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Roy Cohn: From Ruthless 'Red Scare' Prosecutor to Donald Trump's Mentor

March 6, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

There are certain behind-the-scenes figures in American politics who, like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, seem to turn up everywhere. One of the most notorious is Roy Cohn, a man whose influence spans several decades of hot button issues, Republican politicians and LGBT history.

Cohn was a prosecutor in the .

News conference by Donald Trump and attorney Roy Cohn where they announced a billion dollar lawsuit against the National Football League in 1984.

Donald Trump’s mentor

Fast forward to Manhattan, 1973. Cohn was at Le Club—a hangout for rich people—when a man turned to him and asked his advice about Justice Department allegations that his real estate company had discriminated against black tenants. That man was future Republican president Donald Trump, and Cohn advised, “tell them to go to hell.”

Soon afterward, Cohn started working as Trump’s personal lawyer. Cohn served as a mentor to the businessman, helping him to navigate the world of New York’s power brokers. Cohn also famously introduced him to the disgraced political strategist Roger Stone, who advised his presidential campaign.

Trump was one of many prominent clients during Cohn’s career, including Nancy Reagan, to whom he became close; the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and suspected Mafia bosses Carmine Galante and “Fat Tony” Salerno.

AIDS and Later Portrayal

Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. Although Ronald Reagan was famously slow to take action during the AIDS epidemic, he helped Cohn secure an experimental treatment after his diagnosis. As with the Lavender Scare, Reagan’s assistance was an instance in which Cohn’s personal politics and connections protected or benefited him as a gay man, but not LGBT people as a group.

Shortly before his death in 1986, Cohn was disbarred as a lawyer for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation.” The charges included a visit he made to the dying multimillionaire Lewis Rosenstiel at a hospital while Rosenstiel was semi-comatose. “Cohn held Rosenstiel’s hand to sign a document naming Cohn a co-executor of Rosenstiel’s will after falsely telling him that the document dealt with his divorce,” The Washington Post reported at the time

Cohn is remembered as a major, and unethical, player in national Republican politics. He also figures strongly into one of the major plays about the AIDS crisis, Angels in America. Playwright Tony Kushner was inspired to write about Cohn after seeing his panel on the AIDS Quilt. It said, “Roy Cohn: Bully, …read more


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