They share an affinity for golf and an aversion to cooperating Witnesses who “flip” to help federal investigators.
But former president Donald Trump and former Philly mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino don’t have much to say about how they wound up in a photo together at a South Florida golf course.
Trump posed for the photo with Merlino earlier this month at Trump International Golf Club West Palm Beach. The two, along with an unidentified third man, flash Trump’s customary “thumbs-up” hand signs and smiles while wearing golfing attire.
Does Trump know Merlino? Or at least who he was?
His Presidential campaign won’t say.
The photo, obtained by The Inquirer, is likely to renew concerns among Trump loyalists eager to help him retake the White House next year that he still lacks the sort of protective political infrastructure that would prevent a candidate for president from taking a picture with a convicted mobster whose last stint in federal prison ended in mid-2020.
“President Trump takes countless photos with people. That does not mean he knows every single person he comes in contact with,” said a Trump spokesperson after The Inquirer shared a copy of the photo with his campaign.
The spokesperson did not respond when asked if Trump knew Merlino, or his background.
Trump sparked outrage when he dined Nov. 22 at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach private club and residence, with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist who had shown up with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who was under fire then for a series of antisemitic remarks.
That now-notorious dinner happened just one week after Trump announced his third bid for president.
Trump later complained about the outcry, claiming he didn’t know Fuentes or about his fiercely bigoted ideology. Still, Democrats and Republican critics railed about the dinner and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, called on him to apologize.
The fall out prompted Trump’s campaign to enact new protocols for vetting and approving people he met with. Those Protocols were not apparently followed at Trump’s golf course this month.
Merlino did not respond to requests for comment.
In the slightly blurry photo, Merlino wears a gray polo shirt, dark shorts, and sneakers. A source who provided the photo and requested anonymity to discuss it, said the third man pictured is a friend of Merlino’s. That man also wears a polo shirt, shorts, and sneakers along with a red “Keep America Great” baseball cap.
Trump is shown wearing a white polo shirt, dark pants, white golf shoes and a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.
Merlino has made it clear in the past that he admires Trump. It is unclear if Trump feels the same.
Trump and Merlino were well-known and on the rise in the Philadelphia region in the 1990s — for very different reasons.
Trump was a prominent New York real estate developer with a growing collection of casinos in Atlantic City in the 1990s.
Merlino was a leader of a violent crew on his way up to being the boss of an organized crime operation active in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Trump’s casino Empire was eventually mired in bankruptcy, but his star continued to rise, with increased fame from a reality television series the following decade and then a successful run for president in 2016.
Merlino was convicted in 2001 in a racketeering case and served a decade in federal prison. He had claimed more recently to have left that life behind, moving to Boca Raton in Florida to work as maître d’ at an Italian restaurant named after him.
The restaurant closed after Merlino’s most recent run-in with the feds, which led to a two-year sentence in October 2018 when he pleaded guilty to a gambling-related charge. Merlino, after being sentenced, echoed comments from Trump at the time that were critical of Witnesses who cooperate with federal investigators.
“President Trump is right — they’ve got to Outlaw the flippers,” said Merlino, who was released from Prison in July 2020.
Trump in August 2018 said the practice of prosecutors “flipping” people accused of crimes into Witnesses who Testify against others “almost ought to be illegal” after his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a campaign finance crime — paying women to keep quiet about affairs they had with Trump — and implicated his former client.
Merlino was pulled into Trump’s Orbit in the weeks after the 2020 general election when a website known for trafficking in misinformation falsely claimed he had been paid $3 million to help Joe Biden win Philadelphia with thousands of fake ballots.
Jordan Sekulow, an attorney who had served in late 2019 and early 2020 on Trump’s legal team for his first impeachment, gave that false claim a public boost by tweeting a link to the website.
The claim was quickly debunked by several media organizations, including Fox News. Even Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, called the claim “far-fetched.”
Still, it caused Merlino some agitation.
“Joey is a Trumper and any allegation of fixing this is just completely fiction,” an attorney for Merlino told Fox News at the time, adding that his client “is against cooperating Witnesses and against making uncorroborated deals with snitches, which is what the president is against.”