You are on page 1of 11

What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man

By JONATHAN MAHLER and MATT FLEGENHEIMERJUNE 20, 2016

Photo

Roy Cohn in Manhattan in 1982. Mr. Cohn, who made his reputation as a prosecutor in the
Rosenberg espionage case and as an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy, was Mr. Trumps lawyer
for 13 years.CreditRon Galella/WireImage

The future Mrs. Donald J. Trump was puzzled.

She had been summoned to a lunch meeting with her husband-to-be and his lawyer to
review a prenuptial agreement. It required that, should the couple split, she return
everything cars, furs, rings that Mr. Trump might give her during their marriage.

1 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Sensing her sorrow, Mr. Trump apologized, Ivana Trump later testified in a divorce
deposition. He said it was his lawyers idea.

It is just one of those Roy Cohn numbers, Mr. Trump told her.

The year was 1977, and Mr. Cohns reputation was well established. He had
been Senator Joseph McCarthys Red-baiting consigliere. He had helped send the
Rosenbergs to the electric chair for spying and elect Richard M. Nixon president.

Then New Yorks most feared lawyer, Mr. Cohn had a client list that ran the gamut
from the disreputable to the quasi-reputable: Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, Claus von
Bulow, George Steinbrenner.

But there was one client who occupied a special place in Roy Cohns famously cold
heart: Donald J. Trump.

For Mr. Cohn, who died of AIDS in 1986, weeks after being disbarred for flagrant
ethical violations, Mr. Trump was something of a final project. If Fred Trump got his
sons career started, bringing him into the family business of middle-class rentals in
Brooklyn and Queens, Mr. Cohn ushered him across the river and into Manhattan,
introducing him to the social and political elite while ferociously defending him against
a growing list of enemies.

Decades later, Mr. Cohns influence on Mr. Trump is unmistakable. Mr. Trumps
wrecking ball of a presidential bid the gleeful smearing of his opponents, the
embracing of bluster as brand has been a Roy Cohn number on a grand scale. Mr.
Trumps response to the Orlando massacre, with his ominous warnings of a terrorist
attack that could wipe out the country and his conspiratorial suggestions of a Muslim
fifth column in the United States, seemed to have been ripped straight out of the Cohn
playbook.

I hear Roy in the things he says quite clearly, said Peter Fraser, who as Mr. Cohns
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, its the truth thats the way
Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.

For 13 years, the lawyer who had infamously whispered in McCarthys ear whispered in
Mr. Trumps. In the process, Mr. Cohn helped deliver some of Mr. Trumps signature
construction deals, sued the National Football League for conspiring against his client
and countersued the federal government for $100 million for damaging the Trump
name. One of Mr. Trumps 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.

The two men spoke as often as five times a day, toasted each other at birthday parties
and spent evenings together at Studio 54.

2 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
And Mr. Cohn turned repeatedly to Mr. Trump one of a small clutch of people who
knew he was gay in his hours of need. When a former companion was dying of AIDS,
he asked Mr. Trump to find him a place to stay. When he faced disbarment, he
summoned Mr. Trump to testify to his character.

Mr. Trump says the two became so close that Mr. Cohn, who had no immediate family,
sometimes refused to bill him, insisting he could not charge a friend.

Roy was an era, Mr. Trump said in an interview, reflecting on his years with Mr.
Cohn. They either loved him or couldnt stand him, which was fine.

Mr. Trump was asked if this reminded him of anyone. Yeah, he answered. It does,
come to think of it.

Business, Pleasure and Power

The gossip columnist Cindy Adams, who knew everyone, had no idea who he was.

This kid is going to own New York someday, Mr. Cohn told her, gesturing at a tall 20-
something bachelor at a dinner party in the early 1970s. This is Donald Trump.

Yeah, so? Ms. Adams recalled replying.

Mr. Cohn, the son of a prominent New York judge, had taken an uncommon interest in
Mr. Trump.

The two had met not long before at a private disco called Le Club, and instantly hit it off
while discussing a nettlesome obstacle for Mr. Trump. The Civil Rights Division of the
Justice Department was suing him and his father, accusing them of refusing to rent to
black tenants. Mr. Trump told Mr. Cohn that their lawyers were urging them to settle.

3 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Mr. Trump, left,
with Mayor
Edward I. Koch of New York and Mr. Cohn at the opening of the Trump Tower in
1983. CreditSonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court, Mr. Trump later recalled Mr. Cohn
advising him.

Mr. Trump did just that, with Mr. Cohn as his lawyer. Not only did Mr. Cohn
countersue the government for $100 million, he filed a blistering affidavit on Mr.
Trumps behalf, mocking the case. The Civil Rights Division did not file a lawsuit, Mr.
Cohn wrote. It slapped together a piece of paper for use as a press release. The
Trumps ultimately settled the case by agreeing to make apartments available to
minority renters, while admitting no wrongdoing.

For Mr. Trump, the benefits of his new representation were obvious. Mr. Cohn was one
of the most famous and feared lawyers in America. He would later appear on the cover
of Esquire beneath an ironic halo, and earn a posthumous parody on The Simpsons.

But Mr. Cohn saw something in Mr. Trump, too.

He could sniff out a power-to-be, Roy could, said Susan Bell, Mr. Cohns longtime
secretary.

After helping convict the Rosenbergs as a young federal prosecutor and then working in
Washington as a top aide to McCarthy, Mr. Cohn had returned to New York, starting a
boutique practice in his shabby but elegant townhouse on East 68th Street.

The division of labor in the firm was clear.

4 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
We called him the rainmaker, said Michael Rosen, a partner who handled many of
the firms organized-crime cases. We did all of the grunt work, if grunt work means
preparing the case and trying the case.

Mr. Cohn lived on the third floor, often traipsing downstairs in his bathrobe well after
the workday had begun and taking clients upstairs to a small sun porch. The elevator
rarely worked. In the winter, the lawyers stuffed towels around the windows to keep out
the cold.

Parties and business meetings tended to blur, with celebrities like Andy Warhol and
Este Lauder crowding in and spilling out. That townhouse was a workhorse, recalled
Mr. Trump, a familiar presence there himself.

He and Mr. Cohn became social companions, lunching at 21 or spending evenings at


Yankee Stadium in the owners box of Mr. Steinbrenner, another Cohn client.

After Mr. Fraser entered Mr. Cohns life, the two were frequent dinner guests at Donald
and Ivanas Trump Tower apartment, with its Michelangelo-style murals. They were
also regulars at Mr. Trumps box at the Meadowlands, the home of his sports team, the
New Jersey Generals of the short-lived United States Football League.

Mr. Cohn was the master of ceremonies at a Trump birthday party at Studio 54; years
later, Mr. Trump returned the favor with a birthday toast of his own at a party in the
atrium of Trump Tower, joking that Mr. Cohn was more bark than bite.

We just tell the opposition Roy Cohn is representing me, and they get scared, Mr.
Trump said, according to a cousin of Mr. Cohns, David L. Marcus, who attended. He
never actually does anything.

Among the many things Mr. Trump learned from Mr. Cohn during these years was the
importance of keeping ones name in the newspapers. Long before Mr. Trump posed as
his own spokesman, passing self-serving tidbits to gossip columnists, Mr. Cohn was
known to call in stories about himself to reporters.

It was also through Mr. Cohn that Mr. Trump met the political operative who has
played a leading, if behind-the-scenes, role in his campaign: Roger Stone.

When Mr. Stone, the roguish former Nixon adviser and master of the political dark
arts, came to New York in 1979 to court support for Ronald Reagans presidential bid,
he arrived with a box of index cards filled with the names of actors and producers. And
Roy Cohn.

I made an appointment and I pitched him on Reagan, and he said, You have to meet
Donald and Fred Trump, Mr. Stone recalled in an interview.

Eventually, Mr. Cohn and Mr. Trump became so inseparable that those who could not
track down Mr. Cohn knew whom to call.
5 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Once, Mr. Cohn chartered a plane with friends, without Mr. Trump, trashing it during a
midair party. He refused to pay. So the airline found Mr. Trump, asking if he could
help.

Photo

Roy Cohn, right, with Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954. Mr. Trump once said Mr. Cohn was a
vicious protector. CreditGeorge Tames/The New York Times

He called Mr. Cohn, more amused than concerned.

I said, Roy, what are you going to do about this? I mean, you destroyed the plane,
Mr. Trump recalled. He said, Eh, well pay them someday.

An Invaluable Relationship

By the time Mr. Trump started getting serious with a Czech model named Ivana
Winklmayr, Mr. Cohn had become something of an expert on marriage.

6 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Its difficult to imagine and admit that the flush of the moment may become the flush
of the toilet as the relationship goes down the tubes, he wrote about the importance of
prenuptial agreements in his book How to Stand Up for Your Rights and Win!

According to Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth, a book by the journalist Wayne
Barrett, Mr. Cohn advised Mr. Trump against marrying Ms. Winklmayr, but insisted
that if he must, there had to be a prenuptial agreement. He would handle it himself.

The agreement, completed only weeks before the wedding, did not quantify Mr.
Trumps net worth impossible to accurately determine due to the illiquid nature of
his holdings and took a bearish view of Mr. Trumps earning potential and a modest
view of his tastes.

Donalds standard of living is basically simple, it said, calling Mr. Trumps preferred
lifestyle neither opulent nor extravagant.

When the marriage dissolved a few years after Mr. Cohns death, Mrs. Trumps lawyers
charged that she had not had proper representation on the prenup. Her initial lawyer
had worked for Mr. Cohn on at least one case, and was a frequent passenger on Mr.
Cohns yacht, the Defiance. The divorce case eventually ended with a settlement.

The prenup was just one of many Trump deals, some more conventional than others, in
which Mr. Cohn was intimately involved.

He used his connections to help Mr. Trump secure zoning variances and tax
abatements critical to the construction of the Grand Hyatt Hotel and the Trump Plaza.

After one Cohn coup, Mr. Trump rewarded him with a pair of diamond-encrusted cuff
links and buttons in a Bulgari box.

And if Mr. Cohn did not always feel comfortable charging a friend for his services, Mr.
Trump was hardly one to put up a fight.

Roy said, Ill 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 didnt 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. Trumps sister Maryanne Trump Barry to
the federal bench. (Questioned last year about this, Mr. Trump said his sister got the
appointment totally on her own merit.)

He was a very good lawyer if he wanted to be, Mr. Trump said in the interview.

Asked about Mr. Cohn in 1980, Mr. Trump was more blunt in his assessment: Hes
been vicious to others in his protection of me.

7 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Defiant to the End

It started with a cut that would not stop bleeding.

Mr. Cohns diagnosis came not long after his former companion, Russell Eldridge, had
gotten his. Mr. Eldridge had spent most of his final days in a private suite overlooking
Central Park in Mr. Trumps Barbizon Plaza Hotel.

Ms. Bell, Mr. Cohns secretary, recalled that Mr. Trumps secretary, Norma Foerderer,
had billed Mr. Cohn for the room, and later called to say that Mr. Cohn had not paid.

I said, Guess what, Norma, hes not going to, Ms. Bell said. And she kind of knew
it.

Mr. Cohn remained in his townhouse. Until the end and even under interrogation by
Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes he insisted that he had liver cancer, not AIDS.

Photo

8 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Mr. Cohn and Mr. Trump in an undated photo with Steve Rubell, the co-founder of Studio 54,
and Mr. Trumps first wife, Ivana.

He received experimental AZT treatments in Washington and continued working. But


his clients could not help but notice that his health was deteriorating.

Mr. Trump started gradually moving cases elsewhere, he said, never telling Mr. Cohn
why. Theres no reason to hurt somebodys feelings, he said.

He was so weak, Mr. Trump added. He was so weakened that he really couldnt do
it.

Mr. Cohn never spoke about Mr. Trumps decision, but was plainly crushed, according
to Ms. Bell. She remembers it happening not gradually, but overnight.

9 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
Even as his health was failing, Mr. Cohn, whom government prosecutors had
unsuccessfully pursued for decades on charges including conspiracy, bribery and fraud,
faced a final indignity: He was facing the prospect of disbarment. Among other
offenses, he was charged with coercing a dying multimillionaire client during a late-
night visit to the mans hospital room to amend his will to make Mr. Cohn an
executor of his estate.

The hearings were closed to the public. But true to form, Mr. Cohn, riding to the daily
proceedings in a red Cadillac convertible, insisted on a spectacle, describing his
accusers as a bunch of yo-yos just out to smear me up.

The prominent figures whom Mr. Cohn summoned to testify on his behalf included
Barbara Walters and William F. Buckley Jr.

And, of course, Mr. Trump. He described his friend in simple terms.

If I summed it up in one word, Mr. Trump told the hearing panel, I think the
primary word Id use is his loyalty.

Gaunt, frail and besieged, Mr. Cohn nevertheless managed to attend a dinner with Mr.
Fraser at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., shortly after Mr. Trump purchased the
property in late 1985. It was a last glimpse at his final, fair-haired project.

I made Trump successful, he would occasionally boast, according to Mr. Marcus, Mr.
Cohns cousin, a former journalist who chronicled Mr. Cohns last months for Vanity
Fair.

In June 1986, Mr. Cohn was disbarred for unethical, unprofessional and
particularly reprehensible conduct.

To this day, Mr. Trump rues the outcome. They only got him because he was so sick,
Mr. Trump said in the interview. They wouldnt have gotten him otherwise.

During his final days, Mr. Cohn called Mr. Trump, ostensibly for no particular reason.
It was just a call: How are things going? Mr. Trump recalled. Roy was the kind of
guy I dont think he ever thought he was dying, frankly.

About a week later, in August 1986, Mr. Trump received another call.

Mr. Trump hung up the phone, repeating the news to an associate in his office: Roy
Cohn was dead.

I said, Wow, thats the end of a generation, Mr. Trump remembered. Thats the end
of an era.

Mr. Fraser inherited all of Mr. Cohns possessions: the townhouse, his weekend place in
Greenwich, Conn., his Rolls-Royce, his private plane and much more. But the Internal
Revenue Service, collecting on Mr. Cohns tax debts, confiscated nearly everything.
10 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.
He did get to keep the cuff links Mr. Trump had given Mr. Cohn. Years later, Mr. Fraser
had them appraised; they were knockoffs, he said.

Mr. Fraser soon returned to his native New Zealand, where he now works as a
conservationist at the Auckland Zoo. He has not spoken with Mr. Trump since Mr.
Cohns death, but he has no doubt that if his former lover were still alive, he would be
an enthusiastic supporter of the Trump campaign.

Having trained or mentored someone who became president, he said, that would
have been quite exciting for Roy.

Reporting was contributed by Michael Barbaro, Steve Eder, Maggie Haberman and
Megan Twohey. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

11 Mahlher, Jonarhan, and Matt Flegenheimer. What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthys Right-Hand Man.
NYT.com, 30 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html?_r=0.