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Opinion: Red-Scare Henchman a Role Model for Russia-Challenged President

Roy Cohn mentored Donald Trump

Roy Cohn’s aggressiveness, deceit and lack of a moral compass offers no formula for governing to President Donald Trump, Walter Shapiro writes. (Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).
Roy Cohn’s aggressiveness, deceit and lack of a moral compass offers no formula for governing to President Donald Trump, Walter Shapiro writes. (Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Even before the president ominously hinted at a secret White House taping system, the supposed similarities between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon had all but made “Watergate Studies” a required course in journalism departments.

But as we grope to understand the 45th president and (to put it charitably) his erratic behavior, the best historical guide remains the life and times of Roy Cohn, Trump’s original mentor.

Famed for his role as Joe McCarthy’s henchman during the 1950s witch hunts, Cohn met Trump at a private New York disco in 1973. Before long, Cohn was aggressively defending Fred Trump as the president’s father battled a Justice Department suit over racial discrimination in renting apartments in Queens.

The links between Cohn and Trump are well-known. And it is easy to imagine Trump being heavily influenced by a shady lawyer who boasted, “My scare value is high. My area is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset.”

A template for Trump

But too little attention has been paid to Cohn’s 18 months at McCarthy’s side as a template for grasping aspects of the Trump presidency.

In his 1988 biography, “Citizen Cohn,” Nicholas von Hoffman wrote, “Joe [McCarthy] and Roy, by the testimony of virtually all who knew them, both had the attention span of hyperkinetic three-year-olds. Disorganized, unfocused, herky-jerky … they just did what they did when they did it.”

Does any of that sound familiar?

From the moment that the 26-year-old Cohn was appointed as McCarthy’s chief counsel in early 1953 (beating out … wait for it … Bobby Kennedy for the job), he operated with no sense of limits.

One of his first crusades was to win access to the small senators-only swimming pool adjoining a steam room. Even though half the Senate lived in mortal terror of McCarthy’s wrath, Cohn’s temerity was too much of a break for congressional tradition.

That April, Cohn and his junior sidekick David Schine set off an 18-day Grand Tour of Europe ostensibly to search for communist literature in libraries operated by the United States Information Agency. New Yorker columnist Richard Rovere described the trip as “marked from beginning to end by comedy and at the end … by bitterness and anguish in every American embassy in Western Europe.”

Trailed by dozens of reporters during a visit to the American cultural center in Frankfurt, Germany, Cohn was shocked to discover such subversive literature as “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man” by Dashiell Hammett. Cohn then attacked the library staff for not carrying distinguished anti-communist publications like the American Legion magazine.

What Cohn displayed in Europe — and during the rest of his life — was a book banner’s love of publicity. On one hand, Cohn radiated contempt for liberal values like open libraries and opposition to censorship. On the other hand, he eagerly leaked to favored reporters and obsessed over his press clips.

Does any of that sound familiar?

By the fall of 1953, even McCarthy and Cohn were having trouble exaggerating and fabricating fresh examples of communist subversion. So they went after … wait for it … an Army dentist. Maj. Irving Peress had not revealed when he enlisted that he had been a member of the left-wing American Labor Party.

Even after Peress tried to resign his commission after being threatened with a court martial, McCarthy and Cohn were not satisfied. They went after the Army brass demanding to know — as if the Cold War teetered in the balance — “Who promoted Peress?”

This was the moment when Cohn learned that no target is too insignificant to win you headlines. If you scream loud enough — and are vicious enough on the attack — the press will frame the story on your terms.

Does any of this sound familiar?

In the fall of 1953, Cohn was facing a personal tragedy. His night-clubbing colleague Schine (whose father ran a hotel empire) was about to be drafted. So Cohn did what any congressional aide would do under the circumstances — he called the secretary of the Army directly.

The effort to spare Pvt. Schine of the rigors of peacetime national service soon reached the highest levels. Army Secretary Robert Stevens called CIA Director Allen Dulles to see if Schine could be nominally transferred to the agency while he continued to work and party with Cohn. The CIA said no.

With Cohn and McCarthy often visiting Schine at Fort Dix (sometimes flying up from Washington on the Army secretary’s plane), there was nothing basic about the private’s basic training. Other recruits at Fort Dix complained to reporters that Schine was living “like a visiting dignitary.”

When power corrupts …

This was a moment when Cohn learned that you can use the levers of government for your private concerns. There need not be any separation between the personal and the professional — if you have enough power.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Ultimately, the crazed obsession with Peress and the mink-lined glove treatment of Schine led to the Army-McCarthy hearings and the 1954 Senate censure of one of America’s most dangerous demagogues. Even amid the downfall of McCarthy, Cohn never apologized, retreated or admitted error.

Does any of this sound familiar?

The problem with using Roy Cohn as a role model is that the aggressiveness, the deceit and the lack of moral compass will keep you on the front pages of the tabloids and always get you a prime table at the Stork Club.

But, as Donald Trump is fast discovering, it offers no formula for governing or even surviving in power. 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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