Michael Cohen Is Donald Trump’s New Roy Cohn
The lawyer might one day regret emulating his near-namesake
On Monday, the FBI raided President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s office to seize records related to payments to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, tax documents, and other records, including communications between Cohen and the president. Cohen is reportedly under federal investigation for possible bank fraud and campaign finance law violations. With Cohen’s every move under scrutiny by law enforcement, thanks to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s potential collusion with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, Cohen may be even less able to live up to Trump’s expectations as his ruthless enforcer.
When US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, according to the New York Times, the president complained, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Trump had expected the attorney general to act like his personal lawyer and have his back, the role that Cohn—the colorful consigliere to mobsters, politicians and celebrities—had played for more than a decade after taking Trump under his wing in the 1970s.
Cohen, the president’s current personal attorney, might have been hurt by Trump’s comments. He has already demonstrated fierce loyalty to his client, fulfilling Trump’s most important qualification. In vituperative messages left for reporters, and other threats to perceived enemies, Cohen has also replicated his near-namesake’s penchant for bullying.
Cohn used his vast connections, and a compliant media, to maneuver behind the scenes. Cohen doesn’t have that luxury. His client is now the president. He’s on a much bigger stage, the stakes are much higher and the media is paying attention.
Even if Trump thinks Cohen is not as good of a henchman as Cohn, Cohen has demonstrated a willingness to push the boundaries of professional conduct on his benefactor’s behalf. And, like Cohn, that may one day come back to haunt him.
Cohn and Trump were a perfect match. For the brazen and pugnacious Cohn, practicing law was a contact sport—rules and ethics be damned.
The son of a politically connected judge, Cohn graduated from Columbia University Law School at age 20. By 1951, at the height of the Cold War, he had made a name for himself helping the US Justice Department convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Soviet spies who stole America’s atomic secrets and were later executed.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover recommended Cohn to US Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who was about to conduct investigative hearings to root out alleged communists in the federal government. Like Trump, McCarthy was notoriously prone to dramatic exaggeration, and sometimes outright fabrication. He was quick to impugn the motives and character of those with whom he disagreed, and to promote conspiracy theories.
In addition to boosting the Red Scare, McCarthy and Cohn (who was a closeted but promiscuous gay man) also engaged in the “Lavender Scare,” going after government officials and entertainment figures whom they suspected of being homosexual, resulting in the firing of many gay men from government jobs. (Persuaded that gay people were a threat to national security, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order in 1953 to ban homosexuals from working for the federal government.)
With Cohn at his side as chief counsel, McCarthy rose to prominence as the nation’s pre-eminent witch-hunter, making Cohn a hated figure among liberals ever since. But McCarthy went too far when he started attacking the US Army for harboring communists. The Army-McCarthy hearings, broadcast on television, exposed Americans to Cohn and McCarthy’s troubling tactics and outright lies. In 1954, McCarthy’s Senate colleagues censured him and his political career nose-dived.
But Cohn survived. In fact, he thrived. He returned to New York to establish a private practice, utilizing his political ties and pit bull personality to represent high-profile clients, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, mobsters John Gotti, Tony Salerno, Paul Castellano and Carmine Galante, Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman and media moguls Rupert Murdoch and S. I. Newhouse.
Rather than try cases, Cohn mostly pulled strings, funneled cash, insulted his adversaries and tapped his connections to reporters, gossip columnists, politicians and judges to intimidate people from bringing lawsuits against his clients. All along, he made sure that his own name appeared in the press as the city’s most influential fixer. And as a celebrity himself, he was regularly seen at the hippest nightclubs and power broker parties, including those he hosted at the Upper East Side townhouse where he worked and lived. A registered Democrat, he primarily supported Republicans and informally advised Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but when it came to influence-peddling, especially in heavily Democratic New York City, he was nonpartisan.
In 1973, when he first met Cohn at Le Club, a members-only Manhattan disco, the 27-year-old Trump was still working for his father’s outer-borough apartment empire, trying to infiltrate the Manhattan real estate world and celebrity social scene. He told Cohn that the Justice Department was suing him and his father for systematically discriminating against prospective black tenants. The government had a solid case, but Cohn advised Trump to fight back and tell the government to “go to hell.” Cohn orchestrated a press conference at the New York Hilton where Trump announced that he was countersuing the government for $100 million, claiming that the Justice Department has used “Gestapo-like tactics” by making false and misleading statements against him and trying to force him to rent apartments to welfare recipients.
The judge threw Trump’s bogus lawsuit out of court and accused Cohn and Trump of “wasting time and paper.” But Cohn persuaded the Justice Department to let Trump settle the case by agreeing not to discriminate in the future while not admitting guilt that he’d discriminated at all. Trump declared victory.
Trump liked Cohn’s combative win-at-all-costs style and the two quickly became a team. Cohn introduced Trump to his influential friends, telling them that the brash young man was “going to own New York someday.” He taught Trump to never admit mistakes and never apologize.
Cohn also schooled Trump in how to use the media to promote his reputation. Trump soon adopted Cohn’s habit of contacting columnists with self-serving gossip about himself.
To grease the skids for Trump’s development projects, including arranging a tax break for Trump Tower, Cohn used his ties to politicians and the mob (who controlled New York’s construction unions and building materials companies) and guided Trump in donating to key elected officials. Cohn represented Trump in several libel cases against reporters, crafted Trump’s prenuptial agreement with his first wife Ivana and emceed a birthday party for Trump at the famous Studio 54 nightclub, where both Cohn and Trump were regulars. He contacted his friend White House aide Edwin Meese to get Ronald Reagan to appoint Trump’s sister to a federal judgeship. According to one account at the height of their association, Trump and Cohn talked 15 to 20 times a day.
Over the years, Trump has said Cohn exhibited the characteristics that he most admires. “If you need someone to get vicious toward an opponent, you get Roy,” Trump told The Associated Press. “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” Trump told writer Tim O’Brien. “He brutalized for you.”Trump did not repay that loyalty. In 1984, Cohn became ill and began treatment for AIDS, claiming that he had liver cancer. Trump quickly kept his distance from Cohn and dropped him as his lawyer.
Even the ruthless Cohn was shocked by Trump’s betrayal. “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me,” Cohn told Trump biographer Wayne Barrett. “Donald pisses ice water.”
But when the state Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Committee investigated Cohn for ethical misdeeds, including stealing money from and defrauding clients, Trump testified as a character witness, describing Cohn as “extremely loyal and extremely honest.” Nonetheless, Cohn was disbarred six weeks before his death in 1986.
Since Cohn’s death, Trump has hired at least dozens of lawyers. In the 30 years before he ran for president, Trump and his companies were involved in 4,095 lawsuits, according to a tally compiled by USA Today.
The 51-year-old Cohen may be personally closer to Trump than any lawyer since Cohn, and shares many of the same characteristics. He has frequently threatened Trump’s adversaries and has said that he would “take a bullet” for Trump.
Cohen, whose father was a surgeon and his mother a nurse, grew up on Long Island. He received a law degree from Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, which was recently ranked the worst law school in the country by Above the Law.
Like Cohn and Trump, Cohen’s political work has spanned both parties and shows no evidence of ideological commitment. In the 1980s, he volunteered and interned for Massachusetts Democrats. In 2003, Cohen—who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—ran unsuccessfully for the New York City Council as a Republican, but he said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In the 2016 New York primary, he couldn’t vote for Trump because he was still a registered Democrat. He didn’t switch his official affiliation to the GOP until March 9, 2017.
Cohen’s legal career did not measure up to Cohn’s in terms of the number of noteworthy cases or notorious clients, but it shares a certain hustler’s mentality. Cohen began his career as a personal injury lawyer, then, according to the Daily Beast, “spent the ’90s buying up taxi medallions in New York City and Chicago and hustling side projects like a Miami gambling boat and several family-run Ukrainian ethanol businesses.” He and his family then began investing in Trump’s real estate deals.
In 2007, Trump hired Cohen as special counsel and executive vice president for the Trump Organization. Like Cohn, Cohen operates as a fixer and enforcer. “If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen said in an interview with ABC News in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.” That year, Cohen created the ShouldTrumpRun.com website, which disingenuously sought to “convince Donald Trump to run for President in 2012.” Since Trump entered the 2016 race, Cohen has been a relentless political attack dog on the boss’s behalf.
Cohen’s specific duties, before and after Trump took office, have always been murky. He’s done everything from brokering Trump’s real estate branding deals, to running a Trump-funded martial arts company, to arranging to have his plane’s engine repaired. “He’s the guy that you could call at 3 (o’clock) in the morning when you have a problem and you need something taken care of,” Cohen’s longtime friend David Schwartz told CNN earlier this year. “Every dinner I’ve been at with Michael, the boss has called.”
Soon after Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak called Cohen for comment on an allegation, reported in a biography of Trump, that the would-be president had raped his first wife Ivana. Cohen denied the charge, which Ivana had made during divorce proceedings and later recanted.
But Cohen also incorrectly told Mak that “by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse … and there’s very clear case law.” In fact, spousal rape is illegal in all 50 states.
And Cohen issued a warning, lest the reporter dared to go ahead with the story: “I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said to Mak. “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”
The New York Times recently reported that in 2015 Cohen “received a phone call from Jeremy Frommer, a hedge-fund manager turned digital entrepreneur, who had obtained photos of Mr. Trump appearing to autograph the breasts of a topless woman from the estate of Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine.” Cohen connected Frommer to David J. Pecker, chairman of American Media (which owns the National Enquirer and other tabloids) and a close Trump ally, who was known to purchase embarrassing photos and gossip about his high-profile friends in order to bury them.
The Times also recounted that in 2016, in the midst of Trump’s presidential campaign, Cohen may have brokered a deal to keep former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal from disclosing her alleged affair with Trump in the mid-2000s, not long after he had married his third wife, Melania. With the help of Hollywood lawyer Keith Davidson, a Cohen acquaintance, McDougal gave the exclusive rights to her story to American Media in exchange for $150,000 and a pledge to keep quiet about the relationship. America Media never published McDougal’s allegations.
Cohen left the Trump Organization in January 2017, but has continued to serve as Trump’s personal attorney.
In recent weeks, Cohen has been in the news for admitting to having paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket to sign a nondisclosure agreement shortly before the November 2016 election, in order to buy her silence about an affair she said she had with Trump. Daniels is suing Cohen for defamation for asserting that the affair never took place.
Some legal and campaign finance experts believe that Cohen’s payment on behalf of a client may violate New York’s ethics rules as well as federal campaign finance regulations.
McClatchy News recently reported that Mueller is looking into Cohen’s role in Trump’s business deals not only in Russia, but also in Georgia and Kazakhstan, even though Trump has denied having any such dealings.
So, his complaints to the contrary notwithstanding, Trump seems to have found his new Roy Cohn. But, in exchange for his loyalty, Michael Cohen might one day have to ask Trump for the same favor he did for Cohn—to serve as a character witness at his friend’s disbarment hearing.
Peter Dreier is a professor of politics and chairman of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. This piece first appeared in City & State, a politics and policy journal with which The Public shares content.