Roy Cohn has been called the most malevolent force in 20th-century American politics — and that was before mentoring a young Donald Trump in mafia-style politics.
Some historical figures seem to crop up at every major cultural or political turn. Roy Cohn was one of those players and strangely present at every step of the way — like a real-life Zelig or Forrest Gump.
Roy Cohn’s big break came in the 1950s, though his legacy spanned well into the 2010s. He first made a name for himself, albeit a rather shady one, as a prosecutor in the Rosenberg spy trial of 1951.
As chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, he was instrumental in ramping up the fear and bullying so inherently linked to the Red Scare. The Democrat strategically tied himself closely to the Republican Party moving forward, showcasing his opportunism.
Cohn was a closeted homosexual — one who would fall victim to the AIDS epidemic in 1986. Nonetheless, he used his fear-mongering ways and inquisitory methods to purge any suspected gay and lesbian employees from the government.
From McCarthyism to mob ties and the tutelage of Donald Trump — Roy Cohn was an unscrupulous bastard by any objective measure. To understand how he so deftly navigated American politics throughout the decades, an in-depth look is imperative.
The Early Years Of Roy Cohn
Born Roy Marcus Cohn on Feb. 20, 1927, in New York City, the future lawyer was raised in a Park Avenue apartment. His father Albert Cohn was a justice in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court and wielded quite a bit of power.
His mother Dora Marcus doted on her gifted young son, who was admittedly showing a strong intellect for his age. By the time he was 20, Cohn completed studies at the Fieldston School in the Bronx’s posh Riverdale neighborhood, Columbia College, and Columbia Law School.
“He was a precocious, brilliant, arrogant young man,” a peer of his later recalled, “but he performed ably and energetically on such cases as the William Remington perjury trial, the Rosenberg spy trial and the big New York trial of top Communist leaders.”
Cohn was admitted to the bar at 21 and immediately used his familial connections to get on the staff of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. He rather quickly established himself as a sharp assistant U.S. Attorney focused on subversive activities — which would soon cement his legacy.
It was the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American citizens accused of Soviet espionage and trading atomic secrets, that demonstrated Cohn as a fearsome force.
His direct examination of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, was essential in securing the couple’s conviction — and subsequent execution.
The Espionage Trial Of Julius And Ethel Rosenberg
The Rosenbergs couldn’t be charged with treason because that charge would require the U.S. to be at war with the Soviet Union. They were thus charged with espionage and accused of selling nuclear secrets but the punishment wouldn’t be any less severe.
The 1951 trial began in New York Southern District federal court, and saw both Rosenbergs and co-defendant Morton Sobell plead not guilty. Emanuel and Alexander Bloch took up the defense, while Roy Cohn was part of the prosecution.
With the Red Scare in full effect, the trial became a flashpoint. In 1951, the hysteria over Communist subversives infiltrating U.S. positions of power was at its peak.
There was no direct evidence that the Rosenbergs were guilty. It was Roy Cohn that managed to extract a confession from Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, that led to their deaths.
Greenglass worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a machinist and had access to persons and documents pertaining to America’s development of the bomb. His brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg had been fired for being in the American Communist Party.
Greenglass testified that Rosenberg asked him to give confidential instructions on making atomic weapons to the Soviets. These documents were purportedly transferred to the Russians by Greenglass acquaintance Harry Gold. Greenglass said he saw his sister type notes and share them with Soviet individuals.
With the U.S.S.R. detonating their first atomic bomb in September 1949, supposedly based on information they obtained from spies, this testimony sealed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s fates. It was only in 2003 that the truth came out.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Greenglass admitted that he lied under oath. He never saw his sister type or share any such notes. He also revealed that it was Cohn who forced him to incriminate his sister. Greenglass’ lie killed her.
Both Rosenbergs were offered a deal: admit guilt and the death sentences will be commuted. They refused and were thus sent to death row on April 6, 1951. Sobell was sentenced to 30 years, while Greenglass got 15.
It was this trial that revealed Cohn’s nefarious methods for the first time. His tactics were justified by their efficacy, even if they sent people who may not have been guilty of the crime to die in the electric chair.
The McCarthy Hearings
Hot off the Rosenberg trial, he began working for F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. McCarthy shortly after. That’s when the mask really came off.
As chief counsel of McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations, Cohn became a household name — regardless of the public sentiment — and that is ultimately what mattered to Cohn.
Precipitating the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings was the Lavender Scare. Cohn and McCarthy tried to increase anti-Communist sentiment by claiming the Russians had turned closeted employees of the U.S. government into spies by blackmailing them with evidence of their homosexuality.
The fear-mongering was so successful that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order on April 29, 1953, that banned homosexual from working for the federal government.
G. David Schine, an anti-Communist propagandist, became fast friends with Cohn. The two even spent 18 publicized days touring Army bases to “see if there’s waste and mismanagement,” and to assess if Americans abroad were aware enough of the dangers of Communism.
When Schine was drafted into the Army, Cohn made every effort to secure him preferential treatment. He even threatened to “wreck the Army” if they didn’t agree to his demands.
It was this belligerence and aggression, as well as McCarthy’s stunning claim that Communists had infiltrated the Defense Department, which led to the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. What should have been a major accomplishment for the two would quickly turn against them and McCarthy and Cohn would instead find themselves on the defensive.
The Army charged both with using improper pressure regarding Schine. The defendants, in turn, charged that the Army was holding Schine “hostage” to quell McCarthy’s probing of suspected Communists in the Army.
One of the more egregious moments came when the Army’s special counsel, Joseph N. Welch, credibly accused Cohn of falsifying a photograph depicting Schine with Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens.
Of course, the most reviled moment saw McCarthy bully a young prosecutor hired by Welch. The Army’s special counsel couldn’t help but chime in, in defense.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness,” said Welch.
An estimated 20 million Americans were watching this broadcast and up until that day, most citizens weren’t familiar with McCarthy’s personality or tactics — they simply believed he was fighting the dangers of Communism.
Cohn motioned for McCarthy to pull back but he failed to stop McCarthy’s aggressive questioning. Welch finally interrupted, cutting down McCarthy with the now-famous words:
“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 of decency?”
Public opinion shifted dramatically at this juncture and the Senate quickly pivoted back toward logic rather than fear. McCarthy’s colleagues censured him by the end of the year — not for destroying lives, but for jeopardizing the reputation of the Senate and faith in the democratic process.
Cohn, meanwhile, slipped through the cracks. He left Washington, D.C., and returned to New York City to continue his work as a lawyer. He represented everyone from the Catholic Church and George Steinbrenner to the owners of Studio 54, mob bosses, Rupert Murdoch — and Donald Trump.
How Roy Cohn Mentored Donald Trump
Though Cohn was trained as a lawyer, his true skill was as a fixer for anyone worth befriending in the long term. The web of people he counted as clients was remarkable.
After McCarthy hired Cohn as chief counsel, Cohn mentored Roger Stone. The latter would, in turn, become a highly resourceful fixer for Richard Nixon — before working to get Donald Trump elected as President.
Stone made sure to introduce Cohn to Ronald Reagan, whom Cohn introduced to Rupert Murdoch.
As for Trump, he met the ruthless Communist hunter at a New York City nightclub in 1973. Trump was in his 20s and battling lawsuits for his racist housing practices.
“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,'” Trump said. “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?”
Cohn’s response won Trump over immediately. “My view is tell them to go to hell,” said Cohn. “And fight the thing in court.”
Cohn was an excellent charmer of the elite and amassed a wide circle of celebrity friends turned clients. For them, his no-holds-barred behavior in the courtroom was the catch — they wanted a pit bull on their side.
“Roy would always be for an offensive strategy,” said Stone. “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.”
Cohn’s FBI files released in 2019 revealed Donald Trump would mournfully utter, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” In times of legal assistance.
The files showed just how corrupt Cohn really was. From representing mobsters Carmine Galante and “Fat Tony” Salerno to being disbarred in 1986 for defrauding his clients — he seemingly had no limits. His homosexuality, perhaps, was the only thing he was ashamed about.
“My cousin Roy Marcus Cohn — counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy, consigliere to Mafia bosses, mentor to Donald Trump — had almost no principles,” wrote David Marcus. “He smeared Jews even though he was Jewish. He tarred Democrats even though he was a Democrat. He persecuted gay people even though he was gay.”
Cohn remained closeted until his AIDS-related death on Aug. 2, 1986, a few weeks after disbarment. He left behind a legacy of utter opportunism. His thoughts on Donald Trump, shared in a 1984 interview, are eerily prescient.
“Donald Trump is probably one of the most important names in America today,” he said. “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.”
The yet unreleased HBO documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? explores the pair’s relationship. Another forthcoming documentary, Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, is set to reveal even more, though how much more we can handle about him is another question entirely.
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