In the aftermath of the latest terror attack in London, President Donald Trump has gone right back to his old playbook. Taking to his favorite medium, Trump has unleashed a series of Tweets defending his Muslim ban, attacking the Mayor of London, and criticizing gun control advocates. In a normal presidency, attempting to take advantage of a terror attack for personal purposes in the capital of America’s closest ally would be unusual and highly inappropriate. For Trump, it’s business as usual. His default mode is to attack—the media, Democrats, Hillary Clinton, the FBI, “leakers”, President Obama, or whomever. This unrelenting aggression has been a trademark of Trump since he first entered the public eye in the 1970s when the Federal government sued him and his father for discriminating against African-Americans. Trump, aided by his attorney and confidant Roy Cohn, countersued the Federal government before eventually agreeing to a settlement. Cohn attacked government’s case accusing them of discrimination and portrayed the Trumps as victims of government abuse. Cohn’s two pronged strategy of attacking opponents while claiming to be the victim became a Trump staple.
Cohn began his legal career in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He rose to national prominence for his role in convicting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. In years following the couple’s execution, Cohn bragged of convicting the Rosenbergs and boasted that he had colluded with the judge in the case and the FBI to ensure a conviction. This type of collusion between legal authorities, the prosecution, and the judge to ensure a conviction violated the Rosenbergs right to a fair trial. Yet throughout his life, Cohn expressed no regrets about his behavior and bragged of how the judge had called him “to ask my advice on whether he ought to give the death penalty to Ethel Rosenberg.” This pattern of unethical and illegal behavior characterized Cohn’s entire legal career.
After the trial of the Rosenbergs, Cohn became chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy and his series of investigations into alleged communist activities at the State Department and in other branches of government. At the height of the McCarthyist hysteria, Cohn claimed that communists had infiltrated the American government by blackmailing closeted homosexuals into betraying the United States to keep their sexual preferences secret. This fervor led President Eisenhower to sign an Executive Order banning the employment of homosexuals in the federal government. Cohn soon came into conflict with the U.S. Army when one of his staff members, G. David Schine, was drafted in the Army. Using his position as McCarthy’s chief counsel, Cohn attempted to secure preferential treatment for Schine and made repeated threats to army over Schine’s treatment. The entire episode led to the undoing of McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign. During the McCarthy-Army hearings in 1954, the Wisconsin senator claimed that military had drafted Schine as a way to impede his investigation. The military claimed that Cohn and McCarthy had acted inappropriately. The televised hearings undermined support for McCarthy and Cohn resigned as his chief counsel.
After resigning, Cohn settled into a comfortable career as a private lawyer in New York City. His clients included a range of Mob kingpins, club owners, and the New York Yankees. In 1973, he represented the Trumps in their action against the Justice Department. After countersuing and claiming discrimination, the Trumps paid a $10 million settlement in 1975 without admitting guilt. In the late 1970s, Cohn aided political operative (and current Trump champion) Roger Stone with Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. During that campaign, Cohn passed Stone a briefcase (presumably full of cash) to pass along an attorney with influence over the New York state primary. In 1986, the New York Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for a variety of ethical violations. Most notably, in 1975, he attempted to coerce a wealthy dying client into changing his will and naming Cohn as one of the beneficiaries. He placed a pen in the client’s hands, moved it around the paper, and claimed the will was valid.
Cohn died in 1986 of AIDS. Cohn had prosecuted homosexuals during his time working for McCarthy and Army investigators had questioned his relationship with Schine. During the Army hearings, an Army attorney joked about Cohn being a “fairy.” While he sought experimental drug treatments, Cohn had attempted to hide his condition and claimed that he was merely suffering from liver cancer. Anonymous donors contributed a Cohn patch to the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt that effectively summed up Cohn’s legacy: “Bully Coward Victim.”
If you ever wonder why Trump acts as he does and wonder if he’ll ever stop, think about Roy Cohn and remembering Aesop’s old line: “A man is known by the company he keeps.”