Cohn and Trump, according to Trump, met in 1973 at Le Club, a members-only East Side hangout for social-scene somebodies and those who weren’t but wanted to be.
By then Cohn had been in the public eye for 20 years. As chief counsel to McCarthy, he led secretive investigations of people inside and outside the federal government whom he and McCarthy suspected of Communist sympathies, homosexuality or espionage. Over a period of several years, McCarthy’s crusade destroyed dozens of careers before a final 36-day, televised hearing brought his and Cohn’s often unsubstantiated allegations into the open, leading to McCarthy’s censure in the Senate. Cohn, disgraced by association, retreated to his native New York.
There, through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, Cohn embraced an unabashedly conspicuous lifestyle. He had a Rolls-Royce with his initials on a vanity plate and a yacht called Defiance. He was a singular nexus of New York power, trafficking in influence and reveling in gossip. He hung on the walls of the East 68th Street townhouse, that doubled as the office of his law firm, pictures of himself with politicians, entertainers and other bold-face names. He was a tangle of contradictions, a Jewish anti-Semite and a homosexual homophobe, vehemently closeted but insatiably promiscuous. In 1964, ’69 and ’71, he had been tried and acquitted of federal charges of conspiracy, bribery and fraud, giving him—at least in the eyes of a certain sort—an aura of battle-tested toughness, the perception of invincibility. “If you can get Machiavelli as a lawyer,” he would write in The Autobiography of Roy Cohn, “you’re certainly no fool of a client.”
Trump was 27. He had just moved to Manhattan but was still driving back to his father’s company offices in Brooklyn for work. He hadn’t bought anything. He hadn’t built anything. But he had badgered the owners of Le Club to let him join, precisely to get to know older, connected, power-wielding men like Cohn. He knew who he was. And now he wanted to talk.
He and his father had just been slapped with Department of Justice charges that they weren’t renting to blacks because of racial discrimination. Attorneys had urged them to settle. Trump didn’t want to do that. He quizzed Cohn at Le Club. What should they do?
“Tell them to go to hell,” Cohn told Trump, according to Trump’s account in his book The Art of the Deal, “and fight the thing in court.”
That December, representing the Trumps in United States v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump and Trump Management, Inc., Cohn filed a $100-million countersuit against the federal government, deriding the charges as “irresponsible” and “baseless.”
The judge dismissed it quickly as “wasting time and paper.”
The back-and-forth launched more than a year and a half of bluster and stalling and bullying—and ultimately settling. But in affidavits, motions and hearings in court, Cohn accused the DOJ and the assisting FBI of “Gestapo-like tactics.” He labeled their investigators “undercover agents” and “storm troopers.” Cohn called the head of DOJ down in Washington and attempted to get him to censure one of the lead staffers.
The judge called all of it “totally unfounded.”
By June of 1975, the judge had had it with the Trumps’ attorney. “I must say, Mr. Cohn,” he said in a hearing, “that this case seems to be plagued with unnecessary problems, and I think the time has come when we have to bite the bullet.”
They hashed out the details of a consent decree. The Trumps were going to have to rent to more blacks and other minorities and they were going to have to put ads in newspapers—including those targeted specifically to minority communities—saying they were an “equal housing opportunity” company. Trump and his father, emboldened by Cohn, bristled at the implication of wrongdoing—even, too, at the cost of the ads.
“It is really onerous,” Trump complained.
At one point, flouting the formality of the court, Trump addressed one of the opposing attorneys by her first name: “Will you pay for the expense, Donna?”
Trump and Cohn seemed most concerned with managing the media. They squabbled with the government attorneys over the press release about the disposition. First they wanted no release. Impossible, said the government. Then they wanted “a joint release.” A what? A public agency, it was explained to them, had a public information office, on account of the public’s right to know.
Cohn didn’t want to hear it.
“They will say what they want,” he told the judge, and everybody else in the courtroom, “and we will say what we want.”
The government called the consent decree “one of the most far reaching ever negotiated.”
Cohn and Trump? They called it a victory.
Case 73 C 1529 was over. The relationship between Cohn and Trump had just begun.
“Though Cohn had ostensibly been retained by Donald to handle a single piece of litigation,” Wayne Barrett, an investigative journalist for New York’s Village Voice, would write in his 1992 book about Trump, “he began in the mid-‘70s to assume a role in Donald’s life far transcending that of a lawyer. He became Donald’s mentor, his constant adviser on every significant aspect of his business and personal life.”