SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
There's a new documentary out about a man who's been dead for more than 30 years but whose influence lives on in today's political climate. The film is called "Where's My Roy Cohn?" - and the title refers to something President Trump was quoted saying as federal investigators were looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was basically a plea for an aggressive attorney. Roy Cohn was Donald Trump's personal lawyer and was known for his open ruthlessness and complete disregard for ethics. Here's a clip from the film, where Cohn describes himself in an interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHERE'S MY ROY COHN?")
UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: You are, really, a tough man and, at times, you...
ROY COHN: Tough, mean, vicious, so on.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: What does that kind of publicity do for your business in New York?
COHN: Oh, it's fantastic. The worse the adjectives, the better it is for business.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: What are they looking for? What are they buying?
COHN: Scare value.
PFEIFFER: Cohn was eventually disbarred. But over time, he became Trump's personal friend and mentor. With us to talk about the documentary and Cohn's continuing imprint on U.S. politics is director Matt Tyrnauer. Matt, welcome.
MATT TYRNAUER: Thank you.
PFEIFFER: Matt, Roy Cohn died in 1986. He was just 59 years old, but he lived long enough to be involved in some historic legal cases. Would you briefly explain what put him on the map, professionally?
TYRNAUER: At the very young age of 23, he bursts upon the national scene as a very controversial figure. He was part of the prosecution team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the atom spy trial. And this was an espionage trial of two Americans who were sent to the electric chair. As to whether Ethel Rosenberg was innocent or guilty - most people think she was innocent. And Cohn, as a young prosecutor, was the one who really pushed for her execution in the electric chair. He transitions, immediately, from that into being the chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Senate subcommittee, which was investigating communists and communist infiltration of the government. Cohn becomes an even bigger figure.
Then after something called the Army–McCarthy hearings, which led to the demise of Senator McCarthy's career, Cohn's reputation had been destroyed as well. But he moves to New York and reinvents himself as a powerbroker and a mob attorney. And it was at the kind of midstage of that career that he met someone named Donald Trump.
PFEIFFER: One person you interviewed for your documentary said that being with Roy Cohn was like being, quote, "in the presence of evil." What did Cohn do and say that earned him that kind of satanic reputation?
TYRNAUER: He was a hypocrite very early in his career. He and McCarthy were also going after gay people in the government. Cohn himself was a closet homosexual, yet he and McCarthy conspired to ruin many gay people's lives because they were accusing them of disloyalty. And this hypocrisy and this bare-knuckle win-at-all-costs philosophy - which, I will add, he passed on to his great student, Donald Trump - is what caused people to consider Roy Cohn to be an evil person.
PFEIFFER: Well, many people you interviewed say that Cohn's warfare approach became Donald Trump's model for how to live life and conduct politics. Did you come away from your research, Matt, believing that Trump is a continuing part of that Roy Cohn lineage?
TYRNAUER: I'll quote someone who knew both men in the '70s and '80s. Donald Trump is Roy Cohn. He completely absorbed all of the lessons of Cohn, which were attack, always double down, accuse your accusers of what you are guilty of, and winning is everything. And Trump absorbed these lessons and has applied them in every aspect of his life and career.
PFEIFFER: There are many people who feel like they've never seen or heard someone like Trump before, at least not in public. But your documentary suggests that he's not that unique a personality, that it's a familiar playbook. It's just that maybe someone with that personality never reached such a high powerful public office. Do you think that's fair to say?
TYRNAUER: Well, I think there have always been demagogues and ruthless people in our public life. I mean, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn - these people were prominent people. They never came near the presidency. Roy Cohn was never going to be president of the United States, but he has in effect created a president from beyond the grave who acts like he does.
PFEIFFER: But there's also an outside enabling factor here, which is that many people in wealthy liberal powerful circles criticize people like Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, yet they invite them into their business events and their social gatherings. What do you learn or what did you learn in your research about the psychology of that, the moral compromise of that in terms of the role of elite society in a way, why they tolerate people like this and allow them into their circle?
TYRNAUER: Yes, I spent a lot of time in the film exploring the culture that allowed Roy Cohn to exist and to thrive. This culture really rose in the post-war period, and New York City was the best place to be a Roy Cohn because it's a totally transactional society. Power is everything. Money is everything. And these are the rules that are acceptable.
Cohn was celebrated for his scoundrel mob attorney style in his lifetime. And people wanted to be near him because he could do them favors and bring them financial gain and influence. That's the context in which he met Trump, who was trying to make his name in that world. Cohn teaches Trump all of his transactional tricks, and Trump embodied that. He absorbed it from Cohn. That's why I made the film.
And we're seeing it play out in real time now. People ask me - how are you prescient to know this? Well, if you knew Roy Cohn, if you knew about him and you knew about his relationship to Trump, you knew this was going to happen. It was a virtual crystal ball.
PFEIFFER: Matt Tyrnauer is director of the new documentary, "Where's My Roy Cohn?". Matt, thank you.
TYRNAUER: Thank you.
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