The Twisted Gay Man Who Made Donald Trump
By Andrew M Potts
FROM THE MAGAZINE
On October 16, 1973 the public first met Donald J Trump with the headline “Major Landlord Accused Of Anti-Black Bias” splashed across the cover of the New York Times.
For the next two decades, Trump was represented by Roy Cohn, a closeted gay, right-wing lawyer who taught him all the tricks that would later help him lie, intimidate and bully his way into the US Presidency.
In 1973 a 27-year-old Donald Trump, fresh in the public eye, needed a lawyer and fast.
Managing his father’s property empire of more than 14,000 apartments across the New York boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island had landed him in hot water with the US Justice Department over allegations that his company had violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against African-American renters.
After receiving complaints, the Justice Department had sent white and black “testers” to apply to rent apartments in more than a dozen buildings owned by the Trump Management Corporation and found that black applicants were either falsely told that apartments were no longer available when they applied to rent them or were offered different rental terms and conditions to whites.
“The government contended that Trump Management had refused to rent or negotiate rentals ‘because of race and colour,’ ” the New York Times reported in October of that year.
“The company... had misrepresented to blacks that apartments were not available.”
Trump’s response to the charges? “They are absolutely ridiculous,” he told the Times. “We never have discriminated, and we never would.”
Trump had just 20 days to respond to the Justice Department’s charges against the company. He turned to the notorious anti-communist witch-hunter turned New York power lawyer, Roy Cohn.
Trump first met Cohn at the exclusive Le Club on New York’s East Side where both were members. Cohn advised Trump to hit back hard against the government with a countersuit demanding $100 million dollars – a ridiculous sum of money in the 1970s: over half-a-billion in today’s dollars.
Cohn also called up the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and demanded that the lawyer who had brought the case be fired. The threat was not well received, but they knew Trump and Cohn meant business now.
The judge eventually dismissed the countersuit as a waste of time and the Trump Management Corporation settled the case with the Justice Department two years later – but Trump avoided any admission of personal culpability in the agreement.
Trump claimed the settlement as a victory to the New York Times because it did not require the Trump Management Corporation to “accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant”.
Forty-one years later, after winning the 2016 US election, Trump would claim another settlement as a victory – agreeing to pay $25 million to former Trump University students to avoid having to stand trial while holding the office of the President. Trump spun the settlement as a win on Twitter, claiming that the payout was only “a small fraction of the potential award,” adding that he would have liked to continue fighting the case had he not won the election. In actuality, it’s unlikely that the total pay-out to students would have been more than $15 million had he proceeded and lost the case.
Looking back over four decades, Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of Trump’s bestseller The Art Of The Deal, sees the 1973 case and his involvement with Cohn as a pivotal moment for Trump that shaped the man we see today.
“This is a classic example of where Trump begins to demonstrate something he talks about all the time today, which is that he’s a counterpuncher,” Schwartz told PBS’ Frontline in July.
“Somebody comes after him and says that he’s done something nefarious and horrible, and he just goes back at them with all guns blazing – you know, boom, boom, boom. And admits nothing, never admit anything, never say you made a mistake, just keep coming.
And if you lose, declare victory. And that’s exactly what happened there. He lost as clearly as you could lose but he loudly proclaimed his victory.”
Three years later Trump was back in court after the Justice Department charged Trump Management for continuing to discriminate against black applicants and Cohn was by his side again.
Cohn told the Times that the case was “nothing more than a rehash of complaints by a couple of planted malcontents,” while Trump claimed to be the victim, calling the investigation a “form of horrible harassment”.
Cohn would represent Trump for thirteen years through the ’70s and ’80s, becoming his closest friend and advisor and, when needed, his attack dog.
Barbara Res, the construction engineer that Trump appointed to his signature Trump Tower development in Manhattan, recalls Trump keeping a black-and-white photo of Cohn’s sneering face in a drawer in his office that he would use to intimidate people, telling them that if they didn’t come to an agreement on his terms then that was the face they were going to be confronted with in court.
Cohn was quoted in his own obituary in the New York Times as saying of himself, “my scare value is high”.
“My area is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset. I don’t write polite letters. I don’t like to plea-bargain. I like to fight. You might want a nice gentle fight, but once you get in the ring and take a couple of pokes, it gets under your skin.
“It’s fair to say that in an adversary situation I’ve got one role – to win for my client. Law is an adversary profession. But within the bounds which are permitted, most lawyers are Caspar Milquetoasts [a reference to a softly spoken cartoon character]. They don’t realize that they are in a fight. To them, a lawsuit is nothing more than going to court, then going out to lunch with your adversary. To me it’s serious business.”
Cohn handled the prenuptial agreement for Trump’s first marriage in 1977, though he advised Trump against getting married at all, saying it would only lead to “trouble” down the track. The contract stipulated that Ivana Trump would have to return any gifts that Trump gave her during their marriage were the couple to split and that she would only be entitled to $20,000 a year in alimony. After Ivana filed for divorce in 1991 and sued for a bigger share of Trump’s wealth, Trump said that those terms had been Cohn’s idea.
Cohn was not there to represent Trump in 1991. He died from an AIDS-related illness in August of 1986, and by then the relationship between mentor and protégé had soured.
Cohn had been at the February 1983 opening party for Trump Tower, Trump’s first great business success and the one he built his reputation on, but Trump did not speak at the funeral of the man he had once publically called his “greatest friend”. He just stood at the back of the room.
The New York artist and celebrity party crasher Richard Osterweil would later quip that those who had attended Cohn’s funeral had done so “because they wanted to make sure he was really dead”. In reality, the room was full of the great and powerful: relationships and connections Cohn had cultivated over nearly four decades in the glare of the public spotlight while living a double life in the shadows.
BIRTH OF A COLD WAR WARRIOR
Cohn was born to an observant Jewish family in the New York borough of The Bronx on February 30, 1927, the only child of Dora and Albert C Cohn – the then-First Assistant District Attorney for Bronx County.
When Roy was just two years old Albert was appointed to the New York Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt. His father is remembered as a gentle and reserved man and it appears his mother was the bigger influence on Roy’s young life.
Described as overbearing, when Roy attended his first summer camp she stayed in a nearby hotel the whole time. In turn, Roy would live with his mother in the family home until her death in 1967. Justice Cohn had died eight years prior.
Roy attended exclusive private schools in The Bronx before enrolling at Columbia College. Graduating from the Columbia Law School aged just 20, he had to wait until his 21st birthday before he could be admitted to the bar.
Cohn’s father was influential in the Democratic Party and Cohn Senior used his influence to obtain a position for his son in the office of United States Attorney Irving Saypol in his Manhattan office.
The alliance between the United States and the USSR had quickly deteriorated following the end of World War II when it became clear that the Russians were not going to give up their military gains in Europe. At the start of the war the Communist Party of the United States of America boasted of a hundred-thousand members and by the 1950s still claimed as many as 50,000 members. In this growing Cold War between Russia and America, the fear of Soviet agents and their sympathisers on American soil became a source of great concern for the public and political leaders alike.
As an Assistant US Attorney under Saypol, Cohn was soon helping to secure convictions, and headlines, in a number of highly publicised trials of Soviet agents. Cohn prosecuted 11 members of the American Communist Party Politburo for preaching the violent overthrow of the US Government, and William Remington, a former Commerce Department employee who was accused of being a Soviet asset by KGB defector Elizabeth Bentley.
However, perhaps the most high-profile case that Cohn was involved in while at the office of the United States Attorney was the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been accused of being Communist agents and of receiving classified documents from the Manhattan Project that were of value to the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Their accuser, Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, later claimed that he had lied in order protect himself and his wife Ruth, and that the prosecution had encouraged him to do so. Cohn later claimed that it was his personal recommendation to Judge Irving Kaufman that the couple be given the death penalty that had seen them sent to the electric chair – an accomplishment that he remained proud of for the rest of his life.
Cohn’s involvement in the Rosenberg trial brought him to the attention of FBI director J Edgar Hoover who, history now suspects, was himself a closeted gay man and in a relationship with his second-in-command at the FBI, Clyde Tolson.
THE LAVENDER SCARE
Senator Joe McCarthy hired Cohn for his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on Hoover’s recommendation, choosing him over future Democratic Presidential candidate and United States Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.
The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was initially formed to look into corruption around World War II military contracts but, under Senator McCarthy’s leadership, it quickly became a vehicle for investigations into espionage and subversion with a particular focus on Communists and homosexuals in the government.
In the mind of the American public in the 1950s, homosexuality and Communism were seen as intrinsically linked and as threats to the family and the American way of life.
On April 19, 1950, the Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson warned that “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our government in recent years [are] perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists”.
In May that year a report in the New York Times estimated there could be as many as three-and-a-half thousand “deviates” working in branches of the federal government. Not only were homosexuals felt to be more likely to have Communist sympathies but they were viewed as easy targets for blackmail by Soviet agents and thus posed a greater security risk.
During this so-called “Lavender Scare” period, Cohn and McCarthy attempted to stir up further anti-Communist fervour in the US by claiming that overseas Communist agents had already convinced several closeted homosexual employees of the federal government to pass on secrets in exchange for keeping their sexuality under wraps.
By the end of the Democratic Administration of President Harry Truman, the US State Department reported that it had fired 425 employees over allegations of homosexuality.
The following Republican administration of President Dwight D Eisenhower went even further, signing Executive Order 10450 in April of 1953 that completely banned homosexuals from obtaining jobs in the federal government.
Homosexual panic was now a bipartisan part of American politics. Executive Order 10450 would stay in place until 1995 when it was replaced by President Bill Clinton with the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” under which the government would no longer actively seek to identify homosexual employees as long as they did not identify themselves.
Former US Senator Alan K Simpson wrote in the prologue of the 2013 book Dying For McCarthy’s Sins that the homosexual victims of this period of American history have been severely forgotten in comparison to the other witch-hunt trials of McCarthyism such as the Hollywood blacklists of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“The so-called Red Scare has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time,” Senator Simpson wrote. “A lesser-known element… and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals.”
THE SCHINE AFFAIR
During this same period, rumours about Cohn’s own homosexuality began to stir when he showed a special interest in advancing the career of David Schine, a handsome blond student who had written a six-page anti-Communist pamphlet and had copies placed in every room in his family’s chain of hotels.
The pamphlet drew the attention of Time magazine and Schine was introduced to Cohn through the newspaper columnist George Sokolsky. Cohn and Gerard David Schine were both Jewish New Yorkers who shared the same birth year and the pair became fast friends.
As McCarthy’s chief counsel, Cohn brought Schine into McCarthy’s office as an unpaid “chief consultant”. The pair then embarked on a lavish, tax-payer funded, “research tour” of Europe in 1953.
Theodore Kaghan, Deputy Director of the Public Affairs Division in the Office of the US High Commissioner for Germany, labelled the pair “junketeering gumshoes” over the jaunt. In response, Cohn and McCarthy accused Kaghan of being a security risk.
Later that year Schine was drafted into the United States Army as a private and Cohn immediately began trying to apply his influence to have Schine promoted and given special privileges, such as being able to leave his military base at night and being exempted from being assigned overseas.
Cohn’s actions provoked a push back from the Army and he was charged with using improper pressure to influence the army and an investigation was launched into the affair. Cohn hit back, claiming the Army was holding Schine as a kind of hostage in order to stop his Commission’s investigations into Communists and their sympathisers in the armed forces.
The hearings were broadcast on television and resulted in Schine and Cohn appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 under the banner “McCarthy And His Men”.
There had been gay rumours about Cohn and McCarthy as well, with the playwright Lillian Hellman nicknaming the threesome “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde” after the infamous bisexual outlaws of the 1930s. Whether Cohn was successful in bedding Schine is debatable, and Schine went on to father six children before his death in a plane crash in 1996. But the Schine Affair was the beginning of the end of Cohn’s career in government and he resigned from McCarthy’s staff soon after the hearings.
However, leaving government and embarking on a career as a high-profile New York attorney with the firm that eventually became known as Saxe, Bacon And Bolan, Cohn did not lose his interest in politics.
Despite being a lifelong registered Democrat like his father before him he maintained close ties with political conservatism, serving as an informal advisor to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and supporting Republican candidates in election races.
THE PRIVATE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROY COHN
Over the next 30 years Cohn represented figures as diverse as mafia bosses Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante and John Gotti, The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, and the New York Yankees baseball club, to name a few.
Celebrity friends included Barbara Walters, Estée Lauder, Calvin Klein, Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Bianca Jagger, Rupert Murdoch and, of course, Donald Trump.
However, while Cohn would never publicly admit his homosexuality, there were a procession of handsome, much younger men that he would introduce at social gatherings during the ’70s and ’80s as “employees” of his law firm.
It is unclear at what age Cohn had become reconciled with his sexual orientation and began having relationships with men or whether those relationships were solely monogamous. A guest at one of his dinner parties in 1981 got the impression that both of the young “office boys” serving dinner were Cohn’s lovers.
Later, in the early ’80s, Roy introduced a man named Russell Eldridge to relatives as his “secretary.” Eldridge was 20 years his junior and had been Cohn’s errand boy for several years. Despite his youth, Eldridge soon became sick, losing 23kg, and in 1984 Roy paid for him to be cared for in a private suite overlooking Central Park as he slowly slipped away from AIDS. It’s unknown if it was from Eldridge that Cohn contracted HIV and there are conflicting accounts of the nature of their relationship but, within a year, Roy would have his own diagnosis.
The most serious relationship in Cohn’s life, and the one we know the most about, was his last. Cohn met Peter Fraser, a young, blond New Zealander with model looks at a party in Mexico. Fraser had left a small farming community aged 19 to travel the world, spending several years exploring the United States. Soon after meeting Cohn he moved into the six-story New York townhouse on East 68th Street where Cohn lived and worked.
Cohn began introducing Peter to his social circles and eventually even introduced him to the then-President of the United States and First Lady at a White House dinner. Cohn had taken to introducing Peter as his “office manager” by this stage of the relationship although they shared a bed.
“We went into a small room,” Fraser later recalled in 1988, “Several people were milling there. Roy said, ‘Why don’t you come meet a friend of mine?’ As I was walking over, I scuffed my shoe and the sole came off. I was dragging my foot so I wouldn’t go flop-flop, and Roy said, ‘I want you to meet the President and Mrs Reagan.’ The President was very warm. He was probably so nice to me because he thought I was handicapped. This poor boy dragging his foot.”
Cohn would receive the Americanism Award at a Washington reception later that year and be congratulated by President Reagan via video. But Ronald Reagan is remembered by history as the US president who dragged his heels in confronting the HIV epidemic – ignoring the problem as the bodies piled up in the absence of effective treatments for the virus.
It wasn’t until a year after Cohn’s death – and two years after Hollywood actor Rock Hudson’s – that his administration would finally take the virus seriously by establishing the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic. By that time 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with HIV and 20,849 were already dead. The disease was in 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases worldwide. The vast majority of those people would die from the virus.
Roy was reportedly heartbroken when Eldridge died in January of 1985. He had been in Florida with Peter and another friend, Ed Gillis. They flew back to New York the next day to arrange the funeral, which was held at Roy’s townhouse.
“Roy didn’t cry, and he wasn’t about to cry,” Gillis told Life magazine in a 1988 interview. “He was angry but very reserved in his anger, and maybe he just cursed the disease and talked about how he had been trying to get somebody in the Office of Management and Budget to increase funding for research.”
It was by accident that Cohn learned he, too, had the virus. One day he cut himself shaving and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. When he went to the hospital they removed two growths plus something from his leg. Another growth on his ear was found to be malignant. Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS by doctors at the National Institutes of Health in October of 1985. In less than a year he would be dead.
The only people he told about his diagnosis were Fraser and his business partner of 30 years, Tom Bolan.
Cohn managed to use his influence to muscle his way to the head of the queue to be accepted into medical trials of the then-experimental HIV drug AZT and initially responded well to treatment. Others would die waiting for the drug.
However, his doctors’ files record that, despite his diagnosis, he wasn’t ready to abstain from sex yet and in 1985 there was still much unknown about the disease.
“Reinforce need for celibate state [to patient],” the files read. “Caution against spread of disease… [Patient] stated somewhat reluctant to become celibate.”
Cohn did, however, show some interest in protecting others. “Patient asked for information on sexual practices,” the files state. “I stated that the safest sex was none but if he wanted to have sex, he would need to use condoms and especially inform his partner that he had AIDS.”
After three weeks of treatment Cohn checked himself out of the hospital and received a telegram from the Reagans wishing him a speedy recovery. “Nancy and I are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers. May our Lord bless you with courage and strength. Take care and know that you have our concern,” the message read.
His recovery was not to last.
Gossip about Cohn’s health soon began to spread in the press. Someone must have recognised him at the hospital and put two-and-two together. Cohn denied the rumours, saying he had liver cancer, but the New York Daily News reported that he was “being treated by Dr Bijan Safai, whose field of expertise is Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of AIDS.”
One night in January of 1986 Peter caught Cohn trying to kill himself, fumbling with his pills in the bathroom, but he was too weak to open the child-proof bottles by himself and Peter convinced him to come back to bed with him.
In March of 1986 a visibly ill Cohn appeared on 60 Minutes and was asked point blank by Mike Wallace – are you a homosexual and do you have AIDS? “I’ll tell you categorically, I do not have AIDS,” he told Wallace. “Bachelor, unmarried, middle-aged… The stories [about me] go back to the [McCarthy] days.”
He kept up the charade even with those in his life who knew he was gay, telling one friend that he would have jumped off a building if he thought he had HIV.
Despite his failing health, Cohn had bought an Irish Wolfhound puppy for him and Peter to care for together. He named the dog Disraeli, after the Victorian-era Jewish Prime Minister of Britain and Conservative Party leader.
But it wasn’t all roses between Peter and Roy. Cohn had an old boyfriend, “Mark,” who he would fly in from California every few months for a visit behind Peter’s back. When confronted by Peter when he’d find the plane tickets or travel agent bills, Cohn’s response was always the same: “I’m dying… It may be the last time I see him.”
In June of the final year of his life, the New York State Supreme Court, the same one his father had been appointed to by the president all those years ago, finally disbarred Cohn over charges of mishandling clients’ funds, illegally using an escrow account and practicing “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation” over two decades.
In the mid ’80s, while Trump was still there for him, his friend had testified as a character witness as that legal battle had begun, with Vanity Fair magazine reporting that at one stage Trump and Cohn spoke as much as “15 or 20 times a day” on the phone or in person.
But Trump cut ties with Cohn when rumours of his HIV diagnosis began to spread. Responding to the betrayal, Cohn reportedly said, “Donald pisses ice water.”
“I don’t know how he found out that Roy was HIV-positive, and then it was like, boom, gone,” Cohn’s long-time secretary Susan Bell would later recall of Trump.
That July, Cohn’s health seriously declined. He couldn’t recognise the doctors or nurses who were caring for him. The only person he really recognised was Peter. He soon lost the ability to speak and relied on Peter to communicate his needs.
In the final days, as Roy slipped away, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson obtained Cohn’s medical file and finally confirmed Cohn’s diagnosis to the public: AIDS. Whether Cohn ever learned of this is unknown.
Cohn died from cardio-pulmonary arrest and dementia as a result of infection with the HTLV-3 strain of HIV on August 2, 1985 at 6am at the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health at the age of 59. Peter sat beside him, holding his hand. Although he refused to acknowledge it publicly, his cause of death from HIV was acknowledged in virtually every obituary the next day.
His relationship with Peter was not so acknowledged. The New York Times’ obituary simply recorded, “With him when he died there was his friend and aide, Peter Frazier [sic].”
Cohn left everything to Peter and his business partner Tom Bolan but the IRS ordered all his assets to be frozen as it had brought tax evasion charges against him claiming $7 million in back taxes from the estate. Cohn had been battling with the government for over a quarter of a century in the courts over his tax arrangements and it took his death for the tax man to finally triumph.
Veteran Republican political consultant and Trump advisor Roger Stone would later say Cohn’s “absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS. He succeeded in that.”
Cohn’s contempt for paying tax has clearly been adopted by Trump. The New York Times reported last October that Trump has claimed business losses of $916 million dollars, which he believes exempts him from paying any tax for the next 18 years. This claim is being examined by the IRS and US taxation lawyers.
It is unclear how much from the estate Peter ever received but, in 1988, he told one of Cohn’s biographers, “Few people loved me and I certainly loved him. He protected me.”
President Reagan did not attend Cohn’s funeral, though Cohn was buried wearing a pin of the president on his suit. At the end of the service the four hundred gathered sang God Bless America, Cohn’s favourite song.
While Cohn never publicly admitted he was HIV-positive, a square in his name was later added anonymously to The Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt. It simply read, “Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim.”
ROY COHN’S LEGACY
Until the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, Roy Cohn’s greatest claim to fame was the fictionalised account of the end of his life as it appeared in Tony Kushner’s 1992 play, and the later television adaptation, Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes.
The play would win numerous awards including the 1993 and 1994 Tony Award for Best Play and 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Roy Cohn was played by Al Pacino in the HBO series – winning him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his performance in 2003.
With Trump’s election, Cohn will be remembered as the mentor of the least qualified person to ever hold the office of the President of the United States. When President Trump comes up against obstacles, foreign and domestic, will he lead with the Cohn counterpunch? Or will Trump be able to moderate his behaviour and be diplomatic, content with the satisfaction of already having achieved his biggest con. Time will tell.
From Cohn, Trump also learned his litigiousness. Both Cohn and Trump have used the legal system to bully, intimidate and coerce their creditors, foes and underlings. Over the past three decades Trump and his businesses have been involved in nearly 3,500 legal cases in the US federal courts and state courts – an unprecedented number for a US presidential candidate. Trump, or one of his companies, were plaintiffs in 1,900 and defendants in 1,450.There are still pending lawsuits against Trump and his empire. Will we see President Trump in court during his administration and will President Trump go down in history as the president who sues?
Ultimately, Cohn will be remembered as part of a clique of rich, white, conservative gay and bisexual men who walked the corridors of power at a pivotal time in history, advancing their careers by stepping on their own, allowing themselves to have private lives of privilege and hypocrisy and never lifting a finger while others were literally fighting and dying for their rights.
Republican political operative Roger Stone summed Cohn up in a 2008 interview in The New Yorker magazine: “Roy was not gay.”
“He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”