Life

“Just Remember: Roy Cohn Taught Him His ABCs”

A Mafia expert explains why Trump feels so much like a mobster.

Photos side by side of former Mafia boss John Gotti and President Donald Trump.
Former Mafia boss John Gotti, and President Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by STR New/Reuters and Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Schiff tweeted that the “transcript” of President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “reads like a classic mob shakedown.” Many in the anti-Trump parts of Twitter have been echoing this line of attack this week, but it’s far from the first time we’ve noticed that Trump sounds like someone from The Sopranos. (Remember “Because a long time ago, he did me a favor” and “I know all about flipping”?)

But how far does this analogy go? And does the American public, conditioned by years of moviegoing and media coverage to love a brooding Mafioso, see “a mob shakedown” as a bad thing? Selwyn Raab, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times who covered organized crime, is the author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. I caught up with Raab on Friday to ask what he thought about the latest Trump-Mafia comparisons. Our conversation, which Raab began, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Selwyn Raab: It’s important to remember that Trump learned his ABCs for success from Roy Cohn, who was mixed up in the Mafia, defended them, and mentored Trump exactly how to succeed in life. “Always be aggressive, take no prisoners …”

Trump resembles John Gotti. Most mob bosses were quiet, stayed in the shadows, didn’t want any kind of publicity or exposure. All Gotti wanted was the spotlight, all the time. That bolstered his ego, made him feel important.

There’s another example of their similar personalities. Gotti, at the slightest slight, if anybody had offended him or spoken one bad word, they were finished, terminated. No prisoners …Trump doesn’t kill anybody! But what he does is he casts you out of his environment.

Rebecca Onion: Have you read the notes from the Zelensky call? What do you think of it? There’s a degree of clumsy subtlety to it, a level of insinuation, that people have noticed and compared to mobspeak. 

The subtlety is like … “Do me a favor.” Gotti would never say, “Hit that guy.” He’d just say, “Do me a favor, get rid of that stone in my shoe.” He would just say, “He’s a problem.” You never caught Gotti saying, “Let’s do a hit job on him,” but the understanding is clear to their acolytes. They know what the code words mean.

I know that some Trump supporters hearing the Mafia comparison might say, “No, no, that’s just business. That’s the way that people who are handling a lot of money might talk.” 

The Mafia has always been a mirror image of capitalism. They succeed through monopolies, domineering. They want to win, all the time, and they don’t accept losses. And it’s all at a cost to somebody else. But again, that’s a Roy Cohn characteristic, you never admit defeat, you always attack. And that’s why the Mafia succeeded so long. They just copied what succeeds. They want monopolies, they want domineering, they don’t want any questions. Whoever’s in charge is an absolute ruler.

No accountability.

No, you can’t question them! It’s a God-given gift. OK, Trump had to be elected; you don’t have a popular vote to become a boss. There is a distinction, and I don’t want to say he’s a Mafioso in that sense. It’s the flamboyance, this utter quest for attention constantly. The Twittering is an example, he has to have his views out all the time. That’s like Gotti, he craved the spotlight. Trump has been in the spotlight a long time.

Many other people you wrote about in your reporting didn’t want people to know about their mob activities.

Look! It’s supposed to be a secret society, the Mafia. Gotti set an example; you don’t hear anything about mob bosses today. They learned their lesson. He broke the cardinal rule. It led to his undoing and it almost destroyed the Gambino family, affected a lot of other families. The last Gambino boss, nobody even knew about him until he got assassinated by a wild nut. He was totally anonymous; he wanted to be in the shadows. Gotti was a rare example, there was nobody like that since Al Capone.

I wanted to ask about the romanticization of mob speak in the movies, TV, and music. The Democrats are using “mob shakedown” as an accusation, like what Adam Schiff has been doing …

It’s not the first time they’ve compared him to the mob, and it’s an easy insult for the comparison. But there is some value to it, because Trump has courted danger, courted the spotlight, wanted attention. Any slightest—what appears to be a defeat he turns into victory. Instead of acknowledging that he perhaps made a mistake in that conversation with the Ukrainian president, he attacks Biden! “Look, don’t investigate me, it’s Joe Biden.” So that’s his style.

But he learned that from Cohn. The Mafia used to do the same thing. Roy Cohn defended major mob bosses two ways: He tried to bribe the judges, and he would undercut any witness against them. They demolished the witnesses. And Gotti’s lawyers did that until his final trial. You didn’t accept the word of any opponent, you demolish them.

I brought up the question about romanticization because I almost wonder whether, for some Americans, “mob speak” may not be a bad thing. I think some people may think the mob is sexy, or fun. 

No, listen, the Mafia was ruthless. It was an invisible empire. They hurt a lot of people without anybody knowing it. Higher costs for goods, for clothes, for rental apartments, for construction work. They did enormous damage. Frankly, we’re fortunate, unlike in Italy where they really became part of the real government—here, they made attempts. They were ruthless if you were an honest union worker or you wanted to really do something in construction that would be beneficial. They ran the trucking industry. They were an excessive cost. People didn’t know it. It’s almost like the tariffs—Trump claims tariffs are a victory, but it’s the consumers who are eventually going to pay for it, or the companies. No free lunch!

Remember, the Mafia has always been a mirror image. Whatever succeeded in capitalism, they tried to do, but they did it underhandedly. They liked monopolies, pushing people around, threats; “we’ll break your kneecap if you don’t cooperate,” or “we’ll do something to your relatives.” It’s absolute punishment. And look how Trump treats anybody [who turns against him], like his lawyer [Michael] Cohen. They go into Coventry! They’re total enemies. He doesn’t remember anything they did for him. Loyalty, again that word loyalty. It’s a supreme example of favoritism.

Just remember, Roy Cohn. He taught him his ABCs. He was a mentor. Trump was proud of it! Remember that line about, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” The government works for him; he doesn’t work for the government.