President Donald Trump was reportedly shouting to wake the dead when Attorney General Jeff Sessions chose to recuse himself from the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with the Kremlin—and invoked the dead to hammer his point home.
“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump asked numerous senior White House officials in March, according to the New York Times, as he criticized Sessions as insufficiently devoted in comparison to Trump’s former personal lawyer and confidant.
The question began trending on Twitter almost immediately after the article’s publication, resurfaced decades of stories about the turbulent relationship between the infamous shark and the tycoon-who-would-be-president. It was a relationship that, in many ways, shaped Trump’s political career—and a relationship that Sessions would be well advised to avoid reenacting.
Cohn rose to national prominence during the Army-McCarthy Hearings in the 1950s, when he served as chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. In effect, Cohn was the personal lickspittle of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. His near-constant presence at the senator’s side during the televised hearings made him a household name, and one of the most hated figures among the American left.
After McCarthy’s censure and eventual departure from politics, Cohn became a prominent defense lawyer-slash-socialite, representing mafia dons, Catholic cardinals, and Andy Warhol in courtroom battles ranging from the fabulous to the murderous.
It was during this stage in his life—when Cohn was cavorting with Barbara Walters, Walter Winchell, and a rotating cast of handsome younger men—that in 1973 he came across a blonde bridge-and-tunnel arriviste named Donald Trump at Le Club, a members-only discoteque on the Upper East Side.
“Its membership included some of the most successful men and the most beautiful women in the world,” Trump would later write of the venue in The Art of the Deal. “It turned out to be a great move for me, socially and professionally. I met a lot of beautiful young single women, and I went out almost every night.”
He also met Cohn.
“If you need someone to get vicious toward an opponent, you get Roy,” Trump told the Associated Press after hiring Cohn nearly on-the-spot in 1973. “People will drop a suit just by getting a letter with Roy’s name at the bottom.”
Cohn—considered “the polestar of human evil,” in the words of Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner—became a close Trump companion, fighting seemingly impossible legal battles on Trump’s behalf with his trademark litigious viciousness. After the federal government sued the Trump Management Corp. for alleged housing discriminating against African Americans, Trump filed a Cohn-orchestrated countersuit for $100 million.
The judge dismissed the suit and accused the pair of “wasting time and paper,” but the friendship was cemented. Cohn began fighting Trump’s battles in the press as well as the courtroom, calling himself “not only Donald’s lawyer, but also one of his close friends.” Cohn would introduce Trump to his high-society friends as the kid who was “going to own New York someday.” He even MC’d Trump’s birthday party at Studio 54.
That close friendship made a mark on Trump.
“I hear Roy in the things he says quite clearly,” Peter Fraser, Cohn’s lover during the last two years of his life, told the New York Times in 2016. “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth—that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.”
But when push came to shove, Cohn’s devotion to Trump was not reciprocated. When Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s, Trump—one of the few people with whom Cohn had been open about his homosexuality—began taking his work elsewhere, never telling Cohn why. “There’s no reason to hurt somebody’s feelings,” Trump later told the Times. “He was so weak. He was so weakened that he really couldn’t do it.”
Cohn—who had written Donald’s prenuptial agreement for his first marriage,, who had lobbied pals in the Reagan administration to appoint Trump’s sister to the federal bench, who even as he was dying helped Trump celebrate his acquisition of Mar-a-Lago in 1985—was stunned.
Of the betrayal, Cohn reportedly said: “Donald pisses ice water.”