Not even a demented Hollywood casting director high on meth could have dreamed up a lowlife creep beast from 20,000 fathoms like Roy Cohn who was Donald Trump’s long time Rasputin.
Trump was a mere stripling of 27, the son of a racist real estate tycoon, when crooked, always-under-indictment lawyer Cohn got his claws on him. As Donald and his dad Fred faced federal charges of racial discrimination at the Trumps’ New York rental properties, young Trump turned to Roy Cohn, the city’s most notorious fixer, to fix it. Trump’s staff lawyers advised, We’re guilty so settle; Cohn said tell the Justice Dept. to go to hell.
ALWAYS ATTACK, NEVER APOLOGIZE, Cohn drilled into his protégé. Shameless makes money.
As Trump’s legal guru Cohn brokered huge tax abatements, made a matchmaking shidduch with the Mob for concrete work on Trump’s hotel projects, and wrote Donald’s grinch-like prenup with first wife Ivana.
Cohn’s half-insane pugnacity and Donald’s inherited money made for a marriage made in Dante’s Lower Inferno. They loved each other.
So who was this gantser makher, son of an observant Jewish judge, this Prince among movers and shakers who could with a phone call make good things happen to bad people?
In old crime movies Cohn would have played a shyster, squealer or stoolpigeon or all three. He was perfectly aware he looked the part and not only didn’t he care he reveled in his obnoxiousness. He brazenly presented himself as a sleazeball and a certain class of New Yorker loved him for it.
His negative charm was a valuable business asset in the way that mafiosos use their viciousness to intimidate competitors.
(Disclosure: I met Cohn once when I hung with a certain dubious layer of Manhatten’s upper crust. His photographs do him justice.)
Cohn’s papa, a state supreme court justice and a Democratic Party player, gave Sonny entrée to New York’s most powerful legal and business circles. Roy earned his spurs with a double whammy, at age 24, just out of law school, stage managing the corrupt prosecution of “atomic spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sending Ethel to the electric chair even when, or because, he knew from his own key witness that she was not guilty as charged.
Violating the law, Cohn held secret “ex parte” talks with Judge Kaufman to ensure a death penalty for the couple.
Forever after he boasted of his accomplishment in killing the treasonous “kikes,” Cohn’s oft-used name for other Jews. (In the sensational trial by no coincidence the judge and prosecutors were Jews. Fearing anti-Semitic accusations of treason, respectable Jews were eager to “show the flag”.)
Inevitably, Cohn became chief counsel and Lord High Executioner to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s lurid “investigation” of people inside and outside the federal government suspected of spying, Communism and especially homosexuality.
Cohn himself was a barely closeted Jewish queer with a rare talent for destroying gays and fellow Jews.
“Not all Jews are communists,” he insisted, “but all communists are Jews.”
Cohn skillfully seduced the media by making friends with important journalists and gossip columnists, like Walter Winchell and Liz Smith, to whom he could feed juicy lies. CBS’s ’60 Minutes’ ran a laudatory profile of him.
Over several years, a drink-stupified and not very bright Joe McCarthy, getting his signals from the sexually ambiguous FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and pushed, actually intimidated, by Cohn, destroyed dozens of careers and lives before a Watergate-type televised hearing exposed the Wisconsin wizard of Oz as a lying buffoon.
It was a simple case of over-reach when, again prodded by Cohn, McCarthy accused the US Army of treason (because it drafted one of his boyfriends) and Ike Eisenhower of being a “conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” Back then the American public had a sense of humor.
But the damage had been done. In the wake of the Rosenberg trial and McCarthy hearings, “national security” and “loyalty” became religious obligations.
No surprise, Roy like Donald, dodged military service, once in WW2 by applying to West Point and deliberately flunking the exam and during the Korean war joining the National Guard.
After road raging through so many public lives, Roy Cohn “retired” to get rich (Rolls Royce, a yacht) in private practice where the only people he could screw were his own clients — all but Donald Trump who listened carefully, and permanently took on board, Cohn’s Iago-like Lessons In Life. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Cohn created the half-formed Trump in his own image.
For the next 30 years Roy Cohn enjoyed being a New York celebrity, back door dealer for Mafiosos like John Gotti, joined the John Birch Society and advised Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Always under investigation for perjury and witness tampering, he was finally disbarred for stealing clients’ money. Once he entered the hospital room of a dying multimillionaire client and forced a pen to his hand to make himself the will’s beneficiary.
What goes around — sometimes — comes around. Next to the Red Scare the Lavender Scare was high on Cohn’s agenda.
Scores of gay men in federal jobs were fired after he “exposed” them. It rippled outwards until thousands of gay guys, including my friends, were trapped in Cohn-and-McCarthy inspired waves of sexual hysteria.
Wildly promiscuous, Cohn kept denying he was gay and died of AIDS.
Next time you see Trump on TV don’t laugh or jeer or turn away. You’re watching 70 years of the bottom feeding side of American history.
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.)