When Rudy Giuliani debased himself in the service of Trump by smearing FBI agents as “stormtroopers,” he was merely auditioning for the role of Roy Cohn 2.0.
Trump has indeed cried out, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Alas, the lawyer-fixer who counterpunched for Trump in the early years of Trump’s sleazy career has been dead since 1986 — he perished six weeks after he was disbarred for fraud — and his protege clearly misses him now. But his spirit is alive and well (unfortunately for us). To best understand Trump’s hyper-aggressive response to the scandal probes, we need only to resurrect Roy Cohn in action.
Cohn, who made his bones in the ’50s as Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting investigator (which tells you plenty), flourished as a type-A Manhattan shyster whose credo was simple: If they hit you hard, hit them twice as hard. He was already a legend — having survived three federal trials for conspiracy, bribery, and fraud — when he met young Trump in 1973. They hit it off. As Cohn’s biographer later wrote, Cohn “never paid his bills … Roy would stiff anybody, friend or foe.” Cohn was notorious for threatening his legal adversaries and he was ubiquitous in the gossip columns, leaking flattering tidbits about himself. Any of that sound familiar?
One case tells the whole tale. Shortly after Cohn and Trump first bonded, the Department of Justice sued father and son Trump for blatant racial discrimination. The DOJ — this was Richard Nixon’s DOJ, in a Republican administration — had concluded in its investigation that the Trumps had systematically violated the federal Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent their apartment units to black people in Brooklyn and Queens. The DOJ had the evidence on paper; the housing applications that the Trumps had deemed unacceptable were coded “C” for “colored.”
The Justice Department had them nailed. Attorneys urged them to settle. Instead, they hired Cohn.
As young Trump later told the press, “If you need someone to get vicious toward an opponent, you get Roy.” When the Trumps asked Cohn whether they should settle with Justice, his response was: “Tell them to go to hell.” His advice was to hit back twice as hard, to attack the accusing institution. He filed a $100-million counter-suit against the government, assailing its investigation as “irresponsible” and “baseless” and “defamation.” The courts junked Cohn’s suit for “wasting time and paper,” but there was method to his madness. He dragged out the case for nearly two years and put Justice back on its heels.
He unleashed an endless blizzard of motions and affidavits — creating chaos, as it were — and demagoguery was his stock in trade. He said that Justice was persecuting the Trumps with “Gestapo-like tactics.” And he said that the FBI agents working on the probe were “descending upon the Trump offices with stormtroopers.”
Gee. Does that smear ring a bell?
Anyway, two years after Cohn exhausted all his bullying blustering tactics, he and the feds hammered out a consent decree that required the Trumps to rent units to black people and to state in newspaper ads that they ran an “equal housing opportunity” firm. Which the Trumps proceeded to ignore — prompting Justice to file new racial discrimination charges in 1978. By that time, Cohn had solidly established himself as the True North on young Trump’s cracked moral compass.
Fast forward to 2018. This explains the aging Trump’s endless attacks on the legitimacy of Justice and the FBI, his lying tweets about a “witch hunt,” and the deployment of surrogates, like Giuliani, to smear law enforcement with Cohn-speak. Drag it out, sow chaos, cede nothing, slime the system — Trump learned at the feet of the master.
The only consolation is that nobody in Trump’s current orbit can swing Cohn’s bludgeoning bat.
Cohn loved the limelight, and he loved manipulating the media. But he never would’ve humiliated himself the way Giuliani has. That “stormtrooper” smear looks even worse coming from a guy who’s long past his shelf life, a guy who’s too addled to dwell in the realm of fact.
Sunday, on ABC News, Rudy was asked to substantiate his recent claim that Trump was paying Michael Cohen a monthly retainer of $35,000, for unnamed sundry purposes. Rudy’s answer: “Those are the facts that we’re still working on. And that, you know, may be in a little bit of dispute. This is more rumor than it is anything else … That’s one of the possibilities and one of the rumors.”
But the host said: “You stated it as fact.” Rudy’s answer: “Well, maybe I did. But I — right now, I’m at the point where I’m learning, and I can only — I can’t prove that. I can just say it’s rumor. I can prove it’s rumor, but I can’t prove it’s fact. Yet. Maybe we will … I don’t know how you separate fact and opinion.”
Trump is reportedly displeased with Rudy’s advocacy. That didn’t take long. But Rudy insists, “If I’m not up to it, I don’t know who is.”
Well, Trump knows who. Maybe he needs a Ouija board.