The velocity of the impeachment inquiry — and the ferocity of President Donald Trump’s response to it — may send some to the movies just to get away from it all.
Just don’t go see “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” if you’re seeking escapism.
But do go see it if you really want to understand the man at the center of the scandal. Because this compelling documentary about the infamous attorney, whose Zelig-like life led him to the legal and literal side of Joseph McCarthy, mafia dons, Donald Trump and other high-profile defendants during the latter half of the 20th century, is just as revealing about Trump, whom Cohn mentored.
The film’s title “literally comes from Trump’s dissatisfaction with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, when he wouldn’t un-recuse himself from the nascent Mueller investigation,” Matt Tyrnauer, the documentary’s director, said in an interview. “So the New York Times reported that Trump said, ‘Where’s my Roy Cohn?’ which means, literally, where’s my mob attorney, which of course is not the role of the attorney general.”
Cohn was indeed counsel for mafia dons, Tyrnauer said. But Cohn came to prominence through his association with another bad guy: Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose tactics were so egregious that there’s forever an “-ism” affixed to his name.
“Modern, right-wing demagogue politics” in the U.S. started in the McCarthy era that “was named for the venal senator from Wisconsin who made his name by smearing innocent people,” Tyrnauer said. The resulting fear of “the other” is “a very effective demagogic tactic to sow fear and divide people and it’s a proven way to win elections. Trump exploited it to a point we haven’t seen since the McCarthy era.”
And when it comes to the mentor-mentee relationship, “Donald Trump is entirely the creation of Roy Cohn,” Tyrnauer said. “People to whom I spoke who knew both men said that Donald Trump is Roy Cohn; there’s no difference between the two men.”
In fact, as the film flits among sordid episodes in Cohn’s career, there are linguistic and tactical echoes between the two men, whose “origin story,” Tyrnauer said, was the Justice Department suing the developer over Fair Housing Act violations.
“Cohn tells him to countersue the federal government for the absurd amount of $100 million,” Tyrnauer explained. “The countersuit was dismissed, but it had the effect of throwing the opponent off balance, and then the eventual result was a settlement without the admission of guilt. Trump claimed victory; not admitting guilt can be spun in that way.”
That’s a pattern familiar in the metastasizing impeachment story, in which the White House tried to invert Trump as the victim. “The president of the United States is the whistleblower,” White House aide Stephen Miller growled on “Fox News Sunday.” Later, after the controversial content of Trump’s Ukraine call was first denied and then dismissed, Trump openly, brazenly called for Kiev — and then Beijing — to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden.
Trump’s denunciations of the real whistleblower and those in Congress doing their duty as committing treason, his characterization of the constitutional process as a coup and his invoking of a civil war are tactics straight from Cohn’s playbook toward the press.
Cohn, Tyrnauer said, “understood that the press is trained to report accurately what you say. So as long as you have access to the reporters, they will print your point of view, and if you can get that point of view near the top of the article, generally your opinion in the first few paragraphs, or in the first sentences the newsman speaks on TV; through that tactic he succeeded in getting all the attention he could ever hope for and usually came out ahead.”
At times, the Cohn-era press — especially the New York tabloid press — comes across as corrosive as Cohn is corrupt. And some high-society New Yorkers’ low morals look as compromised as Cohn when they overlook his dishonesty despite — or perhaps because of — his notoriety.
This A-list includes ABC’s Barbara Walters, to whom Cohn claimed he was engaged, even though he lived a closeted life. Cohn, who died of AIDS at the age of 59 in 1986, never reckoned with his sexuality. But he made others do so as he contributed to an era when the livelihoods, and maybe even the lives, of some government officials who happened to be in same-sex relationships were destroyed.
Americans entering the new television age were electrified by the Army-McCarthy hearings, especially Army attorney Joseph Welch upbraiding the brash McCarthy by famously saying, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The early ’50s were a “relatively unfractured media landscape, so a line like that could really land and have a tremendous effect,” Tyrnauer said. “Now, in the era of social media and hundreds of TV stations, it’s much harder for anything to land like that.”
But a commensurate messenger may have arrived, even though we don’t know his, or her, identity, Tyrnauer said.
“We’ve been a nation in search of a Joseph Welch for a couple of years now. I think many people felt that Robert Mueller would be the Joseph Welch of our present moment, and for various reasons, though a man of integrity, he turned out not to be.
“It strikes me,” Tyrnauer concluded, “that in this present moment we might have found though a Joseph Welch in a most unusual place, especially in the naked age of mass communication that we’re in: It could be an anonymous whistleblower who played by the rules and followed the safeguards and statutes that Congress put in place to bring malfeasance in the executive branch into the open.”
If so, that’ll have to be the subject of another documentary. Because even a screenwriter couldn’t come up with this.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.