Lawyer Roy Cohn is best remembered for the role he played in the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, his support of McCarthyism, and for his later anti-homosexuality politics and affiliation with President Ronald Reagan. In the new HBO documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, filmmaker Ivy Meeropol (the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs) explores the man’s life and legacy, from the “open secret” of his sexuality, to his connection with Donald Trump, which would end up having a lasting impact on world politics three whole decades after his death.
“Roy Cohn made his name prosecuting and pushing for the execution of my grandparents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,” says Meeropol. “Many years later he became Donald Trump’s lawyer, mentor and close friend. If there was ever a time to reflect on how we got here it is now.”
Cohn and Trump first met in 1973. Trump, then a property developer, had been accused of violating the Fair Housing Act in nearly 40 of his buildings across Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, having reportedly engaged in illegal practices that made it more difficult for prospective tenants to secure apartments if they were Black. Cohn agreed to represent him. He launched an audacious countersuit against the United States government worth $ 100 million, calling the charges “irresponsible and baseless” and challenging the courts to prove discrimination had taken place.
The countersuit was ultimately fruitless and Trump eventually settled out of court in 1975, but he retained Cohn as counsel for years afterwards, and Cohn represented him again in 1978 when he was charged with violating the terms of settlement.
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The two men sustained a mutually beneficial association for years, and many credit Cohn with tutoring Trump in the arts of navigating the circles of power and getting what he wanted—at any cost.”All I can tell you is [Cohn] has been vicious to others in his protection of me,” Trump told Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner in the 1980s. “He’s a genius. He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.”
Cohn is also rumored to have been responsible for introducing Trump to Rupert Murdoch, who was another client of his. Murdoch and Trump famously remained friends for many years afterwards, with the New York Times referring to the former as one of the latter’s “closest confidants” following his successful presidential campaign in 2016—a victory which can be arguably traced back, at least partially, to the lessons Trump learned from Cohn.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn airs on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. ET.
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