Never adopt a mentor without first drafting a plan to ditch him and his influence on that day you want to become your own man—or when expediency demands abandonment. President Donald Trump, who was taught the martial arts of verbal combat by Roy Cohn, jettisoned Sen. Joe McCarthy’s former attorney in the mid-1980s when he became ill from HIV. Trump wasn’t so much emerging from the red-baiter’s shadow as he was shunning his faithful attorney due to a sense of morbid panic about the disease. Although he dumped Cohn, Trump never ceased playing the role of the dirtbag attorney’s parrot. Since inauguration, and especially since the scandal with no name has inflicted bleeding wounds all over his presidency, Trump has only become more Cohnian in his persona. He rains his fury down on his opponents, just like Cohn. He breaks rules and bullies all who get in his way. He does whatever it takes to win. When Trump’s mouth forms the words, it’s really Cohn speaking from the grave.
Trump unfurled and waved his Cohnian flag this week as a bundle of obstruction of justice stories hit the front pages. You see it most plainly in the escalating insults directed at former FBI Director James Comey. First he denounces Comey as a leaker, then a coward, then a liar and finally a witch-hunt-leading man of bad character. More of the same arrived when Trump confidant Chris Ruddy of Newsmax took to the airwaves to assert that the president had been musing about firing special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who heads the Russia collusion investigation. The New York Times added to the Ruddy claim, learning that Trump’s staff had talked him out of it. But did the internal debate over sacking Mueller accurately reflect White House machination or was it just Cohnian squid-ink injected into the news stream in an attempt to escape from the no-name scandal?
By Wednesday night, the ink cloud thinned long-enough and Trump was still there. The Washington Post had that story that special counsel Mueller’s Russia probe was asking whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice. The Times chased the story with a similar take. As anybody who has read crime procedurals knows, obstruction of justice prosecutions, like conspiracy charges, are the sabers that prosecutors rattle to panic the target of an investigation when they’re having trouble making a “real” case stick.
But there’s substance to the allegations of Trump obstruction. First, in early June, came a report that Trump had asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to get Comey off the case. Then came Comey’s testimony that Trump asked him to drop the Flynn investigation. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal expanded a previous account that Trump pressured National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Coats to deny that there was any proof of collusion. According to the Journal’s story, an NSA memo exists that documents a phone call between Trump and Rogers. In that call, Trump “questioned the veracity of the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia had interfered with the election and tried to persuade Mr. Rogers to say there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russian officials.”
As if singing from Cohn’s songbook again, Trump battled the stories on Thursday by bellowing on Twitter that the investigation was “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history” and that the obstruction of justice angle was a “phony story” based on the “phony collusion with the Russians story.” Who else is witch-hunting the president? A Friday tweet accused Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of stalking him, too. “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” the president wrote, thereby confirming that he’s under investigation. Thanks, Donald!
According to Trump, the real Russia scandal is the Clinton family’s Russia dealings, tweeting that Hillary Clinton is the real justice obstructer! This tack, too, is Cohnian. Trump has applied the boomerang to the word “obstructionist”: When tossed in his direction he merely redirects it to strike his political opponents, such as Clinton and the Democrats. Likewise, he’s not conflicted by the many connections his people have with Russia. It is the investigators who are “very bad and conflicted people,” as he put it on Twitter.
How well Cohn taught Trump the basics of media and legal warfare! Cohn acolytes like Trump learned the value of raising disagreements to disputes, disputes to legal threats, threats to lawsuits, and lawsuits to war, and war to burned-earth siege, a progression Trump has been playing on his smartphone’s keypad for weeks. Cohn also taught Trump to shrug off IRS audits, deadbeat his personal debtors, lie whenever expedient, and file complicated, retaliatory lawsuits to pour sand in the gears of his opponents. “Over a 13-year-period, ending shortly before Cohn’s death in 1986, Cohn brought his say-anything, win-at-all-costs style to all of Trump’s most notable legal and business deals,” Politico’s Michael Kruse wrote last year. “Cohn’s philosophy shaped the real estate mogul’s worldview and the belligerent public persona visible in Trump’s presidential campaign.”
The Cohn method was distilled in Ken Auletta’s landmark 1978 Esquire profile. An unnamed law school classmate told Auletta that Cohn was “a formidable adversary not because he’s a brilliant lawyer but because he will stop at nothing.” The same applies to Trump. Observing no limits has been Trump’s operational philosophy for as long as anybody can remember, one that informs his current legal defense and the conduct of his administration. Trump’s new Cohn is his long-time personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, who also feels unbound by reality. Following James Comey’s testimony, Kasowitz issued a Cohnian statement that made a mash of the chronology and the facts. As the Atlantic‘s Matt Ford wrote earlier this month, Kasowitz sought “to shift the investigative cloud away from his client and onto [Comey] the man all but accusing him of obstruction of justice—a task it does not accomplish.” Roy Cohn would be so proud!
Cohn would have also dispensed attaboys to Kasowitz on the news this week from ProPublica that he had boasted about getting the insufficiently loyal U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara fired in March. Such extrajudicial message-jamming was a Cohn tactic from way back when Sen. McCarthy was his mentor. McCarthy didn’t debate his opponents, he defamed them and branded them as illegitimate, a lesson Trump has applied to every crisis of his presidency, ripping judges as “so-called” and the press as “fake.”
The great Washington cliché is that it’s not the crime that destroys you, it’s the cover-up. In truth, it’s the investigation that undoes politicians. Investigations like the ones headed by Mueller and Congress move slowly, amassing evidence by increments, and building a case. The probe puddled out this week to include son-in-law Jared Kushner’s business transactions, according to the Washington Post, adding to the financial investigations of Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page already reported. In the most sensible moves of the week, both Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen lawyered up, hiring private counsels to firewall them from Mueller’s widening inquiry. Never one to lose the spotlight without a fight, Trump placed his order for a second personal attorney Friday afternoon.
Nobody knows how the Russia probe will end, but we can guess the path it will plow to reach its final destination. Trump knows only one method of conflict resolution, the one his mentor taught. As Auletta wrote of Cohn, "It is said by many that he will lie, cheat, invent facts, smoke with bullying rage, or ooze with charm—whatever is required." Like Cohn, Trump views legal trouble as war. There will be no surrender, no quarter given, no prisoners taken. The mentor wouldn’t allow it any other way.
Readers, keep sending me your nominations for a name for the no-name scandal. All scandal names suffixed “-gate” will be rejected. But submitting a name for the scandal, you give me permission to publish your name. This week’s nominations: “Collushnikov” (Wayne Michel), “Bearhack (Will Saletan), “Rusky Business” (Eileen Blass), “Trumpot Dome,” (Eliot Kieval), “Onion Dome” (Diana de Chene), “Matryoshka” (Lawrence Wood), “TweetPot Dome” (Travis Dodd), “Moscow Meddling” (Vic Koenig), “Trumplestilskin” (Christian Stapff), and “MAGAcon” (Elizabeth Knauss). Send nominations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have been subpoenaed, my Twitter feed has hired an outside counsel, and my RSS feed vows never to be taken alive.