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Opinion | Will Roy Cohn Save Donald Trump’s Hide One Last Time?


Sitting still for hours on end in a chilly, drab courtroom, unable to speak his mind, forced to listen to people say objectionable things about him, Donald Trump at a defense table in Manhattan’s Criminal Court may seem as far from his usual domain — the cheering crowds and the trappings of wealth — as could be imagined.

But it was in another courthouse just down the street that Mr. Trump’s wily mentor, Roy Cohn, pulled off one of his greatest legal feats. It was Mr. Cohn who taught Mr. Trump how to manipulate the law, and other people, to his advantage. His ghost now hovers over the former president’s entire legal outlook, influencing proceedings in ways large and small. The outcome in this case may be the final verdict on Mr. Cohn’s brilliant, sinister strategies.

Mr. Trump always admired Mr. Cohn’s bravado and belligerence; Mr. Cohn’s whole worldview seemed to validate the young developer’s crassest instincts. “If you need somebody to get vicious,” Mr. Trump once said, “hire Roy Cohn.” His legal strategy boiled down to: Delay and deny. Don’t hesitate to attack the judge and prosecutor (“I don’t care what the law is; tell me who the judge is” was his most famous line). Address the press every chance you get. And intimidate and ridicule witnesses.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have aggressively sought every delay possible and called for mistrials or new judges on a regular basis. Of the four criminal proceedings Mr. Trump faces, the one wrapping up now is probably the only case that will be heard before Election Day — and if Mr. Trump wins a second term, all bets are off. He attacked Justice Juan Merchan and witnesses so many times that he has been placed under gag orders — and then fined, when he repeatedly failed to honor them. And as for litigating a case through the media, Mr. Trump went Mr. Cohn one better: He founded his own social media organization, Truth Social, and litigates his cases there.

In the Manhattan case, the defense attorney Todd Blanche went for the jugular when cross-examining Mr. Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, shouting, “The jury doesn’t want to hear what you think happened!” and invoking a disparaging remark that Mr. Cohen had made — about Mr. Blanche himself — with such fidelity that Justice Merchan rebuked him for his profanity. Later, the attorney Susan Necheles sought to shame Stormy Daniels, a porn star, accusing her of “selling” herself and having “a lot of experience making phony stories about sex appear to be real.”

Most recently we learned that the former president would not be taking the witness stand and exposing himself to cross-examination, choosing instead to let a stream of prominent Republicans visitors make his case for him on the courthouse steps. That is the strategy that Mr. Cohn lived by.

Roy Cohn was indicted four times by Manhattan’s legendary prosecutor Robert Morgenthau. “I said to him, ‘Roy, just tell me one thing,’” Mr. Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” “‘Did you really do all that stuff?’ He looked at me and smiled. ‘What the hell do you think?’ he said. I never really knew.” The most notorious of these cases involved charges of conspiracy, extortion, blackmail and bribing a former city appraiser inside the Foley Square courthouse. The trial dragged on for 11 weeks.

Mr. Cohn filed a formal affidavit of prejudice against the judge, asking him to recuse himself from the case. Mr. Cohn also claimed that the indictment should be dismissed because it was the result of a “personal vendetta” against him by Mr. Morgenthau. Both motions were denied, but they served to delay the prosecution’s case.

On Dec. 8, 1969, the last day of the proceedings, Mr. Cohn’s lawyer, Joseph Brill, was about to make his summation when he complained of chest pains and was rushed to a hospital. The court adjourned, not knowing what would happen next.

The following afternoon, Mr. Cohn, dressed in a monogrammed shirt and a dark-blue suit with thin stripes, astonished the judge and prosecutors by announcing that he was prepared to make his own summation.

It was an ingenious strategy that in effect allowed him to testify on his own behalf — which he had avoided doing — without having to submit to a cross-examination.

He spoke, brilliantly and without notes, for an hour that day, then for an extraordinary seven hours the next day. Peter King, who would go on to serve as a member of New York’s congressional delegation, was there as a young lawyer in Mr. Cohn’s firm. “It was effective, low-key,” he told me last week. “It was emotional, but in a quiet way. No histrionics. He was like the ultimate perfect summation.” By the end, one female juror was weeping, overcome with emotion.

It took the jury a mere four hours to declare him not guilty. Mr. Cohn turned to the assembled reporters and said simply, “God bless America.”

Mr. Trump has found his own ways to communicate to the jury without submitting to cross-examination, closing his eyes to shut out testimony he cannot abide and even audibly cursing at one point while Stormy Daniels was on the stand.

Of all the lessons Mr. Trump learned from his mentor, the value of treating people transactionally may have been the most important. The former president has run through countless lawyers in his decades of legal proceedings. Many were discarded. Some were not paid. But he held Mr. Cohn in high regard and took his lessons to heart. In 1981, he gave his mentor a pair of huge diamond cuff links as a gesture of profound gratitude. Years later, a friend of Mr. Cohn’s had them appraised. They were worthless fakes.

Kai Bird is the director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography and a co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” He is working on a biography of Roy Cohn.

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