Roy Cohn connects the McCarthy era to the age of Trump across more than half a century.
new documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? nothing is more mesmerizing and disturbing
than Cohn’s eyes: flat and hooded; rare flickers of charm, but void of emotion
by default; darkly staring down his prey in TV footage from the ’50s; washed-out
blue and shifting away when asked whether he is gay and dying of AIDS in the
’80s. Cohn once included among his flaws “a total failure to sympathize with
the emotional element in life.” The eyes turn his face—especially after the
skin has been pulled taut by cosmetic surgery—into a living death mask. And
throughout the film, these lifeless eyes keep appearing in other guises, other
faces: the puffy, drowning drunk’s eyes of Joe McCarthy; the close-set
reptilian stare of Roger Stone; the tight, appraising eyes of Donald Trump.
life connects the McCarthy era to the age of Trump across more than half a
century—a dark thread in American politics. Cohn was trained as a lawyer, but
he was a fixer by trade. McCarthy hired him as chief counsel to his Permanent
Subcommittee on Investigations and made him infamous as a Communist hunter.
Cohn in turn mentored Stone, who got his start as a Nixon dirty trickster and
later introduced Cohn to Ronald Reagan, whom Cohn introduced to Rupert Murdoch.
Cohn and Trump met at a New York nightclub in 1973, when Trump was in his
mid-20s and the Trump Organization was being sued by the federal government for
racist housing practices. Trump recognized a man after his own self-image: a
ruthless player who knew how to win. In the film, Cohn remembers Trump saying,
“I’ve spent two days with these establishment law firms, and they’re all
telling us, ‘Give up, do this, sign a decree and all of that.’ I’ve followed
your career and you seem—you’re a little bit crazy like I am, and you stand up
to the establishment. Can I come see you?”.
became Cohn’s client and protégé. They won the case by not losing—by
counterattacking, raising phony charges, admitting no wrong. Trump paid careful
attention. “Roy would always be for an offensive strategy,” Stone says in the
film. “These were the rules of war. You don’t fight on the other guy’s ground;
you define what the debate is going to be about. I think Trump would learn that
from Roy. I learned that from Roy.”
Harry Truman described McCarthyism as “the corruption of truth, the abandonment
of our historical devotion to fair play. It is the abandonment of due process
of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unbounded accusation against any
citizen in the name of Americanism and security. It is the rise to power of the
demagogue who lives on untruth. It is the spread of fear and the destruction of
faith in every level of our society.” But even this accurate list of brutal
tactics and crushing effects doesn’t quite convey the malevolent quality that
hovers over the story of Roy Cohn.
Trump embody the Mafia style in American politics. I don’t mean the Sopranos; I
mean the cold will to power that carries a threat of murder without shame.
(Cohn was accused of being responsible for the death by fire of a crewman on
his yacht in an insurance plot; like so many other charges, this one was never
pinned on him.) There’s a soft spot in American life for this type. He’s
admired in mob movies, in war movies (George C. Scott as General George S.
Patton: “Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very
thought of losing is hateful to Americans”), in sports (Al Davis, the owner of
the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby”), in entertainment (Jay-Z: “I never
prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti / That’s right, it’s wicked, that’s life, I
live it / Ain’t asking for forgiveness for my sins”).Two people interviewed in
Where’s My Roy Cohn? describe Cohn with the word “evil.” The film shows the
Mafia style as it recurs in modern American politics—a kind of metaphysical
spirit that inhabits different characters at different times, always
identifiable by the dead eyes.
the Mafia style seems about to die, it turns out to be unkillable. McCarthy met
his fate in 1954, when he took on the United States Army in hearings watched by
20 million Americans. The public was new to television and hadn’t seen the
Republican senator’s tactics before—the bullying, the lies and smears. When
McCarthy went after a young lawyer who’d been on the staff of the Army counsel,
he didn’t see the trap that was about to spring. Joseph Welch, the Army’s
special counsel, who had hired the young lawyer and was distressed to hear him
needlessly maligned, interrupted: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never
really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” Cohn saw the danger; he shook his
head and motioned for McCarthy to stop, but McCarthy kept pressing, until Welch
finally said, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done
enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense
televised hearings flipped public opinion on McCarthy. The Senate quickly found
its courage. At the end of the year, with Republicans leading the way, McCarthy
was censured by his colleagues—for abusing and dishonoring the Senate, not for
disgracing democracy and destroying lives. Three years later McCarthy was dead,
but Cohn somehow escaped and turned his dark reputation to advantage as a
ferocious New York lawyer willing to walk up to the edge of the law and then
cross it for his clients—the Catholic Church, George Steinbrenner, nightclub
owners, mob bosses, Murdoch, and Trump. Everyone knew that Cohn was a crook,
but no prosecutor could put him away. His untouchability became part of his
mystique, a magnet that drew celebrities as friends. Finally, in 1986, a panel
of lawyers disbarred him for defrauding his clients—the equivalent of the
Senate’s censure of McCarthy. As with McCarthy, Cohn’s public fall hastened his
physical demise, and he died a few weeks later, all but abandoned, denying to
the very last that he was a gay man with AIDS.
redeeming feature was loyalty. Trump, lacking even this virtue, had already
dropped Cohn by the end. Cohn, for his part, had imagined his protégé’s future.
“Donald Trump is probably one of the most important names in America today,”
Cohn told an interviewer in 1984, after clearing the way for Trump to build his
Fifth Avenue tower. “What started off as a meteor mounting from New York and
going upward is going to touch this country and parts of the world. Donald just
wants to be the biggest winner of all.”
when FBI Director James Comey refused to make the Russia investigation go away
and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, Trump reportedly demanded,
“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He was crying out for a fixer who would do anything to
save him. One reason Trump needs a Roy Cohn is that he can’t be his own. Cohn
was smarter, more in control of his impulses and insecurities. It’s hard to
imagine Cohn creating and then releasing a record like that of Trump’s dealings
with the president of Ukraine.
last week, Trump seemed as untouchable as his brazen mentor. No one knows
whether the words “I would like you to do us a favor” will mark the beginning
of the end of the Mafia presidency, the way “Have you left no sense of decency?”
destroyed McCarthy. Many things that once kept Mafia politics in check pose no
threat to Trump. TV is his ally, public opinion is entrenched, moral authority
has lost its sway, and facts themselves are always on the verge of
disappearing. The malevolent spirit of Roy Cohn has taken over an entire party,
powerful elements of the press, and a good part of the public. Anyone prepared
to win at all costs always seems invincible, until he loses.
PACKER is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Our Man: Richard
Holbrooke and the End of the American Century and The Unwinding: An Inner
History of the New America.