Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, conjures up a lost world. It depicts an era when the Mafia was so powerful that it set off alarms in the Kennedy White House, and Scorsese even hints that organized crime was behind JFK’s assassination.
But by the end of the three-hour-plus movie, the nostalgia fades and so does the pinkie-ring finery. Every made man Scorsese introduces to the viewer is snuffed out until all that’s left is Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro), a disheveled, wheelchair-bound ex-hit man who’s haunted by his memories. At the film’s end, a pair of FBI agents plead with Sheeran to talk about his victims, telling him there’s no reason to keep silent anymore because there’s no one left to protect. “Everybody’s dead, Mr. Sheeran,” one agent says. “They’re all gone.”
Well, many still remember. One person who knew the real-life mob families that show up in The Irishman is President Donald Trump.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Trump’s buildings and his casinos attracted underworld figures like “Fat Tony” Salerno, the Fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping boss of the Genovese crime family. Salerno, who’s portrayed in the film by Domenick Lombardozzi, supplied the fast-drying concrete that built Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Salerno also controlled the local concrete workers union, and when a strike shut down construction in Manhattan in 1982, the one of the few buildings that wasn’t affected was Trump Tower.
The Irishman is based on the 2003 book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, by Charles Brandt. (The title is a reference to the special kind of painting Sheeran did that left his victims’ brains on the wall.) The book is full of characters who didn’t make it into the movie, but they did surface in Trump’s world. One is Philadelphia mob boss Philip Testa, the “chicken man” whose 1981 murder by nail bomb Bruce Springsteen sings about in the song “Atlantic City.” Testa’s son sold Trump premium land that became a casino parking lot. Another figure in the book is Testa’s successor, Nicodemus “Little Nicky” Scarfo, whose associates tried to lease Trump land for his casino in Atlantic City — until New Jersey casino regulators quashed the deal.
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Trump wasn’t the only one who knew the people in the world of The Irishman. In addition to being a hit man, Sheeran was president of a local Teamsters union in Delaware. In 1972, shortly before Election Day, a prominent lawyer who was very big in the Democratic Party came to see him. There were some political ads that would run in the local newspaper every day in the last week before election, and the lawyer didn’t want them to run. So Sheeran set up a picket line outside the newspaper, and he knew the Teamsters union drivers who delivered the paper wouldn’t cross it. So the ads were never delivered, and on Election Day, Delaware had a new senator: a young man named Joe Biden. After that, Sheeran said Biden’s door was always open. “You could reach out for him, and he would listen,” he wrote.
The Biden story isn’t in the movie. There wasn’t room enough for everyone to make it into Scorsese’s epic Mafia biopic, but Salerno does — and with good reason. Salerno ran the most powerful of New York’s five Mafia families. “I’m the fucking boss, that’s who I am,” Salerno once boasted in a secretly recorded conversation. “Connecticut is mine; New Jersey is mine.” Nothing got built in New York without Salerno dipping his meaty hand into the till.
In 1983, the year Trump Tower opened its doors, the future president reportedly met the Genovese family boss. The common thread linking Salerno and Trump was Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer who represented both men. Cohn, the heavy-lidded henchman to Senator Joseph McCarthy, introduced the two men in his Manhattan townhouse, according to the late journalist Wayne Barrett. Under oath, Trump swore that wasn’t true, but he also swore that he didn’t know that Cohn represented Salerno, a fact that had been widely reported in Cohn’s obituary a few years earlier.
And it’s not just Trump who has links to the world depicted in The Irishman. It also overlapped with some of the figures in Trump’s world, past and present. Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser, also met Salerno when he visited Cohn’s Manhattan brownstone. This was in 1979, and Stone had been tapped to run Ronald Reagan’s political operation in New York. Cohn, dressed in a silk bathrobe, introduced Stone to the mobster and then offered to help him with the Reagan campaign. Cohn’s advice would change the course of Stone’s life: “What you need is Donald Trump.” Cohn sent the young political operative off to meet the up-and-coming real estate developer. It was a path that would lead 40 years later to Stone’s conviction last month on charges of lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, also crossed paths with Salerno as New York’s top federal prosecutor in the 1980s. Giuliani was obsessed with Salerno. “Tony was the Tip O’Neill of the underworld and would reside forever in Rudy Giuliani’s mind,” wrote the legendary New York columnist Jimmy Breslin. Giuliani went after Salerno with such zeal that the mobster’s defense attorney complained that the prosecutor ″has made it his personal mission to bury my client.″
In March 1986, Giuliani announced that a grand jury had indicted Salerno and others on charges that included rigging construction bids. Trump Plaza, a co-op apartment building on Manhattan’s East Side, was specifically mentioned in the 29-count indictment. Salerno arranged things so his concrete company got a $7.8 million contract at Trump Plaza. It just so happens that while these bids were being rigged, the building was under construction, right around the time that Trump met Salerno in Cohn’s townhouse. Even so, the indictment makes it clear that the bid-rigging occurred without the knowledge of developers.
The FBI had uncovered the concrete bid-rigging scheme at Trump Plaza by secretly bugging Mafia homes and hangouts, including the Palma Boys Social Club, where DeNiro and his “rabbi” Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, sit down with Salerno in Scorsese’s film. Giuliani, by his own account, listened to countless hours of secretly recorded conversations of mobsters, and he reportedly was able to pull off a convincing impression of the mobster’s scratchy voice. “When you listen to those guys for thousands of hours, you can’t help but sound like them,” Giuliani once said.
More than three decades later, it’s Giuliani who is under federal investigation for his dealings in Ukraine, Trump is the president on the brink of impeachment, and bosses like Salerno are dead and gone, except for in the movies. As Giuliani finds himself in the crosshairs of prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office he once ran, it’s worth pondering what was on those tapes. Salerno died in prison in 1992, but his words captured on tape live on. When Giuliani says he has “insurance” on his famous client, is it to Trump’s connection to the lost word of The Irishman that he’s referring?