When Donald Trump was a young Manhattan real-estate developer, and negotiations with competitors or partners reached an impasse, he would brandish a photograph of his pit-bull attorney, Roy Cohn. “Would you rather deal with him?” Trump would ask.
In 1997, 11 years after Cohn’s death, I asked Trump if he ever had worried that associating so closely with a lawyer also employed by mobsters might tarnish his own reputation. Trump brushed off the thought. “You know how many lawyers in New York represent organized-crime figures?” he asked me (I didn’t know). “Does that mean we’re not supposed to use them?”
In 2005, during another of our many conversations, Trump waxed nostalgic about Cohn. “Roy Cohn was a man that if he liked you, he was an unbelievable, loyal friend,” he allowed. “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy. He brutalized for you.”
Trump has always taken a shine to lawyers, advisers, and other employees who brutalize for him - or at least convey to the president they have it in them to brutalize for him. Thus, Michael Cohen.
Cohen, a diluted successor of sorts to Cohn, has been Trump’s personal attorney for more than a decade and has been one of the guys Trump has routinely relied on to wrestle thorny or potentially embarrassing matters to the ground. “I’ll do anything to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen once told Fox News.
On Monday morning, Cohen was on the receiving end of a search warrant that federal prosecutors in New York executed at his office and hotel room. According to the New York Times, the FBI was looking for records involving one of Cohen’s businesses as well as payments to two women who claim to have had sexual encounters with the president. Cohen has already acknowledged making a payment to one of the women.
Trump, who labeled the Cohen raid as the latest installment of bogus law enforcement “witch hunts” intended to ensnare him, has recently complained that some of the lawyers in his orbit aren’t up to snuff. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” he reportedly asked when airing grievances about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He may be saying the same of Cohen now, which wouldn’t be entirely fair. Cohen may not be a Cohn, but he’s also taking his cues from a president wired to play hardball and usually ready to bend or break the rules.
And Cohen’s not the only one who appears to be emulating the president. Just look around.
Scott Pruitt, a lawyer who runs the Environmental Protection Agency, has availed himself of a cheap condo supplied by a corporate lobbyist while also considering or actually racking up big, taxpayer-funded expenses on things like chartered airline flights, first-class travel, a personal security armada, pricey office enhancements, lots of bulletproof stuff and big salary bumps for favored aides. The EPA, according to the Times, says Pruitt’s security spending is justified because people post critical or threatening statements about him on social media sites.
Maybe Pruitt thinks his spending is also justified because the president and his family have racked up hefty charges themselves to have their security details follow them around on golf outings and trips that mix business with official duties. Who knows?
Trump’s corporate lawyers seem to be taking after Roy Cohn as well. According to The Washington Post, Trump Organization attorneys last month asked Panama’s president to referee a legal squabble involving the Trump International Hotel in Panama City - noting that the dispute could have “repercussions” for the country if no action was taken. As the Post noted, it was “the first known instance of the Trump Organization asking directly for a foreign leader’s help with a business dispute since Trump was elected.” The letter also carried the whiff of a threat. Brutal.
The White House punted the Post’s questions on the Panamanian showdown to the Trump Organization. The Trump Organization said the Panamanian lawyers were acting on their own, and issued a statement on their behalf saying that the letter was a “common” and “routine” legal tactic for them.
Trump says he isn’t bothered by Pruitt’s zealous spending at the EPA. He responded to the Cohen raids by saying that he considers a federal probe of possible ties between his campaign and Russia to be “an attack on our country in a true sense.” He’s also musing openly about decimating the ranks of senior law-enforcement officials involved with the investigation. On Tuesday, the White House said that Trump “certainly has the power” to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
Sometimes, if nobody around you can perfectly channel Roy Cohn, you just have to channel him yourself.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View.