This is a great piece from Vanity Fair on the bizarre but pivotal relationship between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, the malefic adjutant of Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting US Senator who in the 1950’s gave his name to a notorious era of witch-hunting in America.
Written by veteran reporter Marie Brenner, the story leaves little doubt that but for Cohn, Donald Trump might have become a kinder, gentler person.
“‘Donald calls me 15 to 20 times a day,” Roy Cohn told me on the day we met. “He is always asking, ‘What is the status of this . . . and that?’”
It was 1980. I had been assigned to write a story on Donald Trump, the brash young developer who was then trying to make a name for himself in New York City, and I had come to see the man who, at the time, was in many ways Trump’s alter ego: the wily, menacing lawyer who had gained national renown, and enmity, for his ravenous anti-Communist grandstanding.
Trump was 34 and using the connections of his father, Brooklyn and Queens real-estate developer Fred Trump, as he navigated the rough-and-tumble world of political bosses. He had recently opened the Grand Hyatt Hotel, bringing life back to a dreary area near Grand Central Terminal during a period when the city had yet to fully recover from near bankruptcy. His wife, Ivana, led me through the construction site in a white wool Thierry Mugler jumpsuit. “When will it be finished? When?,” she shouted at workers as she clicked through in stiletto heels.
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The tabloids couldn’t get enough of the Trumps’ theatrics. And as Donald Trump’s Hyatt rose, so too did the hidden hand of his attorney Roy Cohn, always there to help with the shady tax abatements, the zoning variances, the sweetheart deals, and the threats to those who might stand in the project’s way.
Cohn was best known as a ruthless prosecutor. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, he and Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, the fabulist and virulent nationalist crusader, had hauled dozens of alleged “Communist sympathizers” before a Senate panel. Earlier, the House Un-American Activities Committee had skewered artists and entertainers on similar charges, resulting in a trail of fear, prison sentences, and ruined careers for hundreds, many of whom had found common cause in fighting Fascism. But in the decades since, Cohn had become the premier practitioner of hardball deal-making in New York, having mastered the arcane rules of the city’s Favor Bank (the local cabal of interconnected influence peddlers) and its magical ability to provide inside fixes for its machers and rogues.
“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said lawyer Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years. Cohn’s power derived largely from his ability to scare potential adversaries with hollow threats and spurious lawsuits. And the fee he demanded for his services? Ironclad loyalty.
Trump—who would remain loyal to Cohn for many years—would be one of the last and most enduring beneficiaries of Cohn’s power. But as Trump would confide in 1980, he already seemed to be trying to distance himself from Cohn’s inevitable taint: “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me,” Trump told me, as if to wave away a stench. “He’s a genius. He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.”
On the day I arrived at Cohn’s office, in his imposing limestone town house on East 68th Street, his Rolls-Royce was parked outside. But all elegance stopped at the front door. It was a fetid place, a shambles of dusty bedrooms and office warrens where young male assistants made their way up and down the stairs. Cohn often greeted visitors in a robe. On occasion, I.R.S. agents were said to sit in the hallway and, knowing Cohn’s reputation as a deadbeat, were there to intercept any envelopes with money.
Cohn’s bedroom was crowded with a collection of stuffed frogs that sat on the floor, propped against a large TV. Everything about him suggested a curious combination of an arrested child and a sleaze. I sat on a small sofa covered with dozens of stuffed creatures that exploded with dust as I tried to move them aside. Cohn was compact, with a mirthless smile, the scars from his plastic surgeries visible around his ears. As he spoke, his tongue darted in and out; he twirled his Rolodex, as if to impress me with his network of contacts. The kind of law Cohn practiced, in fact, needed only a telephone. (The New Yorker would later report that his longtime switchboard operator taped his calls and kept notes of conversations.)
Who did not know Roy Cohn’s backstory, even in 1980? Cohn—whose great-uncle had founded Lionel, the toy-train company—grew up as an only child, doted on by an overbearing mother who followed him to summer camp and lived with him until she died. Every night he was seated at his family’s Park Avenue dinner table, which was an unofficial command post of the Favor Bank bosses who’d helped make his father, Al Cohn, a Bronx county judge, and later a State Supreme Court judge. (During the Depression, Roy’s uncle Bernard Marcus had been sent to prison in a bank-fraud case, and Roy’s childhood was marked by visits to Sing Sing.) By high school, Cohn was fixing a parking ticket or two for one of his teachers.
After graduating from Columbia Law School at 20, he became an assistant U.S. attorney and an expert in “subversive activities,” allowing him to segue into his role in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Cohn persuaded the star witness, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, to change his testimony; in Cohn’s autobiography, written with Sidney Zion, Cohn claimed that he had encouraged the judge, already intent on sending Julius to the electric chair, to also order Ethel’s execution, despite the fact that she was a mother with two children.) Come 1953, this legal prodigy was named McCarthy’s boy-wonder chief counsel, and the news photos told the tale: the sharp-faced, heavy-lidded 26-year-old with cherubic cheeks, whispering intimately into the ear of the bloated McCarthy. Cohn’s special skill as the senator’s henchman was character assassination. Indeed, after testifying in front of him, an engineer with the Voice of America radio news service committed suicide. Cohn never showed a shred of remorse.
Despite McCarthy’s very public demise when the hearings proved to be trumped-up witch hunts, Cohn would emerge largely unscathed, going on to become one of the last great power brokers of New York. His friends and clients came to include New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Cohn would become an occasional guest at the Reagan White House and a constant presence at Studio 54.
By the time I met with Cohn, he had already been indicted four times on charges ranging from extortion and blackmail to bribery, conspiracy, securities fraud, and obstruction of justice. But he had been acquitted in each instance and in the process had begun to behave as if he were somehow a super-patriot who was above the law. At a gay bar in Provincetown, as reported by Cohn biographer Nicholas von Hoffman, a friend described Cohn’s behavior at a local lounge: “Roy sang three choruses of ‘God Bless America,’ got a hard-on and went home to bed.”
Cohn, with his bravado, reckless opportunism, legal pyrotechnics, and serial fabrication, became a fitting mentor for the young real-estate scion. And as Trump’s first major project, the Grand Hyatt, was set to open, he was already involved in multiple controversies. He was warring with the city about tax abatements and other concessions. He had hoodwinked his very own partner, Hyatt chief Jay Pritzker, by changing a term in a deal when Pritzker was unreachable—on a trip to Nepal. In 1980, while erecting what would become Trump Tower, he antagonized a range of arts patrons and city officials when his team demolished the Art Deco friezes decorating the 1929 building. Vilified in the headlines—and by the Establishment—Trump offered a response that was pure Roy Cohn: “Who cares?” he said. “Let’s say that I had given that junk to the Met. They would have just put them in their basement.”
For author Sam Roberts, the essence of Cohn’s influence on Trump was the triad: “Roy was a master of situational immorality . . . . He worked with a three-dimensional strategy, which was: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter-attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.” As columnist Liz Smith once observed, “Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.”
Let’s go back further still, to 1973. Trump, 27, was living in a rent-controlled studio, wearing French cuffs, and taking his dates to the Peacock Alley, the bar in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. At the time, the lockbox of Establishment New York was tightly closed to the Trumps of Queens, despite their mansion in Jamaica Estates.
Riding around Brooklyn in a Rolls-Royce, Trump’s mother, Mary, collected quarters from laundry rooms in various Trump buildings. Trump’s father, Fred, had already beaten back two scandals in which he was accused of overcharging and profiteering at some of his government-financed apartment complexes, and was now facing an even more explosive charge—systemic discrimination against black and other minority tenants. The Trumps, however, were connected to Favor Bank politicians in the Brooklyn Democratic machine, which, in tandem with the Mob bosses, still influenced who got many of the judgeships and patronage jobs. It was twilight in a Damon Runyon world, before the reformers moved in.
As Donald Trump would later tell the story, he ran into Cohn for the first time at Le Club, a members-only nightspot in Manhattan’s East 50s, where models and fashionistas and Eurotrash went to be seen. “The government has just filed suit against our company,” Trump explained, “saying that we discriminated against blacks . . . . What do you think I should do?”
“Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court and let them prove you discriminated,” Cohn shot back. The Trumps would soon retain Cohn to represent them.
The evidence was damning. At 39 Trump-owned properties, according to the Department of Justice lawsuit, widespread practices were used to avoid renting to blacks, including implementing a secret code. When a prospective black renter would apply for an apartment, the paperwork would allegedly be marked with a C—indicating “colored” (a charge that, if true, would constitute a violation of the Fair Housing Act). Nevertheless, the Trumps countersued the government. “It just stunned me,” the lawyer and journalist Steven Brill recently recalled. “They actually got reporters to appear for a press conference where they announced that they were suing [the Justice Department] for defamation for $100 million. You couldn’t get through your second day of law school without knowing it was a totally bogus lawsuit. And, of course, it was thrown out.”
A race-discrimination case of this magnitude might have sunk many a developer, but Cohn persisted. Under his guidance, the Trumps settled by agreeing to stipulations to prevent future discrimination at their properties—but came away without admitting guilt. (With that, a Trump strategy was launched. Decades later, when questioned about the case in one of the presidential debates, Trump would declare, “It was a federal lawsuit—[we] were sued. We settled the suit . . . with no admission of guilt.”)
Cohn continued to go on the attack for the Trumps. “I was a young reporter just starting my first job, at the New York Post [in 1974],” book publisher David Rosenthal told me. “I was working on illegal campaign contributions and I started looking at the records that had come from a group of buildings in Brooklyn, which showed massive donations to [Democrat] Hugh Carey, then running for governor of New York. They had all come from buildings that I had traced to Fred Trump . . . . My story was published and my editors were thrilled.
“The next day, my phone rang and it was Roy Cohn. ‘You piece of shit! We are going to ruin you! You have a lot of fucking nerve!’ ” Shaken, Rosenthal, then 21, went to his editors. “Their jaws dropped. I thought I was finished. I was sure Cohn’s next call would be to Dolly Schiff, the owner of the paper. Of course, the call never came. The story was true. They had skirted the New York finance laws.”
For about a decade, the tax abatements and legal loopholes that Trump was able to finesse came about, in large part, because of Cohn. The time he spent on Trump matters was not reduced to “billable hours,” wrote the late investigative journalist Wayne Barrett in Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth. Instead, Cohn asked for payment only when his cash supply ran low.
Steve Brill again saw Cohn’s stamp when Trump struck back, defending the case against Trump University. It was, Brill asserted, “a scam against the very people who [eventually] voted for Trump—the middle and lower middle class . . . . The first thing Trump does is sue one of the plaintiffs. She wins and the judge awards her $800,000 in legal fees, and Trump appeals, and in that decision he’s compared to Bernie Madoff . . . . This strategy was pure Cohn: ‘Attack your accuser.’ ”
After Brill’s investigation was published, Brill said, he received a call from one of Trump’s lawyers. “I understand you may do a follow-up,” he told Brill, adding a bit of advice: “Just be careful.” “Thanks,” Brill replied. “And let me give you some advice: ‘You better get the check because this guy is never going to pay you.’ Being a deadbeat was also pure Cohn.” (A White House spokesperson says this claim is totally false.)
How to explain the symbiosis that existed between Roy Cohn and Donald Trump? Cohn and Trump were twinned by what drove them. They were both sons of powerful fathers, young men who had started their careers clouded by family scandal. Both had been private-school students from the boroughs who’d grown up with their noses pressed against the glass of dazzling Manhattan. Both squired attractive women around town. (Cohn would describe his close friend Barbara Walters, the TV newswoman, as his fiancée. “Of course, it was absurd,” Liz Smith said, “but Barbara put up with it.”)
Sometime during the 2016 presidential campaign, Brill noticed that Donald Trump was using Cohn’s exact phrases. “I began to hear, ‘If you want to know the truth,’ and ‘that I can tell you . . .’ and ‘to be absolutely frank’—a sign that the Big Lie was coming,” Brill said.
Cohn—possessed of a keen intellect, unlike Trump—could keep a jury spellbound. When he was indicted for bribery, in 1969, his lawyer suffered a heart attack near the end of the trial. Cohn deftly stepped in and did a seven-hour closing argument—never once referring to a notepad. He was acquitted. “I don’t want to know what the law is,” he famously said, “I want to know who the judge is.”
When Cohn spoke, he would fix you with a hypnotic stare. His eyes were the palest blue, all the more startling because they appeared to protrude from the sides of his head. While Al Pacino’s version of Cohn (in Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America) captured Cohn’s intensity, it failed to convey his child-like yearning to be liked. “He was raised as a miniature adult,” Tom Wolfe once observed.
Cohn liked to throw parties crowded with celebrities, judges, Mob bosses, and politicians—some of whom were either coming from or on their way to prison—causing Cohn’s close friend the comedian Joey Adams to remark, “If you’re indicted, you’re invited.” But it was Cohn’s circle of legal aides and after-hours pals that also held sway. “Roy loved to surround himself with attractive straight men,” said divorce attorney Robert S. Cohen, who, before taking on clients such as Michael Bloomberg—and both of Trump’s ex-wives (Ivana Trump and Marla Maples)—began his career working for Cohn. “[Roy had] a coterie. If he could have had a relationship with any of them, he would have.”
Cohn’s cousin David L. Marcus concurred. Soon after graduating from Brown in the early 80s, Marcus recalled, he sought Cohn out. While they had encountered each other over the years at family gatherings, Marcus’s parents had despised Cohn since his McCarthy days, and a chill had set in. But Cohn, intrigued by the attention of his long-lost cousin, welcomed him. Marcus, a journalist who would later share a Pulitzer Prize, recently said that he was astonished by the atmosphere of creepy intimacy that, in those days, seemed to perfume Cohn’s attitude toward his acolytes, including one in particular. “There was a party in the mid-1980s, where Mailer was, and Andy Warhol, [when] in walked Trump,” recounted Marcus. “Roy dropped everyone else and fussed over him . . . Roy had that ability to focus on you. I felt that Roy was attracted to Trump, more than in a big-brotherly way.
“Donald fit the pattern of the hangers-on and the disciples around Roy. He was tall and blond and . . . frankly, über-Gentile. Something about Roy’s self-hating-Jewish persona drew him to fair-haired boys. And at these parties there was a bevy of blond guys, almost midwestern, and Donald was paying homage to Roy . . . I wondered then if Roy was attracted to him.”
“Thwarted loves obsessed Roy Cohn’s life,” added a lawyer who first met Cohn in the 60s, characterizing some of the men, both gay and straight, in Cohn’s orbit. “He would become sexually obsessed with cock-tease guys who would sense his need and not shun him. These were unrequited relationships. The way he would expiate the sexual energy was possessive mentoring. Introducing them to everyone in town and taking them places.”
Seeing Trump and Cohn enter a room together had a hint of vaudeville. Donald, standing six feet two inches, would typically enter first, with a burlesque macho-man’s gait, walking as if he led from his toes. A few feet behind would be Cohn, skinny, eyes darting, his features slightly caved in from plastic surgery. “Donald is my best friend,” Cohn said back then, shortly after he had thrown a 37th-birthday party for Trump. And over the years, several who knew Cohn would remark on Donald Trump’s resemblance to the most infamous of Roy Cohn’s blond, rich-boy obsessions: David Schine.
Consider the episode—and the compulsion—that ended Roy Cohn’s time in the capital and Joe McCarthy’s Senate career. In the mid-50s, Cohn was in the headlines for the malicious circus of the hearings. Scores of witnesses were being bullied by Cohn or McCarthy or both. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?,” Cohn demanded in his nasal honk, a spectacle replayed in the evenings on TV and radio.
It was amid this high drama that a young man had come into Cohn’s life. The heir to a hotel-and-movie franchise, the feckless David Schine had reportedly pulled D’s in his first year at Harvard. But in 1952, he wrote a pamphlet on the evils of Communism and was soon introduced to Cohn. It was, for Cohn, a coup de foudre, and Schine came on the McCarthy committee as an unpaid “research assistant.” Dispatched on a tour of Europe to investigate possible subversion at army bases and American Embassies—which included ridding the consular libraries of “subversive literature” (among them works by Dashiell Hammett and Mark Twain)—the pair were dogged by rumors that they were lovers. (Cohn told friends that they were not.) Whispers also began to swirl about McCarthy’s sexual orientation.
In lavender Washington, Cohn was known as both a closeted homosexual and homophobic, among those leading the charge against supposedly gay witnesses who he and others believed should lose their government jobs because they were “security risks.” When Schine was drafted as a private and not a commissioned officer, Cohn threatened he would “wreck the army.” McCarthy even mentioned to Robert T. Stevens, the secretary of the army, that “Roy thinks Dave ought to be a general and operate from a penthouse in the Waldorf Astoria.” President Dwight Eisenhower, meanwhile, angered by McCarthy’s attacks and fearful that the senator’s zealotry was severely damaging the president’s agenda and the G.O.P. itself, sent word to the army counsel to write a report on Cohn’s harassment tactics. According to historian David A. Nichols, the president secretly ordered the document to be released to key legislators and the press, and the revelations were explosive, resulting in the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Over 36 days, 20 million Americans watched. It was all there: Cohn and Schine’s jaunt to Europe, Cohn’s ultimatums, McCarthy’s smears. The high point came when the army’s sly Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, shook his head in pained disbelief at McCarthy’s attempt to slander one of Welch’s own assistants, imploring the senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last . . . ?” Within weeks, Cohn was banished and McCarthy was soon censured.
Cohn played it as a win. After the debacle, he returned to New York and attended a party thrown in his honor at the Hotel Astor. It would be the first example of his ability to project victory from defeat and induce moral amnesia upon a mesmerized New York—a gambit not dissimilar to those later utilized by his confrère Donald Trump.
Another of Cohn’s tactics was to befriend the town’s top gossip columnists, such as Leonard Lyons and George Sokolsky, who would bring Cohn to the Stork Club. He was irresistible to tabloid writers, always ready with scandal-tinged tales. “Roy would be hired by a divorce client in the morning and be leaking their case in the afternoon,” New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recalled. Columnist Liz Smith said she learned to distrust most items he gave her. A similar reliance on the press would also become a vital component of the young Trump’s playbook.
“[Roy] would call me up and it was always short—‘George, Roy,’ ” said former New York Post political reporter George Arzt, who was later Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary. “He would drop a dime on someone, hoping I would print it.”
“Roy could fix anyone in the city,” Friedman told me that day. “He’s a genius . . . . It is a good thing Roy isn’t here today. He would stab all the food off your plate.” A Cohn quirk was to rarely order food and, instead, commandeer the meals of his dining partners. I wrote then about the moment when hotel titan Bob Tisch came by the table. “I beat Bob Tisch on the convention site,” Trump said loudly. “But we’re good friends now, good friends. Isn’t that right, Bob?”
Trump, at the time, was developing a sullen moxie that rivaled Cohn’s. The lawyer Tom Baer, for instance, did not know what to expect when he got a call one day to meet with Trump. Baer had been recently appointed by Mayor Koch to represent the city in all aspects of what was to become its new convention center, and Baer was trying to line up possible partnerships. “Donald said, ‘I would be willing to contribute the land,’ ” Baer would remember. “ ‘I think it is only fair that it be named Trump Center’ ”—after his father.
“I called Ed Koch, and he said, ‘Fuck him! Fuck him.’ I said, ‘I don’t talk that way.’ He said, ‘I don’t care how you talk! Fuck him!’ So, I used my best lawyer-ese, and I called him back and said, ‘The mayor is so grateful for your offer. But he is not inclined to agree.’ ” Some time later Trump went to Deputy Mayor Peter Solomon and reportedly proposed a deal entitling him to a $4.4 million commission. (He eventually got $500,000.) Recalled Baer, “He spoke to the representatives of the governor [too]. He wasn’t going to be deterred because pisher Tom Baer told him he couldn’t do it . . . . Koch [just shook his head and] thought, This guy is ridiculous.”
‘Come and make your pitch to me,” Roy Cohn told Roger Stone when they met at a New York dinner party in 1979. Stone, though only 27, had achieved a degree of notoriety as one of Richard Nixon’s political dirty-tricksters. At the time, he was running Ronald Reagan’s presidential-campaign organization in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and he needed office space.
Stone appeared on East 68th Street to find Cohn, just awakened, in his robe, sitting with one of his clients, Mob boss “Fat Tony” Salerno, of the Genovese crime family. “In front of [Roy] was a slab of cream cheese and three burnt slices of bacon,” Stone remembered. “He ate the cream cheese with his pointing finger. He listened to my pitch and said, ‘You need to see Donald Trump. I will get you in, but then you are on your own.’ ”
“I went to see him,” Stone told me, “and Trump said, ‘How do you get Reagan to 270 electoral votes?’ He was very interested [in the mechanics]—a political junkie. Then he said, ‘O.K., we are in. Go see my father.’ ” Out Stone went to Avenue Z, in Coney Island, and met Fred Trump in his office, which was crowded with cigar-store Indians. “True to his word, I got $200,000. The checks came in $1,000 denominations, the maximum donation you could give. All of these checks were written to ‘Reagan For President.’ It was not illegal—it was bundling. Check trading.” For Reagan’s state headquarters, the Trumps found Stone and the campaign a decrepit town house next to the ‘21’ Club. Stone was now, like Donald Trump, inside the Cohn tent.
And Stone soon seized the moment to cash in. After Reagan was elected, his administration softened the strict rules for corporations seeking government largesse. Soon Stone and Paul Manafort, Trump’s future campaign manager, were lobbyists, reaping the bonanzas that could flow with Favor Bank introductions. Their first client, Stone recalled, was none other than Donald Trump, who retained him, irrespective of any role Manafort might have had in the firm, for help with federal issues such as obtaining a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel to the Atlantic City marina to accommodate his yacht, the Trump Princess.
“We made no bones about it,” Stone recently said. “We wanted money. And it came pouring in.” Stone and Manafort charged hefty fees to introduce blue-chip corporations—such as Ronald Perelman’s MacAndrews & Forbes and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—to their former campaign colleagues, some of whom were now running the Reagan White House. It was all cozy and connected—and reminiscent of Roy Cohn.
By 2000, Stone had offered his talents to a new candidate: Trump himself. That year Stone traveled the country to help Trump explore the viability of running as a Reform Party candidate. But at a stop in Florida, things halted abruptly. “I’m tired,” Stone recalled Trump telling him. “Cancel the rest of this. I am going to my room to watch TV.” In Stone’s view, “His heart was never in it.” (A White House spokesperson disputes this account.)
“You have to let Donald be Donald,” Stone explained. “We have been friends for 40 years . . . . Look what happened with the ‘birther’ push. You don’t want to hear this, but when he started that campaign 7 out of 10 Republicans at the time believed that Obama was born in Kenya. And, let’s face it, many still question it. Donald still believes it.” (In fact, candidate Trump released an official statement two months before Election Day asserting, unequivocally, that “Barack Obama was born in the United States.”)
Stone’s modus operandi, even to this day, has seemed to be vintage Cohn. Fired by Trump for what one of his spokesmen called Stone’s desire “to use the campaign for his own personal publicity,” Stone went into overdrive, fighting back and scheduling interviews in which he praised candidate Trump. (Stone denied he was fired and says he resigned.) Stone recently expressed concern that Jared Kushner’s inexperience and façade of centrist policies might very well scuttle the already beleaguered Trump presidency. And he fretted about Trump’s daughter Ivanka as well, saying that he found it “disturbing” when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in May, pledged $100 million to a World Bank women’s entrepreneurial fund—a project she had promoted.
Yet Stone would not concede that his decades-long relationship with Trump had become strained, even though Stone, along with some members of the administration, are facing allegations that they’ve had questionable contacts with a variety of Russian nationals. (All have denied any wrongdoing.) “There is nothing to any of this,” Stone claimed. “Donald knows he has my loyalty and friendship. I leave a message when I want to speak with him.”
All along there had been something deeper connecting Stone and Trump and Roy Cohn: the climate of suspicion and fear that had helped bring all three to power. Although Stone, like many around Cohn in the 70s and 80s, was too young to have observed how Cohn helped poison America in the McCarthy years, Stone had learned at the feet of Richard Nixon, the ultimate American paranoid. And the politics of paranoia that Cohn and Stone had cynically mastered would eventually make them kindred spirits. Just as the two of them had come to prominence by exploiting a grave national mood (Cohn in the 50s, Stone in the 70s), it was this same sense of American angst, resurgent in 2016, that would ultimately help elect Donald Trump.
“Pro-Americanism,” Stone said, “is a common thread for McCarthy, Goldwater, Nixon, [and] Reagan. The heir to that tradition is Donald Trump. When you combine that with the bare-knuckled tactics of Roy Cohn—or a Roger Stone—that is how you win elections. So Roy has an impact on Donald’s understanding of how to deal with the media—attack, attack, attack, never defend.”
The Long Good-Bye
Roger Stone was there in 1982 when Roy Cohn was at his peak. At the time, Cohn was trying to help Trump realize his dream of opening casinos in Atlantic City. Crucial to his success would be a sympathetic New Jersey governor. And Cohn and Stone were working hard to elect their candidate: Republican Tom Kean. Stone, as it turned out, was Kean’s campaign manager, and after Kean won in a close race, Stone would remain as an unofficial adviser.
Trump began to purchase boardwalk real estate. He built one casino and bought another. His prospects looked bright. But Cohn’s downfall was imminent. Word would soon begin to circulate that Cohn was battling AIDS. He denied it. He was also battling disbarment—under a cloud of fraud and ethical-misconduct charges. (Cohn, along with other misdeeds, had stiffed a client on a loan and altered the terms of a virtually comatose client’s will—in his hospital room—making himself its co-executor.)
Cohn tried to keep up a good face. But Trump, among other clients, began to shift his business elsewhere. “Donald found out about [Cohn’s condition] and just dropped him like a hot potato,” Cohn’s personal secretary, Susan Bell, was quoted as saying. (A White House spokesperson says this claim is totally false.)
Cohn sensed his growing isolation. And for whatever reason, he decided, according to journalist Wayne Barrett, to help the efforts of Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry, who was seeking an appointment to the federal bench. “Maryanne wanted the job,” Stone would recall. “She did not want Roy and Donald to do anything. She was attempting to get it on her own.”
Stone remembered that when it appeared someone else was in line for the job Cohn approached Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese, for help. In the end, Barry got the plum post. “Roy can do the impossible,” Trump reportedly said when he heard the news. The next day, Barrett noted, Barry called Cohn to thank him. (According to the Times, Trump, when asked in 2015, said his sister “got the appointment totally on her own merit.” For herself, Barry admitted to Trump-family biographer Gwenda Blair, “There’s no question Donald helped me get on the bench. I was good, but not that good.”)
By 1985, Cohn was seriously ill—“I have liver cancer,” he contended—and he started calling in his last markers. He phoned New York Times columnist William Safire, whom he’d known since Safire’s days as a publicist. And, sure enough, Safire ran a piece attacking the “buzzards of the bar” who had “dredged up” fraud charges to get even with Cohn, “[the] hard-hitting anti-legal-establishment right-winger at a time when he is physically unable to defend himself.” Roger Stone would recall Trump phoning him and asking, “ ‘Have you seen Bill Safire’s column?’ He called me to point it out to me. He said, ‘This is going to be terrific for Roy.’ “
Cohn also had asked a favor of Trump: Could he give him a hotel room for his lover, who was dying of AIDS? A room was found in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. Months passed. Then Cohn got the bill. Then another. He refused to pay. At some point, according to The New York Times’s Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, Trump would present Cohn with a thank-you gift for a decade of favors: a pair of diamond cuff links. The diamonds turned out to be fakes.
Tensions between the two became progressively strained. And the dying Cohn, as Barrett would describe him in those waning days, would say, “Donald pisses ice water.”
That said, Trump did come out to testify on Cohn’s behalf at his 1986 disbarment hearing, one of 37 character witnesses, including Barbara Walters and William Safire. But none of it mattered. Cohn, after putting up a four-year fight, was kicked out of the New York Bar for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation.” Cohn’s nefarious practices had finally caught up with him.
Trump, by then a presence in Atlantic City, was setting his sights on a third casino. Roy Cohn, in contrast, would die almost penniless, given how much he owed the I.R.S. And his funeral made it clear what Cohn and his friends and family had felt, in the end, about Trump. The real-estate developer was not one of the speakers. He was not asked to be a pallbearer. Trump, in Barrett’s account, did show up, however, and stood in the back.
Thirty years later, on the day after Donald J. Trump was elected president, Roger Stone was one of the callers who got through to his old friend at Trump Tower. “Mr. President,” said Stone. “Oh please, call me Donald,” Stone remembered Trump saying.
A few moments later, Trump sounded wistful. “Wouldn’t Roy love to see this moment? Boy, do we miss him.”
I remember reading Brecht’s ‘threepenny opera’ as a teenager and thinking it a slightly crude characterisation of capitalist politics. Now it seems a work of utopian naivety.