National Commentary

Roy Cohn & Donald Trump

Two prominent columnists (that I know of) have pronounced the Trump developments of the last week as a unique crossing of the line, as being in the very Constitutional crisis that many have been warning about. It related to Trump’s abuse of power associated with ordering the Justice Department to undertake an investigation on his behalf.

Just like in Germany in the early 1930s, it is not easy in foresight to tell when a decisive line had been crossed commiting the nation to Nazi rule. It could have been at any number of points, but the decisive one came when the Weimar government still had the formal authority to stop Hitler, and failed to do so.

But when did that moment become clear? It was hard to say until after the fact. This process is like putting a live crab in a pot filled with water on a stove and heating it up slowly. There is no particular moment when the crab realizes that he’s being cooked, because it’s so gradual.

At any rate, the signposts are abundantly clear when it comes to Trump and strong man fascism now. Most clearly, it is associated with trampling on the rule of law, but when it is the institutions of the law that Trump has set up as his political adversaries, it can be confusing for the public. He’s taken the very agencies that are tasked in our democracy with prescribing his limits to power and designated them his personal enemies.

So, who is he under attack from? A sinister “deep state” conspiracy out to do him in? Or is it the law trying to bring him to justice? Needless to say, it is overwhelmingly clear that it is the latter.

One of the most comprehensive and on-target profiles of Trump published the recent period was by Frank Rich in the April 2018 New York magazine the entitled, “Roy Cohn Was the Original Donald Trump.”

His astute takeoff point was the revival of Tony Kuschner’s Tony-winning two-part play, “Angels in America,” now on Broadway. In its latest production, Trump’s New York mentor Roy Cohn, who has a major role, is played “a Cohn for the ages,” in Rich’s view, by Nathan Lane.

The version I first saw in the mid-1990s was six-part HBO TV series, where Al Pacino won an Emmy (along with almost everyone else in the production) for his version of the evil Cohn, a historically accurate portrayal of his last days dying from AIDS in late 1985 and early 1986.

Cohn was disgraced Sen. Joe McCarthy’s right hand man in his witch hunt terror campaign in Congress in the early 1950s. Rich has been around New York City the whole time and is uniquely qualified to comment on Cohn’s rise through the corridors of abject corruption there, including his later stages when, in 1973, he met and began to work closely with Trump. Then, Rich wrote, Trump learned Cohn’s toxic tactics – “counterpunch viciously, deny everything, stiff your creditors, manipulate the tabloids” through “ruthless bullying and profane braggadocio.”

In his characterization of Cohn, Rich wrote, “Kushner “identified an enduring strain of political evil that is a malignant in its way as the AIDS virus, just as dangerous to the nation, and just as difficult to eradicate.”

Cohn’s operations had been “rife with indictments and scandals that included accusations of multiple bank and securities law violations, perennial tax evasion, bribery, extortion and theft,” while Trump flourished for decades as “a shameless lawbreaker, tax evader, liar, racist, bankruptcy aficionado and hypocrite notorious for his mob connections, transactional sexual promiscuity, and utter disregard for rules, scruples and morals,” and on and on.

It’s a great, highly disturbing profile of Cohn and Trump in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s centered around the notorious Studio 54, known as the “sprawling midtown Valhalla of the disco era, a nexus for boldface names, omnivorous drug consumption, anonymous sex and managerial larceny.”

All Rich omits were the defining role of the Russian mafia from the early 1970s as an arm of Soviet intervention in the U.S., and the domestic counterintelligence offensive to demolish the civil rights movement with ugly excesses of radical hedonism.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at