Senator Joseph McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn whispering during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock
Donald Trump is a man who likes to think he has few equals. But once upon a time, he had a mentor: Roy Cohn, a notoriously harsh lawyer who rose to prominence in the mid-1950s alongside the communist-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. His tactics would often land him in the papers, but Cohn was unafraid of being slimed by the press – he used it to his advantage. A devil-may-care-as-long-as-it-gets-a-headline attitude was Cohn's trademark in life. Trump, in our time, has made it his.
His careful manipulation of negative attention is something that Trump noticed immediately when the two met in 1973. Trump and his father had just been sued for allegedly discriminating against black people in Trump's built-and-managed houses in Brooklyn, and sought out Cohn's counsel. Among other things, Cohn advised that Trump should "tell them to go to hell". Cohn was hired, and one of his first acts as Trump's new lawyer was to file a $100m countersuit that was quickly dismissed by the court. But it made the papers.
Donald Trump, Mayor Ed Koch and Roy Cohn attended a Trump Tower opening in October 1983.
Donald Trump, Mayor Ed Koch and Roy Cohn attend a Trump Tower opening in October 1983. Photograph: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images
This was the beginning of a long and close relationship. Trump relied on Cohn for most of the legal matters during a particularly tricky decade. Cohn drew up the pre-nuptial contract between Donald and Ivana when they married in 1977 – a famously stingy contract that only gave Ivana $20,000 a year. Cohn also filed a suit brought by the United States Football League in 1984 against the NFL, seeking to break up the monopoly held over American football. Trump owned a USFL team and was widely seen as the force behind the suit; the initial press conference about it was a tag-team show performed by Cohn and Trump.
"I don't kid myself about Roy. He was no Boy Scout. He once told me that he'd spent more than two-thirds of his adult life under indictment on one charge or another. That amazed me," Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. The unabashed pursuit of power, quick resort to threats, a love of being in the tabloid spotlight – all of these are things Trump took from his mentor.
He once told me that he spent more than two-thirds of his adult life under indictment. That amazed me.
In fact, if you're familiar with Cohn's history at all, their friendship starts to seem an even greater influence on Trump than any other.
Today, Cohn might be most remembered as a character in a TV series: Al Pacino played him in HBO's version of Tony Kushner's Angels In America. In Kushner's vision we meet Cohn only when he is old and ailing, lying about being gay and having Aids. (Despite being known to have many gay lovers, and his diagnosis of Aids being an open secret in the months before his death, Cohn denied it to all but his closest intimates.) As played by Pacino, his bombast is already pathetic, self-deluding. "You want to be nice or you want to be effective?!" he shouts at an idealistic acolyte. "You want to make the law, or be subject to it? Choose!"
But it wasn't always that way for Cohn. There was a time when he was thought bright and powerful. As Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel, he was a kind of stage director of the major events of the red scare: the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the McCarthy hearings. Another man would have let himself be an invisible functionary in those proceedings, but not Cohn. He made himself visible. He wanted to be front and center, even when the press turned on McCarthy's tirade. He befriended gossip columnists and used the tabloids. Shamelessness was, in fact, Cohn's defining trait. And it was a shamelessness that Trump picked up and ran with.
Cohn was born in the Bronx in 1927. His father was appointed to the New York state courts by Franklin Roosevelt. His mother, Dora, adored him, and in one of the quirks of Cohn's life, he lived with her until she died. Cohn started his career as a federal prosecutor, but it was his performance in the trial of the Rosenbergs – who were tried and convicted of espionage in 1951 – where he made his real reputation.
According to David Greenglass, Cohn pressured him into testifying against his sister Ethel. In an interview with 60 Minutes in 2003, Greenglass admitted he'd lied on the stand. He testified his sister typed notes sent on to the Soviets, but in fact she hadn't. He also said that Cohn was the one who'd pushed him to incriminate Ethel. Greenglass's testimony led to his sister's execution.
The Rosenberg trial was really the moment where Cohn's cynicism first came out in public. He was willing to twist the facts to serve himself, even if it meant sending someone to the electric chair. Not long after the trial, he began working for McCarthy and the FBI director, J Edgar Hoover. Between the three of them, they managed to orchestrate one of the biggest stains on American history: the famed interrogations of suspected "reds" under the auspices of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations. The committee made Cohn a household name. It also marked his first real adventures in the tabloids.
Along with his fellow committee member David Schine, he embarked on a kind of European tour, with the mission to root out communists abroad. Cohn and Schine proceeded to make giant fools of themselves in the press. The Guardian, among others, made merciless fun of the spectacle of two young Americans invading Radio Free Europe "like the Chauvelins of the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety" to look for communists among the staff. The Financial Times called them "scummy snoopers". Cohn and Schine also reportedly left hotel rooms trashed and had public fights.
After such a slew of negative attention, most men would have recoiled in shame, gone into hiding, spent less time trying to chat up tabloid columnists and getting themselves further into the spotlight. This was not Roy Cohn's way. He and Schine continued to appear at the McCarthy hearings, including the disastrous episode where McCarthy decided to investigate the US army and the press finally turned on him. Cohn eventually resigned, but he always defended the hearings, once writing an article for Esquire titled, "Believe Me, This Is the Truth About the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Honest". This piece was widely acknowledged to stretch the truth; letters of complaint poured in. One called the piece "a disgrace; it certainly does little honor for Esquire to publish it". But for Cohn, the article achieved its purpose: to keep arguing that he had behaved mostly honorably, as a man under siege.
These sorts of antics, in the age of reality television, no longer seem quite as shocking. In fact they even pale when put against Trump's own press adventures in the matter of his hair, his marriages, his pre-nuptial agreements and his bankruptcies. Trump has been fiercely mocked in the media since the 1980s. But Trump learned from someone to let all the mockery roll off his back, that the negative publicity was still publicity.