Donald Trump was a brash scion of a real estate empire, a young developer anxious to leave his mark on New York. Roy Cohn was a legendary New York fixer, a ruthless lawyer in the hunt for new clients.
They came together by chance one night at Le Club, a hangout for Manhattan’s rich and famous. Trump introduced himself to Cohn, who was sitting at a nearby table, and sought advice: How should he and his father respond to Justice Department allegations that their company had systematically discriminated against black people seeking housing?
“My view is tell them to go to hell,” Cohn said, “and fight the thing in court.”
It was October 1973 and the start of one of the most influential relationships of Trump’s career. Cohn soon represented Trump in legal battles, counseled him about his marriage and introduced Trump to New York power brokers, money men and socialites.
Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.
Since he announced his run for the White House a year ago, Trump has used such tactics more aggressively than any other candidate in recent memory, demeaning opponents, insulting minorities and women, and whipping up anger among his supporters.
Cohn gained notoriety in the 1950s as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel and the brains behind his hunt for communist infiltrators. By the 1970s, Cohn maintained a powerful network in New York City, using his connections in the courts and City Hall to reward friends and punish those who crossed him.
He routinely pulled strings in government for clients, funneled cash to politicians and cultivated relationships with influential figures, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, mafia boss Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and a succession of city leaders.
In the 1990s, a tragic character based on Cohn had a central place in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”
Trump prized Cohn’s reputation for aggression. According to a New York Times profile a quarter-century ago, when frustrated by an adversary, Trump would pull out a photograph of Cohn and ask, “Would you rather deal with him?” Trump remained friends with him even after the lawyer was disbarred in New York for ethical lapses. Cohn died in 1986.