How the Mafia Fueled Richard Nixon's Political Career
The famously corrupt president didn't just go rogue in the White House—a new book shows that, like, Donald Trump, Nixon had a long history of Mafia-tainted activity.
Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon on Bebe Rebozo's houseboat in Key Biscayne, Florida, August 1968. Photo by Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Richard Nixon’s first sit down came before he ran for Congress in 1946. Tricky Dick was later said to deal with the mob primarily through intermediaries like his bagman Bebe Rebozo or the attorney Murray Chotiner. But at this early stage, the military veteran and aspiring politician felt safe meeting face to face with Mickey Cohen, the notorious Jewish gangster based in Los Angeles. Despite Nixon's notorious anti-Semitism, Cohen was an important figure in California politics. Cohen, for his part, later said he got approval for the meeting, a lunch at Goodfellow's Fisherman's Grotto, from Cosa Nostra bosses in New York and Don Santos Trafficante in Florida.
With corruption rampant and looking increasingly unstoppable in today’s political landscape, it's worth reflecting on the storied tradition of American politicians galavanting with the mob. Thanks in part to the release of tens of thousands of classified documents related to Richard Nixon’s term as president, it's clearer than ever that his legacy should not be confined to Watergate, the War on Drugs, and his weird obsession with the peace sign. On the contrary, Nixon may also have been the president who most unabashedly rubbed elbows (and did business) with the mob at the peak of its powers.
Of course, it's no secret that Nixon, despite his constant protestations to the contrary, was in fact a crooked guy. But in his new book, The Mafia’s President: Nixon and the Mob, veteran White House reporter Don Fulsom digs into just how deeply Nixon got tied up with the mob. VICE talked to Fulsom by phone about the president's alleged plot to kill Castro with Mafia help, details on the $1 million deal to spring union boss Jimmy Hoffa from prison, and what it all means for Donald Trump—a president with his own history of business ties to organized crime.
Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: Nixon being shady and even having ties to the mob isn't a brand-new concept. How did you break new ground here?
Don Fulsom: I heard about these rumors many years ago in 1968 when I first went to Key Biscayne, Florida, to cover Nixon. He went down there about 60 times during the campaign and following his election and swearing-in. I got to know a lot of people in Key Biscayne, and they told me about rumors [concerning] banks, laundering money, and casinos run by the Mafia. I was so busy with the president and Watergate and the trip to China and all of that, that I didn’t have time to look into possible Mafia connections.
More tapes and more documents have [since] come out linking him to the Mafia. One document that was found recently instructs John Mitchell, the attorney general, something along the lines [of]: No more indictments of Mafia [figures] or Italian Americans before the election. That was written in 1970, and just came out within the past couple of years. There have been other hints in recent years on the [Oval Office] tapes. They conspired to help [get] this mob gangster’s union leader [Jimmy Hoffa] out of jail about four or five years earlier than he should have. (There was a threat by [Jimmy] Hoffa against Frank Fitzsimmons of the Teamsters. Hoffa said, "Frank, you better get me out of here by Christmas or you’re a dead man.")
Basically, there’s been a lot of recent discoveries that led me to check into this a little further to come up with what’s now the book.
It seems like a key relationship here was the one Nixon had with Murray Chotiner, a lawyer who knew his way around the criminal underworld. How did they connect?
Chotiner was Nixon’s first campaign manager and he had 221 Mafia clients. He dressed like one of the Mafia people: He had the white-on-white shirt, silk tie, pinky ring, monogramed shirts, and cufflinks that were little clocks. In other words, he was a fancy dresser and tied into the Mafia like no one else in the Southern California area. Nixon, through Murray Chotiner, was able to get in touch with Mickey Cohen, the boss of LA, and through Cohen, got some big contributions from the Southern California underworld in his [first] race for Congress way back in 1946.
I assume the mob threw lots of money around in politics back then. Were their donations to Nixon really pivotal or unusual?
[The Mafia contributed] millions of dollars over the years, including at least a million dollars to get Jimmy Hoffa out of prison early. Then another possible million dollars to keep him from running for reelection through union office so that Frank Fitzsimmons could retain his leadership [of the Teamsters] for the Mafia. Fitzsimmons was much more pliable than Hoffa, and, as far as Nixon was concerned, he was easier to deal [with]. Over the years I don’t know how many millions of dollars went from the Mafia to Nixon, but it was a considerable sum, and something that I think is worth noting for future generations. It’s not good to have a man in the White House who is in the pocket of organized crime.
You report that Nixon had some kind of role in an alleged Mafia-infused plot to invade Cuba. Leaving aside the potential fodder for JFK-related conspiracies, it seems like part of his connection to Cuba was personal—he liked to gamble.
Nixon was quite a big fan of the Cuban dictator Batista. He spent a lot of time down in Cuba when gambling was legal and run by the Mafia. They gave him a special room at the Hotel Nacional, which was owned by [gangster] Meyer Lansky. Nixon met with Lansky. The room was comped and Nixon ran up some big debts at Lansky’s gambling casino.
His Mafia-connected friend Bebe Rebozo went on many of these gambling trips to Cuba [too]. One of the trips occurred just before Nixon was to be nominated for vice president—when he was [still] a senator. To have this revealed wouldn’t have gone over too well with the voting public. Nixon [also] praised Batista’s government, which was very corrupt and tied in with the Mafia.
Batista apparently got millions of dollars from the Mafia for allowing them to run their gambling casinos down there. When Castro took over, all of that was gone. The Mafia was looking for some new place to operate. One of the places they found was not only Las Vegas, but the Bahama Islands. They had gambling casinos there, and Meyer Lansky was a big behind the scenes mover and groover. Nixon also spent some time there—he was at the opening at one of the Mafia’s gambling casinos.
The comparison between Nixon and Trump is a common one these days, but mostly because both are facing special counsel investigations and have committed impeachable offenses. Do you think Trump's reported mob ties are fair game like Nixon's, though?
Yes, I definitely do, because anyone who’s been in the businesses that Trump’s been in must have had contact with the Mafia. I hope that one of these two congressional probes that’s taking place will look into possible Mafia ties.
The fact that it’s possible for murderers and purveyors of prostitution, illegal activities, drugs, and so on to get their hooks into a political figure—who’s not only a governor and senator, but someone who’s the actual president of the United States—that’s a horrible thing to happen. I hope people recognize that this was a major problem and took our country down a very dangerous path during those years when Nixon was in office—including his congressional senatorial, vice presidential, and presidential years. [It's amazing that] someone so high in the government could be a tool of organized crime.
What can we do in the future to uncover and prevent these type of abuses by our elected officials?
Being alert to all kinds of possible corruption. Congressional oversight is very important. I don’t think they had the proper oversight when Nixon was clearly running around with the Mafia and the Mafia was funding his campaigns over the years. Even the Senate Watergate Committee was not able to reveal all of Nixon’s ties with the Mafia, but at least it made a good start in preventing him from continuing crooked activities in a lot of other areas for which he was ultimately expelled from office.
Learn More about Don Fulsom's book, out this month from St. Martin's press, here.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.