By 1976 Roy Cohn was already known as a take-no-prisoners fixer, whose “Never apologize, never explain” style was honed as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during his 1950s red-baiting witch-hunts. McCarthy’s campaign of baseless accusations, fabrication, and exaggeration came to a head when he claimed that security was lax at a top-secret Army facility; the Army countercharged that McCarthy was seeking preferential treatment for a friend of Cohn’s, G. David Schine. The most famous moment of the televised Army–McCarthy hearings came after McCarthy accused a young lawyer in the office of Army counsel Joseph Welch of being a former Communist sympathizer. This fact was publicly known, but McCarthy nonetheless used it to smear Welch as a fellow traveler.
Fed up with the demagoguery, Welch said, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy blew him off, Welch angrily (and famously) ended the exchange: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
McCarthy’s bullying and prevaricating caused his popularity to plummet, and three years later, at age 48, he died from complications due to alcoholism.
One might think that Cohn (1927–86) would have learned some lessons about humility and shame. But instead, he injected steroids into the McCarthy model and gained a reputation as a nasty infighter within the halls of power. Once, when representing a Mafia boss, he said, “Truth is hardly ever an absolute — there are so many elements.” His client at the time, Tony “Fat Tony” Salerno, beat that particular tax evasion rap. (One can get the flavor of Cohn’s character through Al Pacino’s portrayal in Angels in America.)
By the time writer Lois Morgan looked into Cohn’s machinations for the Voice, in 1976, he was known as a cheapskate and a flimflammer. Morgan reported that Cohn was being hounded by creditors, large and small, all over New York: “The firm (including the predecessor firms) owes at least $32,000 to miscellaneous travel agencies, personnel agencies, office supply companies, and firms providing all kinds of services. Most have been embroiled in collection proceedings and litigation for years. Some give up, like the man who said, ‘You have to make a whole career out of trying to collect judgments against Roy Cohn or his firm — I got tired.’ ” Morgan then lists numerous overdue bills: “$94.16 for office furniture, $558.56 for routine stationery (envelopes, engraved letter heads, business cards) … $144.45 to a locksmith, $153 for mechanical work on a car … $10,121.92 to an airline service company for storage, pilot services, fuel and maintenance of a company plane.”
The Voice article also notes how Cohn and his firm would give collectors the runaround and then ignore court judgments that went against them. One creditor told Morgan, “It’s a dead horse — you can’t get anywhere. I got very disgusted with it [the court action]. It’s a damn bother, with little return.” Cohn apparently cared little about the small businesses he ripped off. Morgan reports, “According to the September 5, 1969 issue of Life magazine, lawsuits have left Cohn, in large part, personally untouched, ‘for virtually all his assets — including his elegant Manhattan townhouse, his telephone-equipped limousine … and his 99-foot yacht Defiance [since sunk off the Florida coast] — are leased or held in separate corporations headed by his nominees.”
Cohn and Trump met in 1973 and became close friends and business associates. So the next time you hear about the Donald’s history of stiffing contractors (a practice known as “selling out one’s goodwill”) and how his labyrinthine businesses manage to dodge taxes and creditors alike, know that he learned at the feet of a master. Now, as a parade of Trump’s associates plead or are found guilty in court, we know why the harried, erratic POTUS has been quoted more than once as saying, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”