from Roy Cohn, while he was sitting in Roy Cohn’s East Side townhouse next to "Fat Tony" Salerno and "Big Paul" Castellano.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of Trump’s forays first into Atlantic City and then some of the construction industry jobs he took on to build his towers in New York?

TOM ROBBINS: Well, to be a developer in New York City, to be fair, you had to, in those days—this is talking about the late ’70s and 1980s, early ’90s—you had to brush up against the mob. They were a force both on the employer side and particularly on the union side. But despite that problem, Don Trump seemed to keep running into them over and over again. They bought apartments in his Trump Tower, in Trump Plaza. You know, they kept showing up as people that he was carousing with.

And then, when he went to Atlantic City—and one of the things I did recently in this piece for The Marshall Project was I put up this old FBI memo that I’ve had for many years, in which Donald Trump met with a couple FBI agents, protesting that he was concerned that in Atlantic City there might be organized crime figures, and what could he do to protect himself from this, which is a little like saying, "Is it true that there was a guy named Al Capone once who didn’t pay his taxes?" And he did go to Atlantic City. He probably got in bed with half a dozen mobsters who he bought land from down there.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom, I want to turn to the memo. The memo says, quote, "TRUMP advised Agents that he had read in the press media and had heard from various acquaintances that Organized Crime elements were known to operate in Atlantic City. TRUMP also expressed at this meeting, the reservation that his life and those around him would be subject to microscopic examination. TRUMP advised that he wanted to build a casino in Atlantic City but he did not wish to tarnish his family’s name."

TOM ROBBINS: You know—

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Robbins?

TOM ROBBINS: Yes, you know, I’m so glad you read that in detail, Amy. You know, it’s one of the most remarkable statements coming from a man who has invited the most microscopic examination not only of his life, but his children’s life, all of his wives’ lives. Tarnish his name? You know, this is a man who has emblazoned his name all over every building that he can find, and without any compunctions as to who he associated with. And it didn’t just stop in Atlantic City. Right up until recently, this latest Trump hotel in New York—at least it has his name on it, even though he’s not the owner—the Trump SoHo down on Spring Street, as The New York Times revealed a few weeks ago, his partners in that were a bunch of Russian mobsters. And when he was asked about it, Donald Trump had the same thing that he said about the mobsters in Atlantic City, about the ones in development that he’d dealt with in New York: He wouldn’t know them if he met them."

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about Dan Sullivan? You write about him. And talk about that and the Polish immigrant workers that Trump employed.

TOM ROBBINS: You were there, Juan, at the News when I told that story. It’s one of my favorites. You know, there was—and I love it because of the fact that I got it from a crusty, old, rank-and-file member of the house records union who had sued Donald Trump for the fact that in making way for Trump Tower—and that is his signature accomplishment, is his high-rise condo palace right in the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue—and to do that, he had to knock down a building that was a former famous New York City department store called Bonwit Teller. And he was in such a rush to do it, he got himself a contractor who had a union signatory to a union contract, but in fact was using all undocumented workers from Poland, hardly paying them at all. They were getting so little money that they were literally sleeping on the job site. And he, of course, made none of the donations to the union benefit fund, which he was supposed to do. So, this rank-and-file member filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump for the fact that he had cheated his union out of these benefits. And Trump ended up settling. Even though he claimed throughout the debates, "I never settle lawsuits," he settled that one, out of court. We never knew how much he settled for, but I can tell you that that crusty, old, rank-and-file guy and his lawyers were very happy with how it went.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then there was the luxury limousine company—

TOM ROBBINS: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that he lent his name to, as well? Talk about that one.

TOM ROBBINS: Credit this one to my friend Bill Bastone at In 1988, when Trump was at the peak of his days in Atlantic City, he teamed up with a guy named John Staluppi, who was a very successful and wealthy auto dealer out of Long Island, to create a new stretch limousine, kind of a Trumpmobile, that would be so lavish, with these leather seats and with paper shredders and bars and everything in the world you’d ever want. John Staluppi, according to the FBI, is a made member of the Colombo crime family. You know, I’m not saying that; the FBI says that. And again, when Donald Trump was asked about it, he said, "Well, I never knew anything about that. In fact, I didn’t know John Staluppi very well at all."

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about when Donald Trump was asked about it. Let’s talk about the media’s coverage of Donald Trump, Tom Robbins. What’s your assessment of it, and the significance of what this means, what happened in this last 24 hours with Ted Cruz pulling out and, clearly, Donald Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States of America?

TOM ROBBINS: You know, I don’t think, Amy, that the media has done a terrible job in covering these stories. There have been quite a few of them, actually. The problem that’s come is that no one has really compelled Trump to answer the questions, you know, in that he gets away with simply saying things like, "Well, I never heard of that guy," or, "I wouldn’t know him." No one ever—he’s never been forced to sit down in a chair and really answer the kind of questions that he would have to presumably do as the Republican nominee. And I think that will really be a telling point for the American media, is like, OK, we know all this stuff about him—and, look, he’s a gold mine of these kinds of stories. We’re only talking—we’re just scratching the surface here, the ones I just mentioned. There’s a lot more. This has been a deal maker in New York and across the world for 40 years. He’s come up against some incredibly shady characters. So now the question is: Will people get him to actually answer questions and try to get down below the level? So far, none of these stories, I think, have scratched the surface. The reason that he can win a state like Indiana is because nobody thinks badly of him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, there’s still the big issue of when he will ever—when he will, or if he ever will, release his tax forms.

TOM ROBBINS: That’s right. I don’t think we’re going to see those. I mean, I think, look, Donald Trump says he’s running for president in a very different way, and that’s one of the ways it’s going to be different. You’re not going to see his tax forms.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Tom Robbins—this issue of what Donald Trump says, just the outright lies just don’t seem to matter. Just take, for example, the Iraq War. One of the things that’s been mentioned, you know, ways he’s similar, for example, to Bernie Sanders, is that he was opposed to the war in Iraq, he’s against the so-called free trade deals that are made. On the issue of the war in Iraq, he was for the war in Iraq. I mean, back then in 2002, he talked about being for it.

TOM ROBBINS: You know, it’s a perfect example, Amy, because of the fact—there could be no more crucial difference that he claimed at the early Republican debates. He kept saying, "I knew. I was the guy who said I was against the Iraq War." And he kept saying it over and over again, and nobody challenged him on it, until people went back and they started looking at the public record and realized, well, wait a minute, that’s not really true. He was for the war in Iraq, until he was clever enough—and grant him this: He’s a smart man; he recognized a disaster in the making when he saw one, and he changed his position, and he started saying that—and very mildly at first. It wasn’t until much later, when the tide had turned, that he started really saying it was a bad idea. But I think that’s a really good example of like trying to get him to own up, is: "Well, what were you thinking? What were you saying at that time?"

And his ability to slide through this stuff is astonishing. You know, I mean, recently, Politico brought together all the people who had written biographies of Trump, just to sit down at a table and swap stories. And I commend that piece to everybody who wants to read it. My friend Wayne Barrett is one of them, Tim O’Brien is one of them, Gwenda Blair—folks who had written really most in-depth biographies of him. And they tell wonderful stories, I mean, one after another. But my favorite one was about Trump and the draft, which for people of our generation was a very big deal as to what you did during the draft. And Donald Trump has always claimed that his—he got out of the draft simply because of the fact that like they didn’t need him at that point. And he talked about having a high number, which was a lottery at one point. But one of the biographers went back and checked, and he said, "Well, actually, you know, your date was before they were even using the lottery. How did you get out of the draft?" At which point Donald Trump says, "Heel spurs. I got a 4-F because of my heel spurs." And the guy who wrote this book said, "You know, I can’t imagine how many miles on a golf course this fellow has walked, and he had too many heel spurs to walk in Vietnam." I mean, that’s those kind of stories which are out there waiting to be picked.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, there’s the big story of Bernie Sanders last night. Once again, you know, the polls are wrong, the prediction that it was going to be Hillary Clinton. Now, this hasn’t gotten quite as much attention as Donald Trump winning, because Ted Cruz has pulled out, but Bernie Sanders won Indiana. Also, you know, it’s not a winner-take-all primary. But the significance of Bernie Sanders continuing on and these continued victories?

TOM ROBBINS: Well, you watched it closer than I did, Amy. My sense was that they knew it was going to be close. Perhaps they were predicting a narrow Clinton victory there. But, you know, Indiana demographically matches the kind of states that Bernie Sanders has done very well in, a largely white electorate. And, you know, he’s shown an ability to resonate with that portion of the voters in the Democratic Party that’s above and beyond. So, people shouldn’t be surprised about the fact that he did well. Is it enough to put him over? I guess, you know, now we get into the mathematical head counting for delegates.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you can look forward. If there is a Trump-Clinton contest, let’s say, what you would be looking for in terms of the potential of somebody like Trump actually pulling it out?

TOM ROBBINS: Well, you know, it’s interesting to hear Republicans talk about how scared they are of Trump being the candidate. I find that much more telling than when Democrats talk about, oh, he’s unpopular among women, he’s unpopular among minorities. You know, there’s a certain extent, I feel, the Democrats are whistling past the graveyard, that they don’t recognize the fact that American voters are scared, they’re anxious, they’re worried. They’ve been fed pablum and bromides about jobs that disappeared. Here’s a fellow who is telling them, "I can fix that. And it was wrong, and it shouldn’t have happened to you." And he comes across as a strongman. And there is a section of the electorate that responds to that. And if he can curb his own instinct to like—I mean, just he can’t—he’s got to stop beating up on Jeb Bush. He’s got to try to figure out a way to say some nice things about other people in his party. If he can do that, I think he could be a formidable contender, much more formidable than the Democrats are thinking right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And Hillary Clinton being the nominee, not that she is yet, but if she is, Tom Robbins? You’ve been in New York City for quite a long time. Your assessment of a Trump-Clinton race?

TOM ROBBINS: You know, Hillary Clinton, at her best, is a tremendous candidate. When Hillary Clinton lets her guard down and she speaks out, I think she resonates with people. And people feel a pride of the fact that, you know, it looks like there could for the first time be a woman who would be the candidate of a major party. And I think that that’s something that has the potential to really rally enormous numbers of voters. Hillary Clinton, at her worst, which is something unfortunately we see a lot of, is someone who is paranoid and who is fearful and who is distrustful. And as a result, voters see her that way. And I think she has the capability of being at her best. But she’s a flawed candidate. She carries a lot of baggage. And I think that Donald Trump is somebody who is incredibly good at skewing his rivals and finding the soft spot. And she’s got a lot of soft spots.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then, when we come back, we turn to our very own Juan González, who has just retired after 29 years as a columnist and staff writer—as a columnist at the New York Daily News. Tom Robbins, stay with us for this hour, because you have a lot to say about Juan, as well. And we’re going to play Juan’s speech, when he was inducted into the Deadline Club’s New York Journalism Hall of Fame. Stay with us.

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