In a more perfect world, Roy Cohn would belong in a chapter of history long since closed. Cohn should be a cautionary tale against self-loathing. His most enduring relevance since his 1986 death should be as a character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
As you may have noticed, however, our world is not perfect. Being dead for the past 30 years has not stopped Roy Cohn from affecting the lives of queer Americans. In short, the lawyer who made a name for himself aiding Joseph McCarthy in the prosecution of Communists and helping to send Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair also happens to be the man who helped shape a young real estate mogul into President Donald J. Trump.
The end of Cohn’s life is well-known to fans of theater and anyone who watched the 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation of Angels in America. In the miniseries, Al Pacino plays a fictionalized version of Roy Cohn as he dies from AIDS. This portrayal would seem to line up with the real-life Cohn, at least as described by Republican necromancer Roger Stone in a 2008 New Yorker interview: Homosexual in practice but not interested in being identified as such.
“Roy was not gay,” said Stone. “He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”
Cohn’s sexual preferences did nothing to prevent him from participating in the Lavender Scare — a McCarthy-directed witch hunt parallel to the Red Scare that ultimately resulted in around 5,000 gay men and lesbians being fired from government positions.
Since Trump’s ascendance into the political spotlight, Roy Cohn’s name has gotten more play in news articles. How did Cohn become a mentor to Donald Trump? Here’s the whole story of the Cohn-Trump connection.
Cohn took on a young Donald Trump as a client during his post-McCarthy tenure as a New York City attorney. He helped introduce Trump to wealthier clientele and also represented Trump in court. In 1973, the Justice Department accused Trump of violating the Fair Housing Act by offering potential black renters different prices and conditions. With Cohn acting as his lawyer, Trump countersued, though unsuccessfully. The charges were settled out of court.
Per a June 17, 2016, article in the Washington Post on that case and the subsequent years-long friendship between the two:
“My view is tell them to go to hell,” Cohn said, “and fight the thing in court.”
Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: Attack, counterattack and never apologize.
Since he announced his run for the White House a year ago, Trump has used such tactics more aggressively than any other candidate in recent memory, demeaning opponents, insulting minorities and women, and whipping up anger among his supporters.
There’s also perhaps an echo of Cohn’s influence in Trump’s mysterious taxes:
Even though he lived a lavish life, Cohn claimed he had little taxable income or assets. Over the years, he routinely vacationed with clients on the Greek island of Mykonos or in the south of France on the yacht of a British investor. He said his extravagant expenses were work-related. That included A-list parties he threw at his home.
Cohn was open about his loathing of the Internal Revenue Service. “The firm pays the expenses I incur in developing and seeing through law business. My arrangement leaves enough income for me to take care of personal living expenses and current taxes.”
And Cohn apparently encouraged Trump to donate to New York City officials who might help him turn his business ambitions into reality:
“I’m hardly one of those Boy Scouts who run around promoting phony ethics laws and rules regarding money and politics,” Cohn wrote in his autobiography.
Trump became a generous campaign contributor himself. He eventually gave $150,000 in just one year to local candidates in New York. State officials later said Trump had “circumvented” state limits on individual and corporate contributions by spreading out payments through Trump subsidiaries, but they did not formally accuse Trump of wrongdoing. Testifying under oath about his giving, Trump said, “Well, my attorneys basically said that this was a proper way of doing it.”
There’s even an arguable connection between Trump’s longstanding beef with the FBI and Cohn’s displeasure at learning his office had come under FBI surveillance as a result of his connection with mafia leaders:
In early 1985, Cohn wrote to FBI Director William H. Webster, irate at a newspaper report suggesting that investigators in the case had been surveilling his office. “Since 1950 — the year I prosecuted the Rosenberg atom-spy trial at age 23 with the magnificent investigative help of the Bureau, up to the present, 34 years later, I have had a first-rate relationship with and respect for the Bureau,” Cohn wrote on March 11, 1985, according to documents obtained by The Post.
The Washington Post piece also points out how Cohn’s attitudes toward the press could have shaped Trump’s:
[Cohn] loved the attention the tabloids and magazines gave him, and he socialized with some of their owners, including Rupert Murdoch. Cohn catered to certain reporters and gossip columnists, sharing scoops and rumors.
“Roy understood the value of the tabloids,” [Roger] Stone said in an interview. “[Cohn] did business at this dining-room table in the dining room at his brownstone. He would call reporters and dictate their copy with you sitting there. He would just dictate it.”
Per a June 20, 2016, article in the New York Times, Roy Cohn apparently mentored Trump in matters beyond mere business. For example, then-candidate Trump echoed Cohn in his response to the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. Trump chose to warn of the existential threat he thought Muslims posed to the United States:
“I hear Roy in the things he says quite clearly,” said Peter Fraser, who as Mr. Cohn’s lover for the last two years of his life spent a great deal of time with Mr. Trump. “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.”
Although Trump once rewarded Cohn with diamond cufflinks for a legal victory, Cohn considered Trump a friend and consequently didn’t charge for his services.
“Roy said, ‘I’ll leave it to Donald to give me what he thinks is fair,’” Mr. Fraser recalled of one lengthy Trump tax case in particular. “But, of course, Donald didn’t give him anything.” Some work would have been difficult to bill. For instance, Mr. Cohn lobbied his friends in the Reagan White House to nominate Mr. Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry to the federal bench.
Facing disbarment near the end of his life, Cohn asked Trump to give testimony about his character:
“If I summed it up in one word,” Mr. Trump told the hearing panel, “I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.” … To this day, Mr. Trump rues the outcome. “They only got him because he was so sick,” Mr. Trump said in the interview. “They wouldn’t have gotten him otherwise.”
Also this, which is just creepy as hell:
One of Mr. Trump’s executives recalled that he kept an 8-by-10-inch photograph of Mr. Cohn in his office desk, pulling it out to intimidate recalcitrant contractors.
On April 14, 2017, The New Yorker published a piece about Christine Seymour, a longtime Roy Cohn employee who reportedly taped her boss’s calls with notable people and transcribed the details into notebooks. Seymour died in 1994, so it’s difficult to verify the details of her notebooks, but an anecdote about Maryanne Trump Berry’s federal judgeship could shed light on Trump’s understanding of who gets elevated to positions of power and why.
One of Seymour’s notes describes Cohn’s efforts to advance the judicial career of Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, who served as a federal appeals-court judge for decades, until stepping down soon after Trump assumed the Presidency: “Roy got the White House to give her her judgeship,” Seymour writes. “Roy was out and the call came in to tell her she got it. I took the call and called her to tell her. Ten minutes later, Donald called to say thank you.”
Another could underscore Trump’s feelings about the loyalty of subordinates:
Seymour also noted that Trump could be “two-faced,” and described how he had once heard from an assistant that a lawyer working for Cohn wanted to leave his firm and immediately told Cohn about the treachery. Trump “did things like that always.” Roy’s line on him: “He pisses ice water!”
One of the more interesting Roy Cohn-and-Trump connections comes from The Daily Beast, in a March 3, 2017 piece about the president’s tweets alleging that his predecessor had been spying on him.
Trump then concluded the tweet with a three-word declaration that went beyond what even Cohn might have dared.
“This is McCarthyism!”
Those words were wilder still coming from a protege of the lawyer who had done so much to stoke the fires of McCarthyism and make it the evil that it was.
An April 14 Time op-ed even links Trump’s style of entertainment-as-politics as being a lesson Cohn would have taught him:
Cohn, a willing handmaiden, sat at McCarthy’s side at the nationally televised Senate hearings. He rocketed to national prominence just as Trump did with The Apprentice. As Cohn later wrote, “people are bored; they want entertainment.” Entertainment would prove to be the vehicle for both men to achieve political power.
The same piece connects the 1973 countersuit over the unfair housing charges as key to Trump’s understanding to how to succeed in life:
This marked a key moment in Trump’s career, as he became schooled in the tactic that would be a core feature of his political approach: hitting his critics back hard when he feels attacked. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Sessions’ ties to the Russians, Trump published an old picture of Schumer eating doughnuts with Vladimir Putin, and charged Schumer with “hypocrisy.”
And finally, an August 16, 2016, article in The Advocate notes that if Roy Cohn himself wasn’t responsible for these qualities in Trump, he certainly fostered them:
“You can see parallels with Trump,” Andy Humm, a veteran New York City activist who cohosts the Gay USA TV show, told The Advocate. “Trump never apologizes; Trump never admits to a mistake.” That was Cohn’s style too, said Humm, noting that Trump exhibited these tendencies before he met Cohn, but they intensified under Cohn’s influence.
While there are a number of similarities between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, we’ll close with this quote — an implication of vileness by association:
Humm, by the way, calls Cohn “one of the vilest human beings who ever lived.”
Were you aware that Roy Cohn was an important mentor to Donald Trump?
This story was originally published on May 13, 2017.
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