Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Matt Tyrnauer on the American Villain Who Gave Us Donald Trump

A chilling documentary about the president's mentor, Roy Cohn, explains how the notorious fixer created a president from beyond the grave.
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?” Its 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 responds to Scheer. “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 to begin with. 

“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. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.

Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer

Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” an obnoxious title given to me, but nonetheless I justify it by saying the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case it’s Matt Tyrnauer, a very well-known writer in the past for Vanity Fair, author of a number of important articles and movies that you’ve probably heard about. Valentino: The Last Emperor, that was nominated for an Oscar; and Citizen Jane, about Jane Jacobs, a great book, film about the battle for New York City. Scotty and the Secret [History] of Hollywood, and Studio 54, which has got a lot of attention. But I think this current movie, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, is really critically important. And important to understanding who–what is the devil amongst us? What is this capacity for evil? And I’m not talking about President Trump specifically, although he’s connected in the movie, because you argue sort of that he’s a protégé, and you can go into that.

But I don’t think the movie belabored that connection, and I don’t think the movie should be judged on the connection with Trump. I mean, it’s a good hook to get people to go to the studio, and people who dislike Trump–I’m sure many of the people listening to this have reasons of their own for disliking him; they’ll find an additional one. And is he a product of Trump? I’ll let you answer that in any which way. 

That’s not what I found valuable about this movie. I find there’s a conceit that when we dislike someone like Roy Cohn–and I certainly spent much of my life appropriately disliking him, although I did meet him on a few occasions and so forth. And as when you meet anybody, I’ve interviewed people from all over the world–in person, they usually are quite presentable and charming and everything else, till you look at their record or actually think. I’m sure you’ve had that experience. But when I came away from this movie, it was really an incredible education. Because I–and I don’t know if you intended this–but I concluded that Roy Cohn was not a particularly evil force in American life. That he really–first of all, they use this term “agency” a lot. He wasn’t that serious a source of power. Other people found him convenient, including mob figures that he represented later, and Joe McCarthy, or people who were trying to rev up the Cold War in extreme ways. 

And he enjoyed it, and he was hateful in his attitudes. I mean for instance, for people who don’t know, he was instrumental during the early years in building the case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. And in your film he actually–and it’s well known by now that Ethel Rosenberg really was dragged into this in order to break Julius. We even have, Judge Kaufman has revealed this; I even did a piece for the L.A. Times once on Kaufman and some of the documents that came out. And so really the, you know, whatever else you think about it, dragging Ethel into it was an attempt, again, to distort what happened. And in your movie he said, you have him in some scene somewhere saying he would have liked to pull the switch. And so yes, I mean, you know, I did feel when I–I don’t want to turn people off the movie by saying I felt I needed a shower after watching the movie, because it’s not like that. You’re exposed to evil, but you don’t drown in it. And what I found satisfying, really, was the rejection of Roy Cohn by just about everybody. He didn’t go over. 

And the other thing I thought, and then I’ll turn it over to you–I thought he was a product of history, rather than the other way around. First of all, I mean, something your documentary goes into, he was a gay man. And people forget the gay–you know, Stonewall happened in 1969; it didn’t even benefit from the sixties, let alone the fifties. So he went through a very rough time of being in the closet, beyond anybody’s belief that he was in the closet. And he was homophobic, as there were quite a few conservatives–I forget the congressman from Maryland, Bauman, Robert Bauman or something, was particularly vicious in legislation. Everything turned out to be gay, was arrested in a gay bar and so forth. 

But when I came away from your film–and as I say, I’ve given too long an introduction here, but I found it a very interesting film–he didn’t invent a very primitive anticommunism which was his ticket to ride. As he himself pointed out, wait a minute, blame Truman, blame other people. That’s not me. You know, he happened to land with McCarthy, and he enjoyed it, and he went for it. But he was not the inventor of a very simplistic view of the Cold War. And you have Gore Vidal in this movie really sort of tearing it apart in a number of ways, as he did in his books–that in fact, this whole mythology of communism being totally unified, and that they could control everything, which of course has been denied by history.

We have two surviving communist countries in Vietnam and China–and I’ve said this ad nauseum on the show–are fighting for shelf space in Costco and Walmart, and fighting over some islands in the Pacific. So it was always given to nationalism; it was always going to fragment and so forth. And you know, so the scenes in your movie where Cohn is advancing that position, we forget that was the dominant position of the American establishment. It was actually the editorial position of the New York Times.

Matt Tyrnauer: Yes. So, but Cohn, I would say, is a malign Zelig. [Laughs] 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. Yes, it was the dominant position, but McCarthy was the, perhaps the worst actor of that period. It’s called the McCarthy era, it’s the byword for it. And there was Cohn by his side, whispering in his ear. And I don’t think McCarthy was the sharpest knife in the drawer, so he needed a Roy Cohn to guide him, and nefariously lead him into more successful demagoguery. So I see him in the fifties as a very ambitious attorney, first as a junior prosecutor on the Rosenberg case, who really does an ex parte deal with the judge, Irving Kaufman, to lead Ethel to the electric chair; that was Roy Cohn. Not nice. 

RS: So spell that out a little bit. Because that’s a piece of history that I think your movie captures better than almost anyone has. And you’ve benefited from disclosures, documents have come out, and so forth. But a lot of people listening just don’t even know what we’re talking about with the Rosenberg case. So it was a seminal moment, and it shaped what happened after; intimidated many democrats, and people who otherwise would have–moderate republicans who would have felt differently.

MT: Traumatized the Jewish community, most of whom were democrats. So it had a chilling effect. What was happening at the time–let’s take a half step back. Cohn was from a very rich Jewish family in New York. They owned all these companies; they owned Bank of the United States, Van Heusen shirts, Q-tips, Lionel Trains; he’s a scion of Jewish wealth. He’s also a lawyer, and he’s the son of a judge, so the family was very connected in the clubhouse democratic system of that period. He has this reaction to his liberal democratic family background. He’s really a product of a series of reactions; he’s a reaction to his closeted homosexuality, and he’s a reaction to his Judaism. So in order to make his bones as a young prosecutor, he takes a very staunch anticommunist stance–I think also to separate himself from Bolshevik Jews, which was a slur at the time.

So he wants to prove that he’s the least Bolshevik of any Jew, he’s the least gay of any gay person in the world. So he goes to this extreme position as a junior prosecutor on the Rosenberg spy case, and he has ex parte communications with Judge Irving Kaufman, who was a family friend and part of that Jewish aristocracy or power grid at the time. And the ex parte conversations are about whether Ethel Rosenberg, who was not guilty of espionage, should get the electric chair as a co-conspirator with Julius–who probably was guilty, but it wasn’t such a huge offense of espionage, because the Soviets already had these papers and these secrets he had. Cohn–rather, Kaufman, for some reason, is mesmerized by the young Roy Cohn and communicates with him illegally, off the bench, asking him his advice: What should we do about Ethel? And Cohn’s saying: Give her the chair. And he does. And this–as I show the film, there were riots in the streets. The community, Jewish community and liberal community, were outraged and very, very traumatized by this. And you see this extraordinary rare footage, color footage of tens of thousands of people in Union Square and the streets leading into it, having violent riots, really, to protest this. It makes you wonder where the riots in the streets are today, by the way. Maybe they’re on social media, and maybe they’re more contained; I don’t know. But it was a very disturbing moment, and Roy Cohn was really at the center of it, as a 23-year-old.

RS: Yeah, you should point that out for those who believe strongly in the meritocracy. That despite, or not simply because he was wealthy, he actually probably was very, very smart by standard testing. And he was 19 or something when he graduated from Columbia Law School.

MT: Twenty when he graduates Columbia Law. No matter what you want to say about him, he was clearly brilliant, even a prodigy.

RS: And he passed the bar when he was age-eligible, right? You had to be 21.

MT: He had to wait another year to take the bar, actually.

RS: Yeah. Hey, let me ask you a question. Because–but he is an evil figure, and we’re trying to understand where evil comes from. And one of the difficulties as a journalist–I’m sure you have found this–evil doesn’t always present in the expected form. And he was able to–even, you know, I have great respect for Gore Vidal, who you’ve also written about and everything. But in the exchange you have with Gore Vidal and Roy Cohn, I wouldn’t say Roy Cohn gets the worst of it. He’s able to make logical arguments; he’s able to not be flustered, to sound very plausible. And actually what he was asserting–and this, I keep getting back to this–was the conventional wisdom. It was a bit like Trump now; it’s manners, these guys are boorish, they go too far. You know, they have no decency as well, meaning they’ll kick someone who’s down, and they seem to be enjoying it. But the party line that they were following was really quite conventional.

I know it’s uncomfortable to say that; we think of, you know, a few journalists who dared say some things, and so forth. But in a sense, the whole country was drunk on a view of good and evil in the world, and we could do no evil, including dropping the bombs in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And what he did is he capitalized on that, he said this is a winner position. He was very proud of saying: Maybe in New York you don’t see this, maybe elsewhere; but you go out there in America, they’re all with me.

MT: That’s resonant of Trump, one. Two, our mutual friend Gore Vidal had only bad things to say about Harry Truman, whose reputation has been revived in, you know, the succeeding years after his death. David McCullough’s book and all that, Give ‘em Hell Harry. But Truman, democrat, was–became [a rabid anti-] communist, and really launched the Cold War; then Eisenhower kind of picks up the baton. But if you look at Truman and Eisenhower, they really were within what we now are calling the guardrails of democracy. McCarthy and Cohn were figures who were really, really troublemakers and thugs, basically. And in fact, it was–it was rather Eisenhower who undid McCarthy. He really, like, pulled the foundation out from under him, and while McCarthy was hoisting himself by his own petard in the Army-McCarthy hearings, with Roy Cohn right next to him. But I think that’s the distinction. Yes, it was the conventional position, but there were thugs that were exploiting it, and were acting like gangsters. And J. Edgar Hoover was a part of that cohort, interestingly, along with Cohn and, some said, McCarthy, a closet homosexual.

RS: Yeah, you know, your film gets back to that quite a bit. And I do want to–I wonder whether it’s fair. And not that it’s an attack to say someone’s homosexual. But I mean, I forget–[Dustin Lance] Black’s film J. Edgar, after his very good [movie] Milk, on Harvey Milk. And I thought that was a good movie, but I wondered, first of all, what’s the issue here? Are you saying because they’re homosexual, they are vindictive, or they do other things, or–no, we don’t believe that. What is its relevance? 

MT: Oh, I can answer that. [Laughs]

RS: I’m sure you can, and I want you to do that. But I was just thinking in that particular case of Hoover, and maybe you have an answer on that. But it seemed to me, you know, are we saying that because somebody has an unfilled sexual life or contradictions, that’s why they were the G-man that he was? Or was it just that, you know, that’s the role he played, that’s who they were. 

MT: The fact of their sexuality is irrelevant. The fact of their hypocrisy is the relevant part. So Hoover ran a national racket that blackmailed people for reasons of their sexuality. Cohn did the same thing in collusion with McCarthy during the Lavender Scare, where they went after gay people in the federal government and the armed forces and destroyed their lives. And Cohn was a gay man who was fomenting this. So that’s the issue. And also, you alluded to this in your introduction, and this is coming from a gay guy to you: Everything has to be contextual, OK. So in the forties and fifties, there was no such thing as an out gay lawyer–an out gay anyone, really. I mean maybe, like, what they called a ribbon clerk in a department store, these people, you know, people who were consigned to menial jobs that were considered OK for gay people, like hairdresser. I mean, this is what the fact of life was for people who were even semi-out.

RS: You could be a poet, you could be Allen Ginsberg “putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” in the 1950s. You could be–I guess Walt Whitman wasn’t out, but was known. Well, Gore Vidal, even–

MT: Gore was, kind of did an interesting dance, but was extremely brave in 1948 when he published The City and the Pillar, which was the novel with an express gay theme.

RS: Yeah. So I take your point, and I think the movie is very clear on this. We’re talking about hypocrisy. And yes, and for people, again, who are not familiar with the McCarthy phenomenon, it was brutal in its destruction of people. And one way it could destroy them was this idea of homosexuals in the State Department; if they weren’t communists, they were homosexuals. And then the inference often is they were both, and then if you had, in third category you would throw Jewish into it. And by the way, I just want to point out one of the first men to come out as openly gay was by a Russian, quite early in the sixties. It’s a congressional hearing where they accused him of being a communist.

And he says, sir, I’m a homosexual, I’m a pacifist, I’m a black man; I don’t care to join any other minorities. And but I remember at the time, you know–and then I, since you are dealing with gay themes in this movie, I do want to raise that question. Because a lot of people listening to this probably don’t know, for all of the great energy of the sixties and challenging so much in life, being gay was not one of the things that were actually challenged. And as I said, Stonewall comes at the end of the sixties and not during it.

MT: I think that’s a great point that is not made enough, actually. And, you know, the hippie movement wasn’t what we would call gay-friendly, particularly. The abstract expressionist artists, for instance, like Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg, were in the closet, really. And it was a, they were in a very macho clique, really, that was more kind of like defined by Jackson Pollock and people that had a macho image like that. So there was a lot of kind of cowing people and forcing them into the closet because they weren’t fitting in. And it’s all through society at that time. So we think of the sixties because of the Civil Rights Movement, principally, but also what we called “women’s lib” at the time, as this kind of great explosion of freedom. But the gay rights, or what used to be called–and Vidal, our friend Vidal hated this, “gay lib,” [Laughs] he despised that term–gay lib movement was much later. There were, of course there were things like the Mattachine Society, and there were all these incredible movements that were happening.

RS: By the way, the library for the Mattachine Society is housed here at USC, or nearby, the ONE–

MT:  The ONE archive, incredible. A great resource. And since we’re here in L.A., we should point out that L.A. was, along with New York, at the vanguard, really, of the movement. San Francisco was actually a little behind in certain ways. It happened not far from here, in Echo Park and Silverlake. But I like that point you’re making. And I think, again, back to Cohn and his sexuality in the fifties, the movie’s not really sympathetic to him. I kind of let him make his own case, in his own words, because he was on TV and in newsreels all throughout his life. So you can see what he had to say about this, and you can see his hypocrisy in his own words. But I really believe you have to understand that context, that he was not going to be out of the closet in that period. However, when I want to look at why J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn had this dark collusion, and we have to understand that, we understand the ways it expressed itself; we understand the very dark path that they took.

 They did not need to persecute gay people. And if they did, they could have apologized for it later in life; they lived many decades after that period where they were doing it. And later in life Cohn has another huge hypocritical, capping moment where he contracts HIV/AIDS and is helped by his friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who have the worst record conceivable on the AIDS epidemic. They get him into a special program at the National Institutes of Health, he gets special treatment; still won’t come out of the closet. He could have at that time.

RS: I think he denied he had AIDS, right?

MT: He certainly did. He denied he had AIDS, and he denied he was gay. That would have been a way of repenting, certainly, considering he was getting special treatment. Again, I want to contextualize–having AIDS in the early part of the epidemic was, I mean, it’s always horrendous. But I mean, the stigma was unimaginable now that we have drugs to treat it. It was truly a horrific time. However, he managed to parlay it into a moment of hypocrisy, and the Reagan were involved. So there’s a lot instructional about the legacy, the dark legacy of Cohn.

RS: You know, what’s also instructional is the hypocrisy of so-called conservatives on an issue like gay rights. I mean, I mentioned Bob Bauman, I think was his first name, Robert Bauman, who was a congressman from Maryland, and absolutely vicious in terms of the legislation and his rhetoric and so forth. And then is arrested in a bar, picking up I think a prostitute of some sort. But, and he did finally go through old-school therapy, and then atone and say he was wrong. But in your movie, it’s sort of a subtext in this movie–who is this guy? Now he’s tortured by a number of things. Being in the closet and in an atmosphere–and by the way, we mentioned his being Jewish. The Jewish religion, in certainly its orthodox form, was not supportive of being gay.

MT: I’m Jewish as well. I can tell you that Jews only want grandchildren. I mean, now they can get them through adoption in gay marriage, but like it’s very, very procreation-oriented as a religion.

RS: But the fact is, it’s also that sort of borscht circuit description. But if you look at what is a part of Scripture that is invoked, Leviticus and so forth, to teach us–

MT: It is an abomination.

RS: Yes, it’s not kidding around. And he was, came from the old school, where being in this respectable Jewish circle, you were not supposed to be gay. And you also explore–one thing I didn’t understand about the movie, his mother is constantly referred to as very unattractive. But maybe my standards are broader [Laughs], but I didn’t see that. But maybe in real life she was–

MT: The reason I put that in, is it’s coming from members of her own family. So there was a myth, everyone in the family–I talked to three cousins of his who all detest him for the most part; one was a little mixed on the legacy. But Anne Roiphe, the writer, who’s a cousin of Roy Cohn, says that her mother told her that Dora Cohn was the ugliest girl in the Bronx. And that kicks off an anecdote from Roiphe about how Dora couldn’t get married, so they had to arrange a marriage for her with a young lawyer named Al Cohn. And the theory in the family is that Roy was an evil seed of a loveless marriage, and this is what set him on the wrong course, which sounds a little too simplistic to me. But anyway, it comes from the family, and that’s why I thought it was fair to include it.

RS: Yeah, I should mention that we’re talking about a very, very interesting documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn? Why don’t you explain the title for a minute, Matt Tyrnauer. And what I love about this movie is it’s, you know, a periscope into the last 50 years. So who are we, where did we come from, and WASPs, Jews, everyone. I mean, for instance, the Reagans; yes, the, you know, Roy Cohn was important to them. And they listened to him–well, I don’t like to put Nancy and Ronald Reagan in exactly the same bag. I think Nancy Reagan was, in some ways, much more interesting and complex. However–by the way, I think Gore Vidal felt the same way. He remained close to Nancy.

MT: No. Well, he skewered her in his greatest essay, “Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures,” but back here in cozy southern California in their dotage, they would have lunch at the Bel-Air Hotel. Which I could never quite reconcile, to be honest with you.

RS: Well, I talked to her about it, and she was quite–she liked him a lot, and thought he was–and she–she was not a dummy. She was a bright, a bright woman. But that’s not my point. The thing is, in the film–and that’s what I think is so valuable about this film, because people like–first of all, most people don’t care about history, as if none of this ever happened, or mattered or anything. And we’ve had evil before, we’ve done stupid things before, we’ve had reckless leaders before. I mean, so this era that we’re in is not so special, as some people–I don’t know, the conceit is somehow we’ve crossed over, I mean, and–

MT: You know, Woodrow Wilson did terrible things. A lot of presidents did terrible things. Andrew Johnson did terrible things. They didn’t have the nuclear arsenal. I think this is why we really [Laughs]–

RS: Well, one president who you mentioned, there’s now a kinder view of that president, Harry Truman did have a nuclear arsenal. He had two of them, anyway. And he didn’t drop it in the ocean, and he didn’t just say what we had. No, they committed, in my–let me put an editorial in here–the worst single two acts of terrorism, if by terrorism we mean using innocent civilians as collateral damage to make a political point. I mean, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are certainly that. But I’m getting to the larger point about your documentary. It’s a visit into American history to realize there’s always been a dark side, there’s always been cynicism, there’s always been demagogues. You know, I forget which building, what was it they were building and they used the concrete because the Mafia controlled–

MT: That would be Trump Tower.

RS: Trump Tower, OK. [Laughs] But he’s not alone in doing that. I mean, you know, you were doing business in New York. I got my job in the New York Post Office by going up to the Democratic Party headquarters in my neighborhood in the Bronx, and they looked up, my father had voted democratic–OK, kid, take this down there to Grand Central and show it to so-and-so, you know, and that was the norm.

MT: Well, the movie is really about all of that. It’s about this system that can become perverted. And certain elements of it aren’t inherently bad; sometimes they’re bad actors that exploit it, and Cohn, I would argue, is definitely one of them. He comes out of an era of the clubhouse politics, which was very much the favor bank. And he had his roots in that kind of demagogic behavior, and was very thuggish by instinct, and very brilliant.

RS: Did he ever punch anybody, or–? When you say “thuggish,” he was–

MT: I think he was a bully boy. So I think we’re resorting in his case to kind of like thirties movies, Scarface dialogue. And he was a lawyer; I think he had other people that he could maybe call on to throw you off the side of the boat, or to like put you in concrete shoes, which we found plenty of evidence that things like that were happening, by the way. 

RS: And he did get people–well, in the case of the Rosenbergs, certainly killed, and was instrumental, and messed up a lot of lives, I’m not minimizing that here–

MT: Well, there’s a case–there’s a never-solved case of a scuttled boat in which a young man died. There were other allegations of murders that he was attached to that the film doesn’t go into, because it’s only a 90-minute movie. There’s a very dark legacy. He was the attorney for Mafia dons, which of course, Mafia dons in our system are entitled to attorneys, so that is a legitimate thing. But the network that he–over which he presided, which I would call the favor bank of that period, had a dark side to it that he really was the president of. And I think a good way of viewing his unique role that he created for himself in the middle of the last century was the person on the bridge between the illegitimate world and the legitimate world.

He had the relationships and he had the goods on the criminals, and also the legit politicians, because he trafficked in both those worlds. And you kind of had to go see him if you wanted to get stuff done frequently, and Trump used him to very beneficial effect. You alluded to Trump Tower, which was built with concrete; buildings in the seventies and eighties in New York were rarely built with concrete, because the mob controlled the concrete contract business, and you needed to really be in with them to make that work for you. And Cohn fixed it up for him, and he did it. So–

RS: Do you think Trump knew that the Mafia was weighing in?

MT: I believe he did. A lot of my reporting in this is based on the great reporting of David K. Johnston, who’s interviewed in the film.

RS: And who I’ve done a podcast with, and he’s written an incredible book.

MT: Superb, ahead of his time on Trump and Cohn.

RS: Yeah, certainly the best investigative journalist we have when it comes to anything to do with economics. Yeah.

MT: Taxes. But he was covering Trump in the eighties, early eighties. And he was the one who got on to the [contract] business in concrete for Trump Tower, and how Trump lied about his wealth and had the shell companies, and he’s a wonderful resource for all of that. So my hat is off to him. But what the movie also shows is how we got to now, because Trump learned his double-down, hit you back 100 times harder, lie, smear, prevaricate, accuse the person accusing you of something, of what you’re guilty of, diversionary tactics–all of that is the Cohn playbook. And Cohn was brilliant, and brilliant at deploying it; Trump, I think, does it in a more instinct way, in a kind of like, in a more lumpen way. I don’t think he’s intelligent like Cohn was, but he’s effective.

RS: Well, let me take this window on really America, of course, in general, but New York City specifically. And you have a whole list of people that are interviewed or given credit for at the end and so forth, who helped define an image of New York: [Jason Epstein], a number of these people. And there was–they romanticized this aspect of New York; they romanticized, actually, the corruption, the–you know, the toughness. In a way, certainly, Hollywood movies like The Godfather and everything do that, you know. And yet in your documentary, you see just how sordid it is. And again, getting to this basic question that I’m raising with you–is it an aberration or is it the norm? I think growing up in New York, I was there right through City College, and you know, lived with my mother in the Bronx, right through, then went off to graduate school in Berkeley, that’s why I’m here. 

But I didn’t like it. I thought, you know, there was nothing fun and wonderful about it. You know, you went along with these people, or you got hurt, you know. And when you challenged them, they could get cops to beat you up because you challenged them politically, say in the Rosenberg case or something. It was pretty brutal. And your movie shows–I think the power of the movie, I don’t want to hurt it by grafting my own view. But when I came away from, yes, I wanted to take a shower after watching it; I felt, I have really been exposed to evil. However–however, it’s a strain that runs not just through our society, obviously. It’s what Christianity warns us about: there’s the devil in all of us. And it’s there. And people seem to enjoy it. They actually enjoyed this guy and his sense of power. That’s the surprising thing. Even the Liz Smiths and others who–Oh, yeah, Roy, and he gave me these items, and I didn’t use them. Well, she used a lot of other items.

MT: She used some of them, for sure. 

RS: Yeah, yeah.

MT: Well, people characterized him as a lovable monster. Jason Epstein, who’s got great politics as far as I’m concerned, is a liberal lion, a great literary figure. Murray Kempton–

RS: Full disclosure, also my editor on a number of books, and I admire him. 

MT: Murray Kempton apparently was fine with Roy Cohn. And then people on the more dark print side, like Bill Buckley and William Safire. Barbara Walters, who had a long-term family connection with him and functioned as his beard–

RS: Yeah, she had to actually publicly say, no, we’re not getting married.

MT: Yeah, a few times, I think. So it’s sort of used and being used. And I think the word that captures it is “transactional.” So New York’s a very transactional place, which is what I think you are reacting to when you say you never liked it, and you thought it was very ugly. And I felt the same way when I lived there. I, you know, I worked at Vanity Fair, so I had this like window on the Bonfire of the Vanities aspect of it. I never wanted to be of it. If you–you know what I mean–if you have to work hard to be welcome in those rooms and those inner sanctums, it’s–you feel like you do need a shower, frankly. And that is personified by Cindy Adams and all of these people that were the gossip columnists that made the world go round. They’re sort of the heirs of Walter Winchell, to be honest with you, who was a demagogic gossip, really like a one-man Fox News back in the day. The city has always functioned like that, and Cohn worked that system to perfection, which was part of his power base. And later on, Trump did as well. I mean, people thought Trump was a joke, but he still worked the system, and the system still accommodated him.

And you know, I think to your point, which has been the theme of this show, yes, it’s always there. Sometimes I think it flares up when you shine a light on it, and it’s like lifting up the rock and putting a flashlight onto a wormscape. [Laughs] 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.

RS: Well, let’s not lose that thread right now. Because I sort of minimized it when we began. Because the movie doesn’t devote a whole lot of time to the relationship between Roy Cohn and Trump. But the more we’ve been talking and reflecting back on the movie, I think it provides a great insight into Trump, and–as a uniquely New York product, which I have really not thought about much until this moment, frankly. But now, when I put Trump back in the New York that I knew–and we both had German fathers. [Laughs] He didn’t have a Jewish mother. I had a German Protestant father. But I know that culture; I’m not putting down German Protestants, but I know that area, also, of New York. And yes, and particularly his was informed by wealth. The marks are all there, and it makes perfect sense that they would gravitate towards each other.

And so why don’t–we have just a few minutes, but why don’t you–what do you, what have you thought about your insights into Trump based on what you know about Roy Cohn? By the way, somebody–probably many people listening to this have never heard of Roy Cohn. I mean, it’s not as if this history is alive in our imagination. So just to remind people, we’re talking about a guy who could make or break generals, and even presidents. I mean, this guy could intimidate some of the most powerful people in the country. And even after he got called out in the Army-McCarthy hearings, and his sponsor collapsed, Joe McCarthy, he went on to a career of trafficking in power, with powerful people, and breaking the bones and causing the deaths of innocent people, right there in the capital of this–

MT: –and ruining their lives.

RS: Yeah. And so, but what is–what is really the connection with Trump? It’s not just a hook to get people to watch the movie.

MT: No, not at all.

RS: It’s a real connection.

MT: Not at all. I mean, our friend Vidal called this the United States of amnesia, so of course people don’t remember Cohn. People don’t remember McCarthy. You know, also because our education system is lacking, so these things aren’t taught. Cohn comes out of the McCarthy period; he’s literally the chief counsel to McCarthy. 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. So there is a relationship there. But in that moment in New York, in the mid-century, these two guys found each other. 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; he was like a kid on the make. Cohn was attracted to tall, blonde, WASPy-looking guys; I think there was a bit of a crush, one-way, Cohn on Trump. And he takes up Donald Trump as a protégé, and he gives him basically the nuclear codes to how to rule New York society. And Trump does with them what he did, which was squander them, really, for a long time. I mean, he was just doing this narcissistic me-me-me thing and losing all his father’s money for decades. Then through Roger Stone, who was also a protégé for Roy Cohn and is interviewed in the movie, so you can see all these things–

RS: Stretch that out a little bit, because I haven’t done the movie credit here that it deserves. This is not an add-on to get the movie into the current conversation. It makes a very critical point about the origins of corruption in America as evidenced by the Trump phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon that involves manipulating media. By the way, we’re doing this from what used to, at USC here, what used to be called the Les Moonves studio; I guess he contributed to it. But CBS had a lot to do with Trump’s rise and so forth. 


RS: And Les Moonves famously said when meeting with affiliates, Trump may not be good for the country, but he’s great for CBS, for the ratings.

MT: That statement encapsulates so much, really. You know, the cynicism of people whose politics might be otherwise. I don’t think that most media barons, except for Rupert Murdoch and his kin, are as extremely right-wing. But when they see the dollars rolling in–and Trump figured out how to become a moneymaker for all sorts of media platforms–they will perpetuate. And that is happening now. And I think, this is slightly off-topic, but I think that’s one thing that’s a little wild card in this election season, is that the media is so addicted to him, and so addicted to the money that he makes them tangentially, and the careers that he’s making. Journalists have never had it so good right now in terms of building careers.

RS: And they’re heroes. 

MT: Yes, exactly. 

RS: And the more–and actually, the more they betray–[it’s] hard to be objective. It’s hard to, you know, discipline yourself and, you know, even play devil’s advocate, OK. Which by the way you do in this movie; you are fair to Roy Cohn, I must say. I didn’t get the sense that this is, you know, put the hatchet in the guy. And you could have gone much further. And by fair, I don’t mean you’re easy on him. But you’re trying to really understand, where did this guy come from? Well, journalists don’t have to do that now. Now they ironically are making a living off this guy Trump, and yet savaging him–it’s like, we win both ways. You know, sound the alarm and our credibility increases, you know?

MT: Yeah, it’s disturbing. And I’ve been–going back to Roger Stone, which was the last thread we were on–Stone, like Cohn, like Trump, knows how to play the media. So you see him giving the Nixon, you know, double-peace salute and hamming it up. And they’re there, the cameras are there for them. And this is the trick. It was developed at the dawn of television in the fifties; Cohn was right there for it, he passes it on to Trump. And it’s a combination of self-interest, narcissism, and dirty tricksterism. And now it’s happening on a beyond-operatic scale because of the position of the presidency, the bully pulpit, and just the sheer awe of that, of presiding over this democratic republic, which is the most important thing in the world. He shouldn’t be there. I would maintain, which is the point of the film, that Roy Cohn created a president from beyond the grave. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say that, and that’s why I made the film.

RS: That’s a good headline to put on this. How Roy Cohn–how did you just put it? 

MT: How Roy Cohn created a president from beyond the grave.

RS: That’s it. That’s a good way to wrap this up. And I don’t think that’s reaching for something just to hype it. I do believe–I was impressed. You know, because you do these podcasts and, OK, I gotta watch this movie or watch that movie. And I thought I knew a lot about Roy Cohn and everything, and I really found it instructive; I just want to put that out there. I think it’s actually, in some ways, a brilliant–not just some ways, it’s a brilliant film. And because you, you’re not–you are fair to the guy. It’s very difficult to be fair to Roy Cohn, and yet one comes away, like–ugh, you know, how did I, why, you know. And then–but he’s not an aberration, which is I guess the point I’ve been trying to make. He’s playing, you know, on familiar themes; the same with Trump. I mean, yes, Trump is the pus that comes out of the wound, but he didn’t create the wound, right. The pus has an odor, it’s awful, it offends us.

But, yes–but how did the wound get there? And that’s what Roy Cohn did. He didn’t invent primitive anti-communism, he didn’t invent homophobia. That was the official legal line in our country. You were arrested for being gay, right? You know, this was the law, you know, and being a communist, you couldn’t teach, you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that. So Roy Cohn came and said, well, let’s just hang ‘em all, let’s just blast ‘em all, let’s destroy all their lives. And you know, that’s what Trump is doing–said well, wait a minute, you know, we’re going to make America great again. We’ll push around people all over the world, we’ll force trade deals, we’ll do this. It’ll be great. Because we’re God’s chosen people. And we were great, we’ll be great again, and there it is. And–well, the way you put it, the title, that’s the way we put it–from beyond the grave, Roy Cohn—

MT: Creates a president.

RS: Created Donald Trump’s presidency. Well, all right. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Victor Figueroa has been a terrific engineer. And once again, Josh Scheer is the producer of “Scheer Intelligence,” at KCRW it’s Christopher Ho, and we’ll be back next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”