He’s there at every key moment of Donald Trump’s presidency – the ghost of Roy Cohn.
You sensed him as Trump attacked the Mueller report or during his impeachment trial. You sense his presence when Trump is caught in one of his many lies or when he attacks the media and his critics during one of his rambling, self-aggrandizing rally speeches or tweet-rages so loved by his cult followers.
Roy Cohn is perhaps best known for being Sen. Joe McCarthy’s henchman who specialized in character assassination during the anti-communist hearings of the early 50s. McCarthy was ultimately exposed as the brutal and ruthless bully and liar that he was. Cohn, however, like all weasels, slid out the back way and eventually became a powerful lawyer in New York.
“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said lawyer Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years, told Vanity Fair in 2017.
Cohn met Trump in 1973 and became Trump’s “spiritual “mentor and consigliere. Trump would sometime call Cohn 15-20 times a day, seeking advice.
For author Sam Roberts, the essence of Cohn’s influence on Trump was the triad: “Roy was a master of situational immorality . . . He worked with a three-dimensional strategy, which was: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counterattack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.” As columnist Liz Smith once observed, “Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.” – Vanity Fair 2017
Cohn died in 1986 of AIDS. He was 59. Yet his hold over Trump’s psyche remains long after his death. Journalists from New York who knew both men said during the presidential campaign of 2016, Trump started to use some of the same language as Cohn. “That meant the BIG LIE was coming,” one remarked.
When Trump fumed after then attorney-general Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump asked “Where is my Roy Cohn?”
Cohn’s advice has served Trump well. So far. He is president (which he loves to remind people for some reason). But even advice like the kind given by Cohn has an expiration date and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that for Trump.
A key moment was last Thursday when Trump spoke of the disinfectant cure that could be injected to stop the spread of the virus. Universal condemnation followed. The makers of these products put out alerts asking people not to do this as it was dangerous. Governors told stories of how people were phoning health help lines asking if they could do it.
And comedians went to town on Trump, never a good sign.
What did Trump do? True to his Cohn-based ideology, he lied, denied he had done anything wrong and tried to blame others. First, he said he was being sarcastic. (Why would a leader of a nation make that kind of a ‘sarcastic’ remark at this time in history?) Even the normally uber-friendly Fox News didn’t buy that.
Then he denied he had asked Deborah Birx, the head of the White House Coronavirus task force about the disinfectant idea when there was video tape of him doing that in front of the entire nation.
Trump should have listened to his advisors who wanted him to do fewer of the daily White House coronavirus briefings. Trump, however, missed the cheers from his many rallies, and ignored this advice. He craved the attention of the TV audience, bragged about his ratings and would ramble for as long as two hours at a time.
He failed to appreciate the difference between the adulation of a pro-Trump crowd and a setting where reporters could ask tough questions and not everyone watching the briefings was a Trump Cultist.
Trump also seems to have forgotten that Cohn didn’t get away with it. In 1986, a few weeks before his death he was disbarred. He bragged about being a tax cheat, but the IRS was closing in on him. And Trump also seems to have forgotten that Cohn’s legacy is of a cheat, a liar, and, well, an unethical bastard. He hated gays, Jews and lawyers – all of which he was himself.
Trump has reached that moment as well. He trails Democratic challenger Joe Biden nationally and in key battleground states, even though Biden’s been forced to campaign from his basement. He seems unable to effectively deal with the pandemic because the pandemic doesn’t give a hoot about what Roy Cohn taught Trump.
Yet Trump applies that Cohn ideology in every situation. But it’s not working with this one and Trump seems unwilling to try a new approach. It’s Cohn all the way to the bottom.
So, in a not so strange way, Roy Cohn, who helped Donald Trump become president, may also help him lose the presidency.