What Donald Trump Learned from Roy Cohn: “I Bring Out the Worst in My Enemies. . .”

A December 6 post about Donald Trump and the insularity of the media elite led a reader, Richard Mattersdorff, to add this comment:  “Roy Cohn’s semi autobiography with Sidney Zion and Nicholas Von Hoffman’s biography of Cohn are two must-reads.”

That led Barnard Law Collier to respond:

Dear Richard,

You are dead on about the late Sidney Zion’s book; I have not read Nicholas Von Hoffman’s but I do know he had a sharp eye for telling detail.

It may be that the entire media is still missing what ought to be the focus of coverage of Donald Trump:

Trump is a congenital deal maker. He learned his passion from a dark “genius” deal maker, Roy Marcus Cohn, and the spirit of Cohn will underpin almost all of the decisions President Trump will make on the way to and in power.

If Trump is confronted with a matter he cannot immediately figure out, he may figuratively ask himself, “What would Roy Cohn have done?” and that’s the decision he will settle on.

I spent time around Cohn and Sid Zion in their heyday, and perhaps a few glimpses of Cohn and Trump together may be informative.

Over the years I have cultivated a deep interest and quasi-friendship with several dozen people on three continents who are best described as “supremely gifted children.”

They can’t be rated high enough by any “intelligence test”; by the time they are two years old, they are fully capable of reading, writing, math, and thinking crisply and coherently, astonishing to their parents. They often feel dreadfully alone. Even as infants they understand actual life and abstract circumstances in a way most humans can’t. They know they are unique and strange. Life on Earth may be an overwhelming adventure for them.

As an example, I knew and reported on a North Carolina boy of nine who was employed by the Defense Department to help build a noiseless jet engine; he was a masterful cello player; he set his mother and father up in a business that fed the family. He claimed he was, despite his tender years, “As manly as any man.” He died at age 14 of leukemia.

I bring up this “prodigy” allusion because Sid was a colleague and friend of mine when I was a New York Times reporter in my mid-20s. Through him I got to know the “infamous” lawyer Roy Cohn, who was about 11 years older than I, and without a doubt, was “supremely gifted.”

Sid detected in Cohn exactly what I did: a kind of innocently evil child-likeness that was so raw with truthfulness and so smooth with lies that you truly had to laugh out loud at his stiletto mind and the words his forked tongue spoke.

My favorite is one about the importance of mistrust that Sid took for the title of a book:

“Love your mother, but cut the deck.”

Among those who clustered around Cohn in those pre-digital days of scotch and thick steaks was a brash young guy oddly named Trump, who often found his way as close as he could to Roy Cohn to hear Roy’s words of wisdom about deal making and character reading.

Cohn was an almost mystical deal maker from about the age of five. With a law degree from Columbia before he was 20, he cut deals with judges, politicians, mobsters, police, newspaper publishers, moguls, and tycoons. He infused his tales of real-life business true characters with intuition and brilliance.

Cohn’s deals, all except the nastiest ones, were based on I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine. Deals were the precious jewels of Cohn’s otherwise multiplicitous and eventually poisonous life. The Art of the Deal strung many of the pearls Roy Cohn dropped from his lips at the bar in Gallagher’s Steak House.

I left Manhattan for other parts before getting to know Cohn at all well, but I did enjoy those occasions when he and Sid got together to tell tales about how highfalutin folks really were, and young Donald was often around to collect the wisdom.

Here is a selection of Cohn’s observations that Trump now appears to have adopted as his own:

• My scare value is high. My arena is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset.

• I don’t want to know what the law is, I want to know who the judge is.

• I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.

• I don’t write polite letters. I don’t like to plea-bargain. I like to fight.

• Go after a man’s weakness, and never, ever, threaten unless you’re going to follow through, because if you don’t, the next time you won’t be taken seriously.

How weirdly apt it seems that Donald John Trump grew up to become one of Roy Cohn’s most diabolical gifts to the world.

Thanks for unearthing that memory,

Barney Collier


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    My father went to the University of Wisconsin after the war, on the GI Bill. He lived at International House. He had a JOE MUST GO bumper sticker on his car. As Zion might have put it, ‘You don’t have to ask what my father thought of Roy Cohn.’

    Cohn died in August 1986. I was barely adult, and unfamiliar with Cohn, in maybe late 1985 or early 1986 (he looked ill). My father and I watched Larry King interview Cohn on CNN. A woman called in, said her husband was now 89 years old and lost his career because of McCarthy and she blasted Cohn. He began his response, ‘Look, I’m sorry your husband lost his job and I’m sorry he’s 89 years old.’

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