The unrepentant political hitman who taught a younger Trump how to flout the rules didn’t get away with it forever.
One of Donald Trump’s most important mentors, one of the most reviled men in American political history, is about to have another moment.
Roy Cohn, who has been described by people who knew him as “a snake,” “a scoundrel” and “a new strain of son of a bitch,” is the subject of a new documentary out this week from producer and director Matt Tyrnauer. It’s an occasion to once again look at Cohn and ask how much of him and his “savage,” “abrasive” and “amoral” behavior is visible in the behavior of the current president. Trump, as has been well–established, learned so much from the truculent, unrepentant Cohn about how to get what he wants, and he pines for Cohn and his notorious capabilities still. Trump, after all, reportedly has said so himself, and it’s now the name of this film: “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
What Cohn could, and did, get away with was the very engine of his existence. The infamous chief counsel for the red-baiting, Joseph McCarthy-chaired Senate subcommittee in the 1950s, Cohn was indicted four times from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s—for stock-swindling and obstructing justice and perjury and bribery and conspiracy and extortion and blackmail and filing false reports. And three times he was acquitted—the fourth ended in a mistrial—giving him a kind of sneering, sinister sheen of invulnerability. Cohn, Tyrnauer’s work reaffirms, took his sanction-skirting capers and twisted them into a sort of suit of armor.
It’s the past quarter or so, though, of Tyrnauer’s film that is perhaps most salient at this stage of Trump’s first term. It deals with the less discussed but arguably much more trenchant lesson of Cohn’s life—not his decades of dark-arts untouchability but his brutal comeuppance. Cohn did not, in the end, elude the consequences of his actions. He could not, it turned out, get away with everything forever. He was a braggart of a tax cheat, and the Internal Revenue Service closed in; he was an incorrigibly unethical attorney, and he finally was disbarred; and only six weeks after that professional disgrace, six months shy of 60 years old, Cohn was dead of AIDS.
Now, less than 14 months out from next year’s election, with Trump facing historic legal and political peril, it’s getting harder and harder not to wonder what he might or might not have gleaned from watching Cohn’s wretched unraveling. Trump is beset by 29 federal, state, local and congressional investigations. Poll after poll shows he’s broadly disliked. He could win reelection, obviously, but it’s true, too, that he’s an unusually endangered incumbent. Trump, to be sure, is not weakened by physical sickness, and he has not been pursued by prosecutors and other committed antagonists for nearly as long as Cohn was. And as powerful as Cohn was perceived to be at his peak, he was never, it almost goes without saying, the most powerful man in the world. Even so, the question looms: Will Cohn’s most accomplished and attentive mentee ultimately suffer a similar fate?
“The maddening thing about Cohn and Trump,” Tyrnauer told me recently, “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.”
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