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.
Do you think there’s an end to this? Or can you just do this forever unscathed? Even Roy Cohn eventually lost his law license.
Well, he did get out unscathed, until he didn’t. Which was at the very end when he was in failing health and the world was changing around him at that time. I think that’s one reason that it did catch up with him: the era of bathroom politics and dirty-dealing was getting cleaned up in the post-Watergate era, and New York City was emerging from a financial crisis.
So is Trump doing exactly what Roy Cohn used to do, or is there a special twist or something new?
Well, the Mark Twain adage about how history doesn’t repeat itself, I think comes into play here. The Trump era was architected by Roy Cohn.
To this extent? Do you think Roy Cohn would have expected Trump to become president?
Well, I mean, he’s been dead for 30 some years, so we can’t really speculate.
Roy Cohn certainly wasn’t stupid, so I can’t imagine he thought, “Boy, Donald Trump, now there’s the guy with a good head on his shoulders…”
Oh, no, I think he was in love with him. I think he was actively molding him. People who were there at the time said that Trump was his final project. He was strategic, he was brilliant, and for whatever reason he saw something in Trump. Trump’s methods are Roy Cohn methods. It’s as if Cohn where the cartographer who designed the map that Trump followed. I don’t think that Trump himself thought he would win the presidency. But he had a lot of help from unexpected and unprecedented corners in doing so.
You interview Roger Stone in this movie. It’s the first time I realized, oh, I see why some people listen to him. He was a wealth of coherent information. Was that surprising?
I’d put it this way, I didn’t think much would come of that interview. I was happy that he agreed to do it because he really knew Cohn very well.
I couldn’t believe the stuff he was telling you.
Yeah, well, he does two things: he gives firsthand accounts of Cohn and he gives an analysis. So it’s coming from someone who was often in the room with Cohn and Trump. And then he makes some revelations that are really not commonly known, which is Cohn having a role in fixing the Reagan election.
By getting John Anderson on the ballot in New York state.
By helping John Anderson get on the Liberal party line on the New York ballot. New York has a very complicated, unusual ballot that has Liberal and Conservative party lines in addition to Democratic and Republican. And Stone maintains that it split the vote and delivered New York’s electoral votes to Reagan.
Do you think John Anderson knew this?
I have no idea. I wouldn’t speculate, but probably not. I don’t think Jill Stein was necessarily in on her role in splitting votes for Trump, I think she might have been a dupe. But I think this is the definition of string pulling. Useful idiots, although I have a slightly higher opinion of John Anderson than an idiot.
I am curious what your opinion of Michael Cohen is, because Trump seems to have thought that was going to be his guy, and he’s just a different animal.
Michael Cohen is a functionary. He’s not a principal player. He’s an outer borough kid who had some street connections and was a useful person. He has a low end law degree, and he’s a flunky.
But why would Trump want a flunky after he saw what someone like Roy Cohn could do?
Because there are no more Roy Cohns. He’s clearly still searching for one.
Which is the title of your movie.
And he was functioning before the presidency as his own Roy Cohn basically. And a Roy Cohn needs a flunky or two, and that’s what Michael Cohen is.
One thing I keep wondering about: If Roy Cohn circa 1975 sat down right here and we didn’t know anything about him, would we like him?
It’s possible. Many people who knew him, to my surprise, said that they liked him personally, because he could be charming. He was funny.
Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell from Studio 54 seemed to like hanging out with him. I get it, because they were also breaking the law and needed someone to help them with that.
Well, they had a power relationship with him. He was their fixer. In my estimation, Schrager was ambivalent about him, but he saw the dark side and there was a side to Cohn that he did like, and many other people do as well. And some surprising people who were known for their liberal politics, but were in the club of the worthy.
Similar with Trump’s old liberal friends…
Yeah. Exactly the same thing. What I would call the “media political money industrial complex” of the city found him irresistible. They supported him as a lovable scoundrel. He played that part to the hilt and New York will tolerate that. I mean, it’s a famous Reagan line to Lew Wasserman when he’s about to become president. And Wasserman says something to the effect of, “Ronnie, can you believe it? Going from Hollywood to the most powerful man in the world, an actor?” And President Reagan says, “I frankly don’t know how someone who isn’t an actor could do in this job.” Might’ve been the wisest thing he ever said.
‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ is currently playing in select theaters. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.