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The Strange Career of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man


There are certain behind-the-scenes figures in American politics who, like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, seem to turn up everywhere. One of the most notorious is Roy Cohn, a man whose influence spans several decades of hot button issues, Republican politicians and LGBT history.

Cohn was a prosecutor in the Rosenberg spy trial, chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, a close friend to Nancy Reagan and a personal lawyer for Donald Trump. He was also a closeted gay man who helped purge suspected gay and lesbian employees from the government. Cohn died from AIDS-related complications in 1986, and afterwards was portrayed in the 1990s Broadway play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

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Attorney Roy Cohn, left, talking to Senator Joseph McCarthy, circa 1954.

McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare

Roy Cohn entered the spotlight early. At age 23, he was a prosecutor on the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union in 1951 and executed by electric chair two years later. This gained him attention from two fervent anti-communists: longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Cohn became chief counsel to McCarthy as well as a chief architect of what we now call “McCarthyism”—the interrogation and purging of federal employees based on McCarthy’s unsupported claim that the government was filled with communists. In addition to this very public Second Red Scare, Cohn and McCarthy also led the less-public Lavender Scare against federal employees suspected of being gay.

It’s unknown how many employees the Lavender Scare forced out between the late ‘40s and early ‘60s, but the number is likely in the thousands. Like communists, McCarthy considered gay people security risks because of their supposed mental instability.

“In lavender Washington, Cohn was known as both a closeted homosexual and homophobic, among those leading the charge against supposedly gay witnesses who he and others believed should lose their government jobs because they were ‘security risks,’” writes journalist Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair.

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times/Redux
News conference by Donald Trump and attorney Roy Cohn where they announced a billion dollar lawsuit against the National Football League in 1984.

Donald Trump’s Mentor

Fast forward to Manhattan, 1973. Cohn was at Le Club—a hangout for the wealthy—when a man turned to him and asked his advice about Justice Department allegations that his real estate company had discriminated against Black tenants. That man was future President Donald Trump, and Cohn advised, “tell them to go to hell.”

Soon afterward, Cohn started working as Trump’s personal lawyer. Cohn served as a mentor to the businessman, helping him to navigate the world of New York’s power brokers. Cohn also famously introduced him to the political strategist Roger Stone, who advised his presidential campaign.

Trump was one of many prominent clients during Cohn’s career, including Nancy Reagan, to whom he became close; the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and suspected Mafia bosses Carmine Galante and “Fat Tony” Salerno.

AIDS and Later Portrayal

Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. Although Ronald Reagan was famously slow to take action during the AIDS epidemic, he helped Cohn secure an experimental treatment after his diagnosis.

Shortly before his death in 1986, Cohn was disbarred as a lawyer for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation.” The charges included a visit he made to the dying multimillionaire Lewis Rosenstiel at a hospital while Rosenstiel was semi-comatose. “Cohn held Rosenstiel’s hand to sign a document naming Cohn a co-executor of Rosenstiel’s will after falsely telling him that the document dealt with his divorce,” The Washington Post reported at the time

Cohn is remembered as a major, and unethical, player in national Republican politics. He also figures strongly into one of the major plays about the AIDS crisis, Angels in America. Playwright Tony Kushner was inspired to write about Cohn after seeing his panel on the AIDS Quilt. It said, “Roy Cohn: Bully, Coward, Victim.” As in real life, the character of Cohn in Kushner’s play publicly insists that he has “liver cancer,” though this was not one of his AIDS-related complications.