Biography of Roy Cohn

Lawyer's Reckless Tactics Were Adopted By Client Donald Trump

Photograph of Roy Cohn and Donald Trump
Roy Cohn with client Donald Trump in 1984. Bettmann/Getty Images

Roy Cohn was a highly controversial attorney who became nationally famous while in his twenties, when he became a prominent aide of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cohn's highly publicized pursuit of suspected communists was marked by bravado and recklessness and he was widely criticized for unethical behavior.

His stint working for McCarthy's Senate committee in the early 1950s ended disastrously within 18 months, yet Cohn would remain a public figure as a lawyer in New York City until his death in 1986.

As a litigator, Cohn reveled in his reputation for being extraordinarily belligerent. He represented a host of notorious clients, and his own ethical transgressions would result in his own eventual disbarment.

Apart from his widely publicized legal battles, he made himself a fixture of gossip columns. He often appeared at society events and even becoming a regular patron at the classic 1970s celebrity hangout, the disco Studio 54.

Rumors about Cohn's sexuality circulated for years, and he always denied he was gay. When he became seriously ill in the 1980s, he denied having AIDS.

His influence in American life persists. One of his most prominent clients, Donald Trump, is credited with adopting Cohn's strategic advice to never admit a mistake, always staying on the attack, and always claiming victory in the press.

Early Life

Roy Marcus Cohn was born February 20, 1927, in the Bronx, New York. His father was a judge and his mother was a member of a wealthy and powerful family.

As a child, Cohn exhibited unusual intelligence and he attended prestigious private schools. Cohn met a number of politically powerful people growing up, and he became obsessed with how deals were struck in New York City courthouses and law firm offices.

According to one account, while still a high school student he helped a family friend obtain an FCC license to operate a radio station by arranging a kickback to an FCC official.

He was also said to have fixed parking tickets for one of his high school teachers.

After sailing through high school, Cohn managed to avoid being drafted at the end of World War II. He entered Columbia University, finishing early, and managed to graduate from Columbia's law school at the age of 19. He had to wait until he turned 21 to become a member of the bar.

As a young lawyer, Cohn worked as an assistant district attorney. He crafted a reputation as an investigator by exaggerating cases he worked on to obtain glowing press coverage. In 1951 he served on the team that prosecuted the Rosenberg spy case, and he later claimed to have influenced the judge to impose the death penalty on the convicted couple.

Early Fame

After gaining some fame through his connection to the Rosenberg case, Cohn began to work as an investigator for the federal government. Fixated on discovering subversives in America, Cohn, while working at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. in 1952, tried to prosecute a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Owen Lattimore. Cohn alleged Lattimore had lied to investigators about having communist sympathies.

At the beginning of 1953, Cohn got his big break. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was at the height of his own search for communists in Washington, hired Cohn as chief counsel of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

As McCarthy continued his anti-communist crusade, Cohn was at his side, taunting and threatening witnesses. But Cohn's personal obsession with a friend, wealthy Harvard graduate G. David Schine, soon created its own enormous controversy.

When he joined McCarthy's committee, Cohn brought along Schine, hiring him as an investigator. The two young men visited Europe together, ostensibly on official business to investigate potential subversive activities in American institutions overseas.

When Schine was called up to active duty in the U.S. Army, Cohn began trying to pull strings to get him out of his military obligations. The tactics he learned in a Bronx courthouse did not play well  in Washington's corridors of power, and a gigantic confrontation erupted between McCarthy's committee and the Army.

The Army hired a Boston attorney, Joseph Welch, to defend it against attacks by McCarthy. In televised hearings, after a series of unethical insinuations by McCarthy, Welch delivered a rebuke which became legendary: "Have you no sense of decency?"

The Army-McCarthy hearings exposed McCarthy's recklessness and hastened the end of his career. Roy Cohn's career in federal service was also ended amidst rumors about his relationship with David Schine. (Schine and Cohn were apparently not lovers, though Cohn seemed to have an obsessive admiration for Schine). Cohn returned to New York and began a private law practice.

Decades of Controversy

Becoming known as a ferocious litigator, Cohn enjoyed success not so much for brilliant legal strategy but for his ability to threaten and bully opponents. His opponents would often settle cases rather than risk the onslaught they knew Cohn would unleash.

He represented wealthy people in divorce cases and mobsters being targeted by the federal government. During his legal career he was often criticized for ethical transgressions. All the while he would call gossip columnists and seek publicity for himself. He moved in society circles in New York, as rumors about his sexuality swirled.

In 1973 he met Donald Trump at a Manhattan private club. At the time, the business run by Trump's father was being sued by the federal government for housing discrimination. Cohn was hired by the Trumps to fight the case, and he did so with his usual fireworks.

Cohn called a press conference to announce that the Trumps would be suing the federal government for defamation.

The lawsuit was merely a threat, but it set the tone for Cohn's defense.

Trump's company skirmished with the government before finally settling the lawsuit. The Trumps agreed to government terms which ensured they couldn't discriminate against minority tenants. But they were able to avoid admitting guilt. Decades later, Trump skirted questions about the case by proudly asserting that he had never admitted guilt.

Cohn's strategy of always counter-attacking and then, no matter the outcome, claiming victory in the press, made an impression on his client. According to an article in the New York Times on June, 20, 2016, during the presidential campaign, Trump absorbed important lessons: 

"Decades later, Mr. Cohn’s influence on Mr. Trump is unmistakable. Mr. Trump’s wrecking ball of a presidential bid — the gleeful smearing of his opponents, the embracing of bluster as brand — has been a Roy Cohn number on a grand scale."

Final Decline

Cohn was prosecuted several times, and according to his obituary in the New York Times, he was acquitted three times in federal court on various charges including bribery, conspiracy, and fraud. Cohn always maintained he was the victim of vendettas by enemies ranging from Robert F. Kennedy to Robert Morgenthau, who served as Manhattan's district attorney.

His own legal problems did little to harm his own law practice. He represented celebrities and famous institutions, ranging from Mafia bosses Carmine Galante and Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

At his 1983 birthday party, the New York Times reported attendees included Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, former New York mayor Abraham Beame, and conservative activist Richard Viguerie. At social functions, Cohn would mingle with friends and acquaintances including Normal Mailer, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley, Barbara Walters, and a variety of political figures.

Cohn was active in conservative political circles. And it was through his association with Cohn that Donald Trump, during Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, met Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, who later became political advisers to Trump as he ran for president.

In the 1980s, Cohn was accused of defrauding clients by the New York State Bar. He was disbarred in June 1986. 

By the time of his disbarment, Cohn was dying of AIDS, which at the time was considered a "gay disease." He denied the diagnosis, claiming in newspaper interviews that he was suffering from liver cancer. He died at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was being treated, on August 2, 1986. His obituary in the New York Times noted that his death certificate indicated that he had indeed died of AIDS related complications.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Roy Cohn." ThoughtCo, Oct. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/roy-cohn-biography-4151275. McNamara, Robert. (2017, October 3). Biography of Roy Cohn. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/roy-cohn-biography-4151275 McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Roy Cohn." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/roy-cohn-biography-4151275 (accessed December 17, 2017).