A photo taken during the summer of 2022 shows a grinning former president Donald Trump flashing a thumbs up gesture while posing with John Alite, a podcaster and motivational speaker who was once a hitman for the Gambino crime family.
Alite, who confirmed the authenticity of the photo in a phone interview with The Independent, described himself as a political independent who supported Mr Trump’s push for criminal justice reform, and said his support for the ex-president is well known.
Though he described himself as a media figure who “speaks out against the street” and encourages young people to refrain from engaging in crime or violence, he spent years of his life as an associate of the Gambino family, one of the famed “five families” of the American mob. He has confessed to murdering six people and assaulting many more during that period of his life, which ended when he was arrested in Brazil after several years evading capture following an indictment in federal court.
Upon his extradition to the US, he eventually made a deal with prosecutors and testified against former associates who had fingered him for a slew of crimes, including top Gambino family figures such as John Gotti Jr (whose case ended in a mistrial) and Charles Carneglia (who got a life sentence).
Alite’s help to prosecutors got him a 10-year sentence after he pleaded guilty to numerous offenses including including murder and robbery.
Since his release from prison, he says he has changed his life.
“I'm a guy that's does TV, does movies, those talk shows, does talks for kids, works with the FBI, does events and talks with the FBI against the street to save kids lives. I do things with documentaries against drugs, openly against my past. So I'm a different guy,” he said.
Asked whether he believed Mr Trump was aware of his past when he posed for a photo with him, Alite told The Independent: “I assume he knows who I am, but possibly not”.
The Independent was tipped off to the existence of the photograph after reporting that Mr Trump had recently posed for a snapshot with Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, who ran the Philadelphia mafia in the 1990s when Mr Trump was a casino operator in nearby Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Merlino spent more than a decade in federal prison after he was convicted on extortion, bookmaking and receiving stolen property charges following a 2001 trial. After his release he moved to Florida but found himself back in the dock in 2016, when he was arrested on another racketeering indictment and tried in a New York federal court. Following a mistrial on racketeering, fraud and illegal gambling charges, he pleaded guilty to illegal gambling and received a two-year prison sentence.
Alite said Mr Trump’s photograph with Merlino is a good indicator that the ex-president doesn’t have anyone around him who can vet who he comes into contact with.
“I just think he doesn't realise all the people he's taking a picture with because he recently took a picture of someone and I guarantee he doesn’t know who that person is,” he said.
In a statement to The Independent, a spokesperson for Mr Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign denied that the ex-president has any awareness of the identity of people he is photographed with in informal settings.
“President Trump takes countless photos with people. That does not mean he knows every single person he comes into contact with,” the spokesperson said.
The existence of two photographs of the twice-impeached ex-president posing alongside people with strong connections to organised crime raises questions about whether Mr Trump is being adequately staffed as he ramps up his third campaign for the presidency.
In November, Mr Trump was photographed having dinner with antisemitic rapper Kanye West and an associate of his, notorious white nationalist podcast host Nick Fuentes.
Despite the denials from Mr Trump’s campaign, it’s possible that he knew of both Mr Alite and Mr Merlino. Both were active in organised crime circles in the 1980s and 1990s, when Mr Trump was active in New York City real estate development.