Trump's Art of the Deal and Roy Cohn: “Always Hit Back”

Roy Cohn’s advice to Donald Trump.

By Jon WienerOctober 20, 2016

Trump's Art of the Deal and Roy Cohn: “Always Hit Back”

DONALD TRUMP HAS FAILED at many things: his casinos went bankrupt, his “university” collapsed in lawsuits, his TV show was cancelled. But he was hugely successful with one undertaking: his book Trump The Art of the Deal. It was, to use some of his favorite adjectives, something terrific, spending almost a year on the New York Times bestseller list in 1987, including 13 tremendous weeks at Number One. It has sold more than a million copies, earning him millions and millions in royalties. (And it is undoubtedly more successful than almost any book ever written about in LARB.)

Reading the book is a miserable experience, especially now. Every page provides at least one example of what Garry Trudeau calls “big, honking hubris.” And it's full of lies, of course; lies about his, well, deals.

But Art of the Deal does contain one massively important truth: it explains why he has been so wild in his attacks over the last few months on people he is not running against this year. This conduct has driven Republican political professionals to despair, and seems inexplicable: spending a week tweeting about a Venezuelan beauty queen for gaining weight; going after the Khan family, whose soldier son was killed in Afghanistan; attacking Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in Congress — when every political strategy requires that he devote all his energy to attacking Hillary Clinton.

Trying to explain his behavior, pundits have said we were witnessing Trump’s “inability to restrain his worse impulses,” or that he “blindly follows his ego,” or that he’s “like a two-year-old” (here and here). And many have been saying he is simply crazy. In fact if you Google “Trump and crazy,” you get 66 million results — starting with President Obama, who said recently that Trump comes from “the swamp of crazy.”

There’s a better explanation. Trump’s statements are not infantile or impulsive or insane, but rather are part of a conscious, consistent, long-term strategy for dealing with criticism and opposition. It’s all there in Art of the Deal, Chapter 5, “The Move to Manhattan,” where Trump tells the story of how in 1973 he managed to join a private club — of course it was “the hottest in the city and perhaps the most exclusive,” and of course its members included “some of the most successful men and the most beautiful women in the world.” It was the kind of place, he wrote, “where you were likely to see a wealthy seventy-five-year-old guy walk in with three blondes from Sweden.” In other words, Trump’s kind of place.

But it wasn’t the blondes at that club that most interested him. It was a New York lawyer named Roy Cohn. For liberals and leftists in New York, Roy Cohn was the personification of evil, the reptilian right-hand man and snarling chief counsel for Joe McCarthy during the darkest days of the blacklist, and later a notorious legal attack dog and fixer for mobsters and corrupt politicians.

Roy Cohn taught young Donald Trump two simple precepts: Always hit back. Never apologize. That’s exactly what we’ve seen Trump doing throughout the campaign, and especially the last several weeks. So if a Venezuelan beauty queen says you treated her cruelly, you say she made a sex tape. If the father of a dead soldier criticizes you on TV, you say he didn’t allow his wife to speak. And if the most powerful Republican in Washington says he won’t defend you any more, you spend days calling him “weak and ineffective.” Because you always hit back. And you never apologize. That’s what Trump learned from the man who became his mentor.

There’s a lot about Roy Cohn that’s not in Art of the Deal. Trump does let his readers know that “I don’t kid myself about Roy. He was no Boy Scout.” Trump left out the story of the first part of Cohn’s career, when he worked as a young federal prosecutor who helped send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. Then he went to work for McCarthy. Missing from Art of the Deal: the famous photo showing Cohn whispering in McCarthy’s ear during hearings of his Senate committee, where the term “McCarthyism” entered the lexicon.

Also missing from Trump’s book: the story of how, after the fall of McCarthy, Cohn opened his own law office and became what the New York Times called “New York’s most feared lawyer,” with a client list that included mobsters like ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno, accused wife-murderer Claus von Bulow, and, in the words of the Times, “the quasi-reputable George Steinbrenner.”

When Trump met Cohn, the family business was in crisis. Trump was working for his father, Fred, renting out apartments in Queens and Brooklyn. That year the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sued Trump and his father, charging them with refusing to rent to black people. It was the first time Donald Trump’s name appeared in the New York Times. The family lawyers told the Trumps to settle. That’s in the book.

Then Donald met Roy Cohn — Trump was 27, Cohn was 50 — and something clicked between them. Trump told him about the family’s legal problems. This episode provides one of the climactic moments of the book, and one of the key lessons readers are supposed to learn about “the art of the deal.” Cohn’s advice was clear: don’t settle. Hit back. Trump quoted Cohn’s words: “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court.” The Trumps signed up with him.

Trump’s book is wildly misleading on what happened next, although it’s the story he’s been telling ever since, including in the first debate. He says “we ended up making a minor settlement without admitting any guilt. […] and that was the end of the suit.”

The true story is much richer and more revealing. Cohn’s response to United States v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump and Trump Management Inc. showed Donald how to deal with opponents: he filed a countersuit against the federal government, calling the Justice Department complaint “baseless” and “irresponsible.” He demanded $100 million in damages — something like half a billion in today’s dollars.

The judge in the case wasn’t impressed. He dismissed the countersuit, calling it “wasting time and paper.” Cohn fought back, accusing the Justice Department of “Gestapo-like tactics.” He called the FBI investigators “storm troopers.” The delays lasted two years, after which the Trumps finally had to settle. The consent decree they signed required that they rent to more black people and that they put ads in black newspapers saying they were an “equal housing opportunity” company. The government press release called the consent decree “one of the most far-reaching ever negotiated.”

Cohn had a different approach: the Trumps’ press released called it a victory. It’s a lot like Trump declaring victory after the presidential debates.

That was the point at which Roy Cohn “became Donald’s mentor,” says Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice, who wrote the 1992 book Trump: The Deals and the Downfall. After that, Cohn was Trump’s “constant adviser on every significant aspect of his business and personal life.” You don’t learn that from Art of the Deal. After the story about the housing discrimination settlement, Roy Cohn appears only once in the rest of the book – getting a tax exemption for Trump Tower in 1981.

One other Roy Cohn story is missing from Art of the Deal: his disbarment in 1986, the year before the book was published. The Bar Association charged Cohn with “fraud, deceit and misrepresentation” — for “lying on a bar application, for taking a client’s money, for altering the will of an incapacitated man,” as Politico explained. In the disbarment proceedings, Cohn received testimonials from Barbara Walters, Geraldine Ferraro, Alan Dershowitz, and William Buckley — and also from Donald Trump, who, according to Alexander Cockburn in The Nation, “testified that Cohn was a fine fellow.” It didn’t work. The five-judge appellate panel said they found Cohn’s explanations “incomprehensible” and “incredible” and his testimony “misleading” and “untruthful.” (Trump didn’t mention his testimony at Roy Cohn’s disbarment proceedings in Art of the Deal. When researchers at The Smoking Gun website asked the courts for a copy of that testimony, they were told that all the records had been destroyed in a 2015 fire at a Brooklyn waterfront warehouse where the New York state court system stored its records.) Five weeks after his disbarment, Roy Cohn died — of AIDS. Fifteen months after that, Art of the Deal was published.

Cohn is long gone, but his tactics have come to dominate our dark political landscape this season — and it’s all there, in Donald Trump’s huge, amazing, tremendous best seller.


Jon Wiener is on the board of Los Angeles Review of Books and is at work on a book about Los Angeles in the 1960s with Mike Davis.

LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower.  He is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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