The Man Who Created a President From Beyond the Grave

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Roy Cohn and Donald Trump. Photo credit: Sonia Moskowitz. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

There is a common link between Joseph McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, Roger Stone and Donald Trump, and that link is a lawyer named Roy Cohn. From a young age, the wealthy, well- connected New Yorker was already involved in influencing decisions such as Ethel Rosenberg’s death sentence in 1953, and was Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the during the Army–McCarthy hearings, as well as his co-conspirator in what’s known as the Lavender Scare. In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan apparently even called Cohn to thank him for getting her husband elected to office. And although the lawyer died in 1986, he might even deserve the credit for minting another president: Donald Trump, his protégé. 

Yet despite lurking manipulatively behind right-wing figures who shaped modern-day America, Cohn is not a household name. That might change once more people watch the bone-chilling documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” whose director Matt Tyrnauer spoke with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” 

In a broad conversation about the impact of Cohn, traced throughout the film, the Truthdig Editor in Chief argues that the most impactful part of “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is the question of a specific brand of American evil, and whether Cohn or Trump could be labeled as such. 

“Cohn, I would say, is a malign Zelig,” Tyrnauer says. “He turns up, creating trouble and kind of attaching like a leech to all of these events that have a dark cast throughout the 20th century, beginning with the Rosenbergs and McCarthy.

“Sometimes I think [evil] flares up when you shine a light on it, and it's like lifting up the rock and putting a flashlight onto a wormscape,” the film director goes on to say, ”It's frightening. And I think we're in a particular time now whereby a strange quirk in our Constitution, someone who shouldn't be there has attained the presidency who happened to be the mentee of Roy Cohn, which is why we're sitting here talking about this.” 

Cohn’s connection to Trump, as Tyrnauer points out, is the driving force behind the need to know more about this seedy figure who may have otherwise been forgotten. Certainly, his malevolent impact, whether it can be described as evil or not, is being felt today in the current U.S. president’s modus operandus, but also, more importantly, in Trump’s existence as a public figure in the first place. 

“In New York, in the mid-century, these two guys found each other,” explains Tyrnauer. “And Trump, who was a young, outer-borough rich kid on the make, ends up with Roy Cohn as his consiglieri, basically. And Trump wasn't anything at the time. 

“[Gore] Vidal called this ‘the United States of amnesia,’ so of course people don't remember Cohn. People don't remember McCarthy,” the film director continues. “So the movie connects the dots. We're in a demagogic moment in our country right now that is, I think, something of a surprise to a lot of people because it's so acute. It happens that the person who created Trump, and taught him all he knows about how to manipulate the press and the body politic, is the same person who was at McCarthy’s side.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Tyrnauer and Scheer as they talk about the documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and the incredible series of events shaped by one man who, essentially, as Tyrnauer concludes, created a president from the grave.



Joshua Scheer