While watching Where’s My Roy Cohn? – a title based on Donald Trump’s surprise that the attorney general and White House staff council weren’t his own personal attorneys – it’s easy to see how Roy Cohn’s style of attack is being used right before our eyes today. There’s a moment in the movie when Cohn — probably best known for being Senator Joseph McCarthy’s legal advisor — is debating Gore Vidal on television and Cohn is going off on who knows what, prompting a flustered Vidal to point out that Cohn’s tactic was to talk about anything but the subject at hand so people forget what we were all talking about in the first place. It’s a style of never admitting a wrong, then changing the subject back against the other party. Which is exactly what we’ve all seen Donald Trump do so masterfully for years. Trump learned this from Roy Cohn, and it’s a remarkable thing to watch play out because he rarely faces any repercussions for it. Or, as director Matt Tyrnauer points out, it works until it doesn’t anymore.
I met with Tyrnauer recently at a Midtown Manhattan hotel to discuss his film and Roy Cohn’s unfortunate lasting impact on pretty much everything we see today coming from the White House. Knowing Roy Cohn is, in effect, knowing Trump. Tyrnauer explains this connection – and also dives into some pretty surprising moments of his documentary, and one of the biggest is his interview with Roger Stone, of all people, who winds up being a wealth of information, going as far to tell the story of how Roy Cohn helped fix the 1980 election in favor of Ronald Reagan.
While watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think maybe Roy Cohn was right. In that if you never admit being wrong, then attack the other person, there really seems to be no repercussions.
Well, he created a precedent from beyond the grave, which I don’t think is an exaggeration.
We are seeing it right now with this controversy involving Ukraine.
Yes. And that’s where (Trump) learned it from. Which is why I made the movie.
Do you think before Trump and Cohn got together, Trump wasn’t as much like this?
Well, he was still forming when they got together because it was the early ’70s. So Trump, I think, was getting it by osmosis, but then he becomes the Sorcerer’s apprentice and learns at the knee of the master. And Cohn himself had been mentored by J. Edgar Hoover, no slouch in that brand of dirty pool smear politics.