When Lawyers Threaten Journalists: Edward Bennett Williams Is on the Line and Wants to Talk to You

Michael Cohen has long been Donald Trump’s personal lawyer; the President had dinner with him Saturday night before “Sixty Minutes” aired its interview with Stormy Daniels. Here’s Cohen, the lawyer, telling the Huffington Post what would happen to them legally if they continued its reporting of the Trump-Daniels story:

“I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said. “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

“You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word rape, and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it,” he added.

While editing the Washingtonian, I got a lot of lawyer calls, none as abusive as Cohen’s, but there was a memorable one from Edward Bennett Williams about our coverage of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. From an earlier post:

In the early 1970s I got a call from Edward Bennett Williams, the best-known litigator in Washington. He had founded the Williams and Connolly law firm, and was famous for representing some of the nation’s  most colorful people—Frank Costello, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sinatra. And he represented the Washington Post and was close to publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee.

We were working on a story about Katharine Graham and a part of it had to do with the 1963 death of Philip Graham, the husband of Mrs. Graham. It was a story about Philip Graham’s last will that Mrs. Graham and her lawyer did not want told.

Williams called and cited the magazine’s ongoing attempt to look into the will, one that Williams has written but then successfully argued should be ignored because of Graham’s mental condition.

He said: “Are you sure you want to pick a fight with me?”

The Washingtonian then was a small magazine, trying to build a staff and to make an impact but losing money. It was owned by Laughlin Phillips, an heir to the Jones and Laughlin steel fortune, and he was a good owner—he wanted the magazine to do tough stories to make the city better.

But when we talked about the call from Williams, he said he didn’t want to pick that fight and I didn’t blame him. This wasn’t a story where the public interest was involved, and maybe it did delve too deeply into private matters, even if the subject was as powerful a public figure as Mrs. Graham.

Editors do get calls like the one from Williams—it’s the lawyer playing the role of a bully. In most cases, the real bully is the person who hired the lawyer. Some organizations have a reputation for using lawyers that way—if you’re writing about, say, Scientology or PETA, you won’t be surprised if the subject of potential legal action doesn’t come up. And there are some people who seem too quick to have a lawyer call—I always found sports team owners the worst.

For the editor, the first move after a call from a lawyer is almost always to go to the publisher or owner—too much money can be at stake for the editor not to involve them. Then your own lawyer will get involved.

Then what to do goes to how good is the reporting and is this a story where the public interest is involved. Should the public know about this? If the answer is yes, then an editor is going to push hard to keep going and publish. If your publisher and publication’s lawyer is still no, then the legal bully may win.
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There was coverage of the Philip Graham will battle in a 1979 book, Katharine the Great, by Deborah Davis. Phil Graham had become romantically involved with Robin Webb, the daughter of an Australian diplomat. Davis describes Phil Graham twice instructing Ed Williams to rewrite his will, reducing Kay Graham’s share of his estate.

After Phil Graham committed suicide, Williams successfully argued that Phil Graham was not of sound mind when changing his will and last two should be ignored, allowing Kay Graham to take control of the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    The Michael Cohen quote is right out of the foul mouth of his namesake, Roy Marcus Cohn, and precisely in line with what Donald Trump was taught from the time he was Roy Cohn’s “boy toy” until Cohn died of AIDS, shortly after he was disbarred for malpractice and corruption.

    These pathetic, miserable tough talkers are part and parcel of Trump’s life and it is creepy beyond imagining to hear that the words are so much the same. The difference is that Michael Cohen is about one-tenth as brilliant (and evil) as Roy Cohn, and ten times more pathetic.

    It may be that this Roy Cohn wannabe will enjoy a similar and well deserved fate.

    • Richard Mattersdorff says:

      Good comment, Barney, but, ay, how is COHN a namesake for COHEN? If COHEN is indeed an Anglicization of COHN, it is a misfire.

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