What Roy Cohn Taught Donald Trump

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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You can’t understand Donald Trump without understanding the influence of his political mentor, Roy Cohn.

Cohn came to prominence as chief counsel for Joe McCarthy’s contentious anti-communist Senate investigations in the 1950s before becoming a prominent New York lawyer to both New York’s high society and underworld. He represented everyone from New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner to mob boss “Fat” Tony Salerno.

“Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” Trump explained in 2005. “He brutalized for you.”

According to Trump, he first met Cohn in 1973 at the exclusive New York nightclub Le Club. Cohn convinced a 27-year-old Trump to fight back against a government suit targeting his family’s real estate holdings for being racially discriminatory.

That began a 13-year connection between Trump and Cohn, who died of AIDS in 1986. Those who knew Cohn and know Trump see the unmistakable influence the lawyer had on The Donald.

Longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone, who was introduced to Trump by Cohn in 1979, says Cohn taught Trump an enormous amount.

“First of all, Roy was a master at understanding the news cycle, and particularly understanding the tabloids,” said Stone on “The Jamie Weinstein Show” podcast. “Roy would literally call up and dictate pieces for Page Six because [New York Post owner] Rupert [Murdoch] was a client and because Roy always had good material. So Roy understood the tabloids. Donald, I think, learned the tabloid media, and the media cycle, from Roy.”


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Stone said that there are even phrases Cohn often employed that Trump now uses himself.

“Then there’s a dozen Trump-isms that are adopted from Roy,” Stone explained. “For example, you’d ask him a question, instead of saying yes, he would say, ‘100 percent.’ That’s Roy. ‘Forget about it.’ That’s Roy. ‘A lot of people say.’ That’s Roy. Those are all Roy-isms.”

“’Believe me,’ or ‘I tell you this,’” Stone continued, pointing to phrases Trump took from Cohn. “I think the speech patterns are even [similar].”

Stone said that Cohn essentially tutored a wealthy real estate heir from Queens in the wily ways of Manhattan politics.

“Roy was a mentor in terms of the fast track,” Stone explained. “I mean, Donald was from Queens, Manhattan’s the fast track. I think, to a certain extent, Donald learned how the world worked from Roy, who was not only a brilliant lawyer, but a brilliant strategist who understood the political system and how to play it like a violin.”

Former Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz told “The Jamie Weinstein Show” podcast he knew Cohn well and sees a lot of him in The Donald.

“A friend of mine, a brilliant, brilliant law professor who I went to college with, was being considered for a federal judgeship,” Dershowitz began, starting a Cohn story he thinks helps explain Cohn’s influence on Trump today. “And he got vetoed because he had written an article at a young age proposing legalization of marijuana, and this was during a Republican time. I called Roy Cohn and I said, ‘Roy, this guy is fantastic. You ought not to be stopping him. He’s going to be another Felix Frankfurter, he’ll be conservative, he’ll be thoughtful, he’ll be a great judge.’ And Roy said, ‘I don’t care about whether he’d be a great judge. If you tell me that you want him to be a judge, I’m going to make him a judge. It’s all about loyalty, it’s not about principles or politics.’”


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“Well, it turned out it was too late, his name had been withdrawn, but that was an interesting conversation,” Dershowitz concluded. “For Roy Cohn, it was about loyalty. And I can understand the influence that Roy Cohn may have had on a young Donald Trump.”

Dershowitz went on to outline some of the other lessons he thinks Cohn taught Trump.

“Never apologize, never back down, never admit you were wrong, use every means possible toward achieving your ends,” he said. “I’m not sure that distinguishes him from all other politicians but, as a matter of degree, I can see the influence of Roy Cohn on Donald Trump and I understand why they were so close.”

So what would Cohn think if he were alive to see his greatest protégé use some of what he taught him to get within spitting distance of the White House?

“He would be enormously proud, but he would also be trying to arrange the best tickets for the inauguration,” Stone said. “That was Roy.”

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