How did Donald Trump get to be the way he is? Many who have studied his past proffer advice on that question. Don’t forget, they say, the imprint left by Roy Cohn.
If this President ever had much of a moral compass, his long-time ties to the odious litigator – a man Mr. Trump himself called brutal and vicious – did much to unburden him of it.
Roy Cohn’s name first became known when he was senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the campaign against alleged Communist sympathizers in the early 1950s. Mr. Cohn served as Mr. McCarthy’s henchman, specializing in character assassination. Serving on Mr. Cohn’s legal team was Bobby Kennedy, who, no shrinking violet himself at that time, railed against Mr. Cohn’s gutter tactics. They detested each other.
Following the disgraced red-baiting campaign, Mr. Cohn went on to become one of New York’s most ruthless, notorious lawyers. He hosted parties for celebrities and the rich and the infamous, including leading crime figures. There was a quip about the Cohn soirées: “If you’re indicted, you’re invited.”
From the early 1970s into the mid-1980s, he served as Mr. Trump’s cold-blooded legal counsel. Threats were at the core of Mr. Cohn’s legal strategy. Threats, counterattacks, intimidation. “My scare value is high,” he said of his style. “My tough front is my biggest asset. I don’t write polite letters.” As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio has argued, Mr. Cohn schooled the on-the-make developer in the dark arts. Never surrender, never admit defeat, truth doesn’t matter.
In contrast to Barack Obama’s cautious, consensus-building style, Trump defenders say it’s an approach – that of browbeater-in-chief – that can get things done. They point to the progress toward denuclearization of North Korea after Mr. Trump’s brash threats to blow the country up.
Mr. Trump was hooked on Mr. Cohn after their first case, a Department of Justice suit against the Trump development company for discrimination against African-Americans. The government had a strong argument, but Mr. Cohn went on the counterattack, launching a defamation suit for US$100-million. It was tossed out of court, but it was typical of the confrontational tactics Mr. Cohn employed and of Mr. Trump’s brass-knuckled strategy to follow.
“When you attack Donald,” Melania Trump said during the 2016 election campaign, “he will punch back 10 times harder.”
Of Mr. Cohn, Mr. Trump once told journalist Marie Brenner: “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me.” He told other scribes: “Roy was brutal but he was very loyal. He brutalized for you.”
Mr. Cohn introduced Mr. Trump to Roger Stone, who had engaged in dirty tricks for Richard Nixon. Like Mr. Cohn, Mr. Stone was straight out of the admit-nothing-deny-everything school and, like Mr. Cohn, he became a close Trump associate.
Mr. Stone, who credits Mr. Cohn with influencing Mr. Trump to take a confrontational approach to the media, is now a central figure in the FBI investigation into Mr. Trump’s campaign ties to Russia.
Mr. Cohn hung out with Mr. Trump at the New York hot spot of the day, Studio 54, for which the former was legal counsel. While mixing with the rich and famous, Mr. Cohn was acquitted three times in federal court on various charges including bribery, conspiracy and fraud. He always claimed he was a victim of vendettas, much as Mr. Trump does today in respect to the Russia file.
Mr. Cohn was ultimately disbarred from legal practice in New York, his unethical conduct described as “particularly reprehensible.” After the fall, Mr. Trump put on a lavish dinner for him – this before he died of complications from AIDS in 1986.
Despite Mr. Cohn’s sordid reputation, Mr. Trump wishes he was around to help him today. In respect to his legal team’s handling of the Russia controversy, the President got so annoyed at one point that, as reported in The New York Times, he looked on in disgust, saying, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
In fact, he’s still here in spirit, as Mr. Trump relishes in relentlessly employing his duplicitous tactics. They are tactics that have worked well for him as a survival kit. But as for them winning out in the Oval Office, don’t count on it. It may take a while, but truth, as Roy Cohn learned, has a way of winning out.