Day 6

'He created a president from beyond the grave': How Roy Cohn created the blueprint for Donald Trump

Roy Cohn defended mobsters, stole from his clients and stood by Joe McCarthy's side during his infamous anti-communist Senate hearings. But filmmaker Matt Tynauer says his greatest trick was grooming his protege, Donald Trump.

'If we had re-incarnation, he'd be doing victory laps,' says filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer

Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer credits Roy Cohn, a once powerful lawyer, prosecutor and socialite, as the man who wrote the blueprint for Trumpism. (James Meehan/Sony Pictures Classics)

by Brent Bambury

Before he died, Roy Cohn accurately predicted he would be remembered as U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy's collaborator in the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s.

But that was 1986. Today, with Donald Trump as U.S. president, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer says Cohn's obituary would be different. 

"With the victory of Trump ... Cohn goes from being a bold footnote to American history, to being a modern Machiavelli," Tyrnauer said on Day 6.

Tyrnauer credits Cohn, a once powerful lawyer, prosecutor and socialite, as the man who wrote the blueprint for Trumpism and set the ethical standards for the 45th President of the United States.

"[Roy Cohn] literally creates a president from beyond the grave," Tyrnauer said. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy covers the microphones with his hands while having a whispered discussion with his chief counsel Roy Cohn during a committee hearing in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press/REX/Shutterstock)

That's the thesis of Where's My Roy Cohn?, a new documentary that paints Cohn as a vicious, unethical liar who defended mobsters, stole from his clients and avoided jail — a demagogue who manipulated the media and bullied his opponents.

"He's a satanic hypocrite," Tyrnauer said.

And though Cohn died of complications from AIDS, disgraced and disbarred, more than 30 years ago, Tyrnauer says Cohn would revel in the elevation of his protégé Donald Trump. 

"If we had reincarnation he would be doing victory laps," said Tyrnauer. 

Ruthless and corrupt 

Where's My Roy Cohn? traces Cohn's path from his privileged Jewish upbringing through his graduation from Columbia Law at the age of 20, to his rise as the prosecutor who had Julius and Ethel Rosenberg put to death. 

At 24, Cohn became chief counsel to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and co-leader of his Communist witch hunt. 

"He comes from this background where power is everything and [it] is accessible to him," Tyrnauer said. 

"So when he becomes a lawyer, he is steeped in backroom politics and he's so brilliant and he knows how everything connects."

Director Matt Tynauer is pictured with the film's producer Corey Reeser at the Where's My Roy Cohn? premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Cohn proved less interested in the legal remedies of his cases than in working an angle with the judge.

"[Cohn] said it more harshly," said Tyrnauer. "It was, 'F--- the law. Just tell me who the judge is.'" 

"And he never even studied the cases he was arguing. He just went to the judge and he oftentimes is effective that way, and this is by definition corrupt."

Subtext of Trump

As Tyrnauer builds his portrait of Cohn — ruthless, amoral and well-connected — another charismatic New Yorker is evoked. 

"I like to say that every minute of the film really is about Donald Trump," Tyrnauer said. 

"It's about authoritarianism and it's about demagoguery. But it's really, nominally, about Roy Cohn who was his [Trump's] mentor and I believe continues to be his hero and North Star."

The title of Tynauer's film, Where's My Roy Cohn?, comes from a comment made by now U.S. President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

It's Trump who gives the movie its title.

Tyrnauer says it's a quotation attributed to Trump during his first year in office, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Mueller investigation.

"Trump was trying to get him to un-recuse himself, and behave more like a mob attorney. So he blurts out, according to the New York Times, 'Where's my Roy Cohn?' Which is less of a question than a complaint."

"It's probably the only time a sitting president named a movie," said Tyrnauer.

The art of the counterstrike

Cohn had mob connections and Tyrnauer says Trump would have known this when the two first met in 1973.

At the time, Trump and his father, Fred Trump, were facing allegations from the Justice Department that their apartment rental schemes were discriminatory: that they wanted white tenants.

Trump imagined Cohn could help them beat the charge.

"Trump appeals to Cohn," said Tyrnauer. "He knows his reputation as a mob lawyer and a fixer." 

"He says, 'You can get me off this charge, counsel?"'

American politician Joseph McCarthy, second from right, with David Schine, Roy Cohn and Frank Carr. McCarthy led a campaign against supposed Communist subversion in the early 1950's, supported by Cohn. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Cohn's answer: "Sure I can."

In what would later become a classic Trump strategy, Cohn launched a counter suit against the U.S. government for $100 million dollars.

"The counterclaim was dismissed but it had the effect of throwing the U.S. government off balance," said Tyrnauer.

"Eventually it shook down to a settlement with no admission of guilt. And then Trump declared victory and this set the pattern for the rest of his life."

Cohn's false ending

Through the 1980s, Cohn is a witness and abettor to Trump's rise in Manhattan society and Cohn rises too.

He's a Democrat, but cultivates relationships with power and develops close ties to President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. 

Senator Joe McCarthy is seen here waving a transcript of a monitored call between Pvt. G. David Schine, left, and chief counsel Roy Cohn, right, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, June 7, 1954 in Washington D.C. (APA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Cohn was disbarred for unethical practices in 1986, Trump vouched for his integrity. Six weeks later, as he was dying of AIDS, Cohn pumped the Reagans to give him access to experimental drugs. 

"And Cohn takes the favour and then he dies, probably a hypocrite worthy of a circle of Dante's hell that Dante didn't even contemplate," said Tyrnauer.

As Cohn predicted, his obituary in the New York Times led with his connection to McCarthy.

But Tyrnauer says Cohn's story doesn't end there.

"Roy Cohn seems to be everywhere in our hypocritical, apathetic society that has allowed a dangerous authoritarian man to rise to the most powerful seat in the world," he said.

"And Roy Cohn was the person who really put him there. Because Trump is Roy Cohn."

To hear the full interview with Matt Tynauer, download our podcast or click Listen above.