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'Village Voice' Reporter Recalls Roy Cohn's Early Influence On Trump


As people puzzle over what strategy Donald Trump is following in his campaign, one name keeps coming up - Roy Cohn. Some have described Cohn as Trump's mentor. Trump says Cohn was just his lawyer. Long before Trump became a household name, Roy Cohn made his name as the legal executioner. He helped prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and served as a top aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in his campaign to root out communists. Later Cohn became a private attorney who was sought after and reviled.

WAYNE BARRETT: I got to know him over the years, and it was like having lunch with Satan.

MCEVERS: That's veteran New York journalist Wayne Barrett, who has written extensively about Roy Cohn and Donald Trump. He told me more about Cohn.

BARRETT: He represented all five of the major crime families in New York, and he represented the archdiocese. And he was wired into New York politics in very unusual ways. And he loved - you know, if Donald is the master now of milking what he regards as good publicity out of the toughest copy ever written about a man, Roy is the one who pioneered that. He would say to me, Wayne, you've written 34 stories on me and never said a good word; you have no idea how many clients you've created for me.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

BARRETT: So he loved bad publicity.

MCEVERS: Donald Trump met Roy Cohn at a club that they both belonged to, as the story goes. Trump was in his late 20s. His real estate business was being sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent to black people. What was that first conversation between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn?

BARRETT: Well, Donald was new to the Manhattan scene. He had just moved to Manhattan. He was looking to make connections. He went to a club where connections can be made. He met Roy there. By - this is by his own account. And he ran past Roy the facts of this Justice Department suit. Now, keep in mind that this is the Richard Nixon Justice Department suing on the basis of racial discrimination. It had to be a pretty clear case, right?

And Roy took on the case. And he sort of gave Donald the answers that Donald was looking for, which is that he would be a pit bull in the case and he would take on the Justice Department. And he did that. He called these Jewish lawyers who brought the lawsuit - he called them Gestapo agents.

And he filed a major countersuit against the Justice Department that the judge basically laughed at that was just filled with all kinds of gross statements about the prosecutors, you know, even suggesting that one of them was interested in sex with Donald, you know, throwing out every conceivable allegation, which the courts just rejected. And ultimately they wound up settling and signing the consent decree to do certain things about opening up Trump projects to blacks.

MCEVERS: So it sounds like the tactic - when you're attacked, counterattack and never apologize.

BARRETT: Yeah, well, not only that. I mean the counterattack as we see in this campaign has to be always about a hundred times worse than the initial attack on you. The government wrote a very carefully documented brief. It was a pretty compelling case. And Donald's response to that and Roy's response to that was total bombast. Make the ugliest allegations you can against your accuser.

MCEVERS: After that initial meeting of course they went on to become friends and business associates. What kind of relationship did they have?

BARRETT: Well, it was more than friends and business associates, really. I mean Roy told me that they talked 15 times a day. Donald later said it was about five times a day. So maybe it's somewhere in between. It was - I mean they talked about everything Donald did. Roy was extraordinarily wired into the political scene. Mayor Beame wouldn't have been mayor but for Roy Cohn.

MCEVERS: And you're talking about Mayor Abraham Beame. Is that right?

BARRETT: Right. Mayor Beame was a place where Roy could wield great influence on Donald's behalf and did. You know, the initial deals of Donald's career were based on the relationship with Mayor Beame. The Commodore Hotel conversion into the Hyatt Hotel - Roy played a very heavy hand in that.

You know, even things like the original prenup with Ivana - he marries Ivana in '77, and Roy writes the prenup. And then he refers Ivana to a lawyer of his choosing to review the prenup that Roy wrote, you know? So she really had no legal representation in the initial prenup. But that's how pervasive he became in the life of Donald Trump.

MCEVERS: Roy Cohn died in 1986 of AIDS just weeks after he was disbarred for ethical violations. When you hear Trump speak today on the campaign trail, do you hear echoes of Roy Cohn?

BARRETT: Absolutely.


BARRETT: Absolutely. I think this was truer in the primaries than now. At the moment, it just seems to be such a scattershot unraveling that it's not Roy. But you know, back in the days of the McCain attacks and some of the early attacks, it had the nastiness of Roy with a calculated impact. Now it just seems to me to cascade from him. It's more King George than Roy Cohn. It's more irrational mouthings than calculated nastiness.

MCEVERS: That's longtime investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. He is the author of the book "Trump: The Greatest Show On Earth: The Deals, The Downfall, The Reinvention." Wayne Barrett, it has been a pleasure. Thank you.

BARRETT: It has been a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.