While deception is a longtime Trump tactic, so too is it a longtime Republican tactic, one that dates to the beginning of the Cold War. And there is a tie between Trump’s usage of the practice and Republicans’ usage: Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn.
In 1945, Republicans were desperate to stop the dynastic Democratic dominance of President Franklin Roosevelt. This led the GOP to inflame and exploit the nascent U.S. conflict with the Soviets to damage liberalism and, by extension, the Democratic Party. It built upon long-standing suspicions of the Soviet Union to create a villainous, fearsome cartoon enemy that threatened the possible apocalypse.
It didn’t matter that the U.S.S.R. was a wreck after World War II, an impoverished, dysfunctional state, weaker than the United States by every metric. What mattered were the potential domestic political benefits of hysterical rhetoric about the risk posed by the Soviets, not actual national security issues. By dramatically overestimating the might of the Soviet Union, Republicans justified political attacks on anyone who minimized the communist threat. In that propaganda campaign, Cohn emerged as one of the most reliable GOP foot soldiers.
Like Trump, Cohn had the benefit of a prominent father, a New York judge who’d pulled strings to help his son gain entrance to Columbia University Law School and keep him from being drafted. And, like Trump, Cohn prioritized concealment. Little about his public persona was genuine or healthy. He was a draft-dodging patriot, a Jewish anti-Semite and a homosexual homophobe. As Cohn biographer Nicholas von Hoffman remarked, “Politically and publicly Roy was the most closeted of individuals.”
Cohn rose to prominence by expertly cultivating the press. As a prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, he became known for a pattern of attaching self-congratulatory news releases to bogus indictments of alleged subversives. He’d further enlarge his profile by deftly retailing gossip, hearsay and scandal to adherents of the destruction-by-salacious-headline style of media, such as Hearst media star and vehement anti-communist Walter Winchell, who returned the favor by writing that Cohn was “Trapping Reds Coast-to-Coast.”
In 1951, assigned to the ultra-high-profile case against alleged atomic spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Cohn was complicit in coercing Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, to concoct what Greenglass later said was a fictional scene tying the Rosenbergs to the passing of atomic secrets. The couple would be the only American civilians executed for spying during the Cold War.
In pursuing vengeance against the Rosenbergs, who were Jewish, Cohn saw an opportunity to showcase his patriotism for America’s generally anti-Semitic WASP establishment.
And it worked. The Rosenberg trial rocketed Cohn to the position of chief counsel for Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy, who had become an almost overnight celebrity with perhaps the most famous single act of political deception in U.S. history. During a 1950 speech in Wheeling, W.Va., McCarthy had claimed he had a list of 205 Communist Party members working in the State Department. Except there was no such list. He had simply made it up.
McCarthy’s show trials into purported communist infiltration of the American government were entering year three as Cohn began whispering scurrilous prompts in the senator’s ear during closed-door inquisitions. The homophobic Cohn would amplify McCarthy’s relentless gay baiting until, ironically, Cohn’s attraction to a fellow 26-year-old staffer, G. David Schine, ended up destroying the senator’s career, as well.
After the Army released a report accusing Cohn and McCarthy of attempting to secure preferential treatment for Schine, McCarthy reciprocated by charging the Army with acting in bad faith. The famous Army-McCarthy hearings soon followed. Senate Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson arranged for live ABC television coverage of the hearings to expose Americans to McCarthy’s deplorable tactics. An estimated 80 million people watched at least a portion, and, as Cohn later admitted, McCarthy came across as “the perfect stock villain.”
In retrospect, the Red Scare had been far overblown. Entering the Cold War, for example, the Communist Party of the United States was already a spent force and, by the 1950s, may have had only 5,000 members, a third of whom worked in some capacity as informants for the FBI. Similarly, while McCarthy called more than 500 witnesses before his permanent investigations subcommittee, not a single communist was found to have “infiltrated” the U.S. government. Even the case of the Rosenbergs was overblown: while Julius Rosenberg had engaged in espionage for the Soviets, there was never any evidence that the Rosenbergs had traded atomic secrets. In fact, the evidence, as Cohn knew, indicated that a cadre of traitorous British physicists, diplomats and spies had given the Soviets the blueprints to the bomb.
But the exposure of the Red Scare as overblown did not hinder Cohn’s career. He amassed clout in New York by befriending and representing powerful figures, from cardinals to mobsters. In 1973, he bonded with a then-27-year-old Donald Trump at a nightclub. Trump and his father, Fred, were being sued by the Department of Justice, which accused them of violating the Fair Housing Act. The lawsuit alleged the Trumps had made it a practice to avoid renting to African Americans at their 39 apartments. Asked by Trump for legal advice, Cohn reportedly replied: “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court and let them prove you discriminated.”
The Trumps went one further. “It just stunned me,” said lawyer and journalist Steven Brill. “They actually got reporters to appear for a news conference where they announced that they were suing 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.”
After two years in court, the Department of Justice and the Trump Organization signed a “far reaching” consent decree. Donald Trump and his lawyer Cohn declared victory because the Trumps were not compelled to admit any guilt.
This pas de deux continued in lockstep. Separately and together, Cohn and Trump sold self-edifying fibs to the press, abused legal loopholes, dodged taxes, stiffed contractors, and countersued or smeared anyone who took them to court. In 1980, Cohn would introduce Trump to another master manipulator, Roger Stone. When Stone and Paul Manafort established a lobbying business the next year, Trump was one of their first clients.
In 1986, just before his death from AIDS, Cohn was kicked out of the New York bar for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation.” For Trump, his lawyer’s life story was not a cautionary tale, however. “They only got him because he was so sick,” he said. “They wouldn’t have gotten him otherwise.”
In 2017, after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump he was recusing himself from the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump reportedly asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump ended up firing Sessions for his perceived disloyalty, and today, he has a cadre of Cohns, people ranging from his White House counsel to adviser Kellyanne Conway to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who seem to encourage his stonewalling and alternative facts. Given that and Trump’s instincts and experience, expect his impeachment defense to be a series of tactics that Roy Cohn knew well.