Specter of Roy Cohn Haunts Impeachment Inquiry

October 11th 2019

Roy Cohn ( Library of Congress )

By Bill Berkowitz

President Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that his administration will refuse to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry. In fact, as Politico’s John Bresnahan, Heather Caygle and Sarah Frerris characterized it, Trump’s strategy is “minimum cooperation, maximum confrontation.” Trump called the impeachment inquiry “illegal,” “dangerous,” and a kangaroo court. The president’s bombast isn’t new, the origins of which can be traced back to his mentor, Roy Cohen. 

The Cold War is long dead, as is Roy Cohn. To some younger voters, the Cold War may be  more identifiable as the popular indie rock band called Cold War Kids, or the Oscar-nominated love story, “Cold War.” Neither the band nor the film inspires get under your desk moments from the 1950s. Coming under fire from many quarters, Trump has pivoted to quashing the impeachment inquiry. And, in doing so, he has decided to use the playbook of Roy Cohn as his model for resistance. 

The well-connected, closeted homosexual who died of complications stemming from AIDs in 1986, was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during the communist "witch hunts" of the 1950s, and one of Trump’s most revered mentors. While Team Trump may not have disinterred Cohn’s bones from his gravesite in Union Field Cemetery in Queens, New York, nevertheless, Trump appears to be bringing to the surface -- for the cornerstone of his 2020 re-election bid – that he is being picked on unfairly and because of that, he must launch an all-out attack on his opponents. 

“Trump has long resisted Democrats’ investigations, routinely ignoring subpoenas for documents and witness testimony and exposing the inherent weaknesses of Congress’ oversight powers,” Politico recently reported. 

Will Trump be succeed stonewalling the House’s impeachment inquiry all the way through the November 2020 elections? 

For years, Cohn was not only Trump lawyer, but also his fixer. Cohn also served as Trump’s “model in the handling of public relationships and media warfare,” NPR’s Ron Elving pointed out in January of last year. Trump’s lying is notorious, and his passion for spreading misinformation and disinformation is legendary. 

Let’s be very clear here: We are not talking about another of Trump’s latter-day fixers, Michael Cohen. We are talking Roy Cohn – who is probably better known these days as one of the most vile characters in Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

In late September, the F.B.I. released files on Cohn. Although Trump’s name did not appear in the files, numerous celebrities were mentioned, including “Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Hoffa, the Detroit Lions fullback Nick Pietrosante, W. Mark Felt (the F.B.I. agent better known as Deep Throat) and Morris Barney Dalitz, a Prohibition Era bootlegger known as Moe who helped turn Las Vegas into a gambling mecca,” according to The New York Times 

 As Marcus Baram wrote in his April 2017 piece in The New Yorker titled “Eavesdropping on Roy Cohn and Donald Trump,” “Trump was one of [Cohn’s] favorite clients; before Cohn’s death, of aids-related complications, in 1986, the two men talked up to five times a day and partied together at Studio 54 and other night clubs. ‘Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,’ Trump told the writer Tim O’Brien, in 2005. ‘He brutalized for you.’”

Baram pointed out that Cohn was a close friend of Rupert Murdoch and whenever he wanted something planted in the Murdoch-owned press, he would call on him. “Whenever Roy wanted a story stopped or item put in, or story exploited, i.e [Geraldine] Ferraro—and her family, Roy called Murdoch.” Cohn’s relationship with Murdoch has apparently been passed on to Trump; now, the man in Murdoch’s Fox News Channel’s mirror is Donald Trump. 

In January of last year, NPR’s Ron Elving reported that during one of the White House’s now serial crises, the president bellowed: "Where's my Roy Cohn?" That cry is now the title of a new documentary. A second film, which “takes its title … from an epitaph some short-straw drawer stitched for Cohn as part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt: Bully. Coward. Victim, and is directed by Ivy Meeropol, who is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

“It isn't hard to see Cohn's tactics in Trump's business and TV careers, if not in his campaign for president,” Elving noted. “Neither is it hard to understand why, as president, when Trump felt he needed help, he called out, ‘Where's my Roy Cohn?’"

Cohn’s work during the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – which led to their conviction and execution – impressed FBI head J. Edgar Hoover so much that he recommended him to sit by Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, during his investigation to root out communists from American life.
As Elving noted, although “Cohn was still at McCarthy's side when the senator overreached in a series of 1954 probes of U.S. Army figures[,] … [t]he collapse of those hearings, [which] led to McCarthy's censure by the full Senate later that year, … [left Cohn] unscathed.

Cohn’s list of celebrity clients included Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, political figures in both parties and organized crime bosses such as Carmine Galante and John Gotti. And, Donald Trump. 

Cohn was once asked what makes him tick? His answer: “A love of a good fight, a certain pleasure I derive from fighting against the Establishment.”

“The maddening thing about Cohn and Trump,” Matt Tyrnauer, director of Where’s My Roy Cohn, told Politico’s Michael Kruse, “is that they have this sort of Road Runner-versus-Wile E. Coyote knack, where you think the boulder is going to fall on them and crush them and they escape just in the nick of time.”

Recent polling has shown that support for the impeachment inquiry is growing. Nevertheless, Trump is doubling -- perhaps tripling – down on stonewalling the inquiry. Trump, the so-called messaging genius, has reached into that Queens grave of his mentor, and pulled out the dank and clammy Cohn playbook, wiped it off, and is prepared to cling to it to the very end. One thing that Trump should consider: When Cohn died, he was universally reviled, was considered an unethical scumbag, was a tax cheat, was disbarred, and died a disgraced man.