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Roy Cohn: A Portrait of Evil

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Nobody has had quite the destructive influence on the American body politic as Roy Cohn. He was a vicious and pitiless fixer, of whom writer and artist Thomas Micchelli said, “If the poison that has been leaching into the nation’s bloodstream since the 1950s can be given a name, it would be Roy Cohn.”

Early Career

Cohn’s father was a judge, a position he rose to through the influence of his wife’s powerful family. Continuing the corrupt practice of nepotism, Albert Cohn helped his son land a job as a United States Attorney in 1947. Roy Cohn worked under Irving Saypol in the Southern District of New York office and was involved in prosecutions against Communists.

He worked on the case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and who were sent to the electric chair in June 1953. Cohn wore the execution of the Rosenbergs as a badge of honour and always claimed a bigger role in their convictions than history suggests was the case.

“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.”

— Lawyer Victor A. Kovner

Working With Joseph McCarthy

His zeal in going after Communists brought Cohn to the attention of influential people in Washington, and so, the 24-year-old Cohn was hired as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Together, the two men sought to root out the imaginary Soviet agents that were lurking within the U.S. government, universities, and in Hollywood. The persecution and harassment of innocent people is well documented and it gave the world a chance to see the dark underbelly of rampant prejudice.

Writing in Vanity Fair, Marie Brenner notes that “Cohn’s special skill as the senator’s henchman was character assassination. Indeed, after testifying in front of him, an engineer with the Voice of America radio news service committed suicide. Cohn never showed a shred of remorse.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) with Roy Cohn.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) with Roy Cohn.

The McCarthy/Cohn bullying led to the “lavender scare” in which the two alleged that closet homosexuals in the government were being blackmailed by the Soviet Union into spying for it. President Dwight Eisenhower responded with Executive Order 10450, which barred homosexuals from serving in the government. This led to the firing of about 5,000 people.

Interestingly, Roy Cohn was homosexual although he never came out. It’s suspected that Joseph McCarthy was also gay. In addition, according to The Atlantic Cohn “was a self-hating Jew.”

The two brought men and women before their committee to be harangued in public and, in many cases, to have their careers and lives destroyed. However, The Encyclopedia Britannica points out that “No one has proved that he [McCarthy] ever identified an actual subversive.”

Eventually, the duo went too far in the unsubstantiated attacks on innocent people. Army lawyer Joseph N. Welch famously exposed the wickedness of Cohn and McCarthy.

Cohn in Private Practice

With the McCarthy hearings totally discredited, Roy Cohn was forced to resign. He returned to New York and set up a private law practice through which he offered services of a questionable nature.

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He won some high-profile cases through chicanery, misdirection, and making financial contributions where they would be most effective. Jordan Hoffman writes in The Guardian that Cohn’s courtroom success “attracted wealthy clients in New York, most notably the heads of organized crime families and the flashy, young real estate mogul Donald J. Trump.”

Donald Trump with Cohn.

Donald Trump with Cohn.

Among his “A” list clients were mob figures “Fat Tony” Salerno, Carmine Galante, and Nicholas “Cockeyed Nick” Rattenni. Roy Cohn learned about the power of threats and intimidation from these thugs, and he was never reluctant to use them.

Roy Cohn’s father had been at the centre of a shady New York group known as the Favor Bank, and he brought his son into the circle. The bank was made up of people who could get a zoning variance to ease restrictions on a developer or who could “persuade” folk not to stand in the way of a deal. Need tax relief? An election campaign contribution could move it along swiftly.

Cohn held lavish parties for his sleazy clients and celebrities; the witticism was “If you’re indicted, you’re invited.”

He operated in a grey, and sometimes darker, area of the law. This led to four indictments on various charges such as securities fraud, blackmail, bribery, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Three times he wriggled out any serious consequences but in 1986 he was disbarred for conduct described as “particularly reprehensible.”

Roy Cohn’s Students

In the early 1970s, Cohn became Donald Trump’s legal counsel, a station that changed into that of a mentor. At about the same time, a young Republican who had cut his teeth doing dirty tricks for Richard Nixon came into Cohn’s orbit. His name was Roger Stone.

Trump and Stone learned and absorbed Cohn’s modus operandi.

Here are some of the rules by which Cohn lived:

  • Never admit to wrongdoing or a mistake;
  • If attacked, counterattack tenfold;
  • Never surrender and never settle;
  • Understand you are always the smartest person in the room;
  • In defeat claim victory;
  • When accused deny and lie loudly; and,
  • Truth doesn’t matter.

His protégés, Stone and Trump, have lived by Cohn’s rules.

Matt Tyrnauer made the 2019 documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? In an interview with Variety, Tyrnauer said “Donald Trump learned literally everything he knows from Roy Cohn. And with Trump’s election, Cohn went from being a dark footnote in history to an important part of a critical chapter.”

Bonus Factoids

  • When Senator Joseph McCarthy’s browbeating hearings were shut down in 1954 he became a pariah in Washington. Always a heavy drinker, he turned even more to alcohol for comfort and, when that didn’t work anymore, he started using heroin. He died in May 1957 at the age of 48 of what is generally accepted as the result of alcoholism. Roy Cohn was a pallbearer at McCarthy’s funeral.
  • Roy Cohn, the man who once owned an 80-foot yacht, a Bentley, and a Rolls Royce died nearly penniless of AIDS complications in 1986.
  • Joshua Lionel Cowen was the great uncle of Roy Cohn and the man who founded the Lionel Corporation, the manufacturer of model railway trains.

“Prospective clients who want to kill their husband, torture a business partner, break the government’s legs, hire Roy Cohn. He is a legal executioner—the toughest, meanest, loyalest, vilest, and one of the most brilliant lawyers in America. He is not a very nice man.”

— Ken Auletta, Esquire, 1978.


  • “The Ghost of Roy Cohn.” Thomas Micchelli,, November 10, 2018.
  • “Army-McCarthy Hearings.” Elizabeth Purdy, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
  • “Where’s my Roy Cohn? Review – Damning Documentary on Villainous Lawyer.” Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian, January 27, 2019.
  • “How Donald Trump and Roy Cohn’s Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America.” Marie Brenner, Vanity Fair, August 2017.
  • “Don’t Mess With Roy Cohn.” Ken Auletta, Esquire, December 1978.
  • “Sundance: Sony Pictures Classics Takes Matt Tyrnauer’s ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ ” Brent Lang and Matt Donnelly, Variety, January 27, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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