The Original Donald Trump
Amid the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey last May, I went to see Angels in America at the same theater in London, the National, where I’d first seen it as a New York Times drama critic some 25 years earlier. The play didn’t transport me quite as far from the lamentable present as I’d hoped. The new production, now on Broadway, doesn’t radically depart in tone or quality (high) from the first. But the play’s center of gravity had shifted. While Tony Kushner’s epic had been seared into my memory by the frail figure of Prior Walter, a young gay man fighting AIDS with almost the entire world aligned against him, this time it was Roy Cohn who dominated: a closeted, homophobic, middle-aged gay man also battling AIDS but who, unlike the fictional Prior, was a real-life Über-villain of America’s 20th century. “The polestar of human evil,” as one character describes him. “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.”
What has changed is not Angels but America. Even if you hadn’t known that Cohn had been Trump’s mentor and hadn’t read the election-year journalistic retrospectives on their toxic common tactics (counterpunch viciously, deny everything, stiff your creditors, manipulate the tabloids), you’d see and hear the current president in Cohn’s ruthless bullying and profane braggadocio. That isn’t because Nathan Lane, a Cohn for the ages, is doing a Trump impersonation. The uncanny overlap between these two figures is all there in the writing. “Was it legal? Fuck legal,” Cohn rants at one point, about having privately lobbied the judge Irving Kaufman to send Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. “Am I a nice man? Fuck nice. They say terrible things about me in the Nation. Fuck the Nation. You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective?” It turns out that in his rendering of Cohn a quarter-century ago, Kushner had identified an enduring strain of political evil that is as malignant in its way as the AIDS virus, just as dangerous to the nation, and just as difficult to eradicate.
Cohn, after all, was supposed to have been washed up in 1954, after he and his superior in witch-hunting, Joe McCarthy, imploded in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy drank himself to death, and Cohn fled Washington a pariah, his brief career in government service in ruins. Yet as Kushner accurately picks up the story three decades later, Cohn had reinvented himself as a power broker after returning to his hometown of New York, and he would remain so right up until disbarment and AIDS finally leveled him in 1986. How could that be? Sure, the right-wing resurgence of the 1980s gave him a late-in-life boost. Cohn’s juice with Ronnie and Nancy, as Kushner dramatizes, gained him access to the experimental medication AZT denied most everyone else. (He may have been the only AIDS patient the Reagan White House lifted a finger to help.) But the question of how Cohn both survived and flourished as a Manhattan eminence in the quarter-century between McCarthy and Reagan is beyond the play’s already-considerable scope.
It’s an ellipsis that gnawed at me because the same question applies to Trump. Cohn thrived throughout a New York second act rife with indictments and scandals that included accusations of multiple bank- and securities-law violations, perennial tax evasion, bribery, extortion, theft, and even precipitating the death of a young man in a suspicious fire. Trump may never have been suspected of manslaughter, but he also flourished for decades despite being a shameless lawbreaker, tax evader, liar, racist, bankruptcy aficionado, and hypocrite notorious for his mob connections, transactional sexual promiscuity, and utter disregard for rules, scruples, and morals. Indeed, Trump triumphed despite having all of Cohn’s debits, wartime draft dodging included, but none of his assets — legal cunning, erudition, a sense of humor, brainpower, and loyalty. (The putz-cum-fixer Michael Cohen, who is to Cohn what Dan Quayle was to Jack Kennedy, boasts none of these attributes either.) And Trump, like Cohn, got away with it all under the ostensibly pitiless magnifying glass of New York. Much as one hates to concede it, it’s no small achievement that he succeeded where so many of his betters failed in becoming the first New Yorker to catapult himself to the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The story of Trump’s ascent complicates the equation for those who want to believe that it was exclusively a product of his genius for publicity, or his B-stardom in a long-running reality show in NBC’s prime time, or a vast right-wing conspiracy abetted by deplorable voters like those in Wisconsin who sent McCarthy to the Senate in 1946 and helped Trump take the Electoral College in 2016. Nor is Trump’s New York backstory comforting to those of us in the habit of quarantining the blame for his unlikely victory to Russian and/or Comey’s interference, the ineptitude of the Clinton campaign, the Fox News–Breitbart complex, and the cynical, feckless Vichy Republicans who stood by as Trump subverted every principle they once claimed to have held dear.
There are Vichy Democrats too. From the mid-1970s to the turn of the century, well before Trump debuted on The Apprentice or flirted more than glancingly with politics, he gained power and consolidated it with the help of allies among the elites of New York’s often nominally Democratic and liberal Establishment — some of them literally the same allies who boosted Cohn. Like Cohn (a registered Democrat until he died) and Trump (an off-and-on Democrat for years), their enablers were not committed to any party or ideology. Their priority was raw personal power that could be leveraged for their own enrichment, privilege, and celebrity. Cohn’s biographer Nicholas von Hoffman described what he called the “Roy Cohn Barter and Swap Exchange”: It specialized in “deals, favors, hand washings, and reciprocities of all kinds.” And while Cohn is gone, the exchange never shut down. Its unofficial legislative body is the floating quid pro quo Favor Bank that has always made New York tick at its highest levels, however corruptly, since Tammany Hall. It’s a realm where everyone has his (or her) price, and clout is always valued higher than any civic good. All that matters is the next transaction. Since time immemorial, those who find it unsavory are invariably dismissed as naïve.
The more I’ve looked back at the entanglements of Trump, Cohn, and their overlapping circles and modi operandi, the more I think the crux of their political culture could be best captured if Edward Sorel were to create a raucous mural depicting the Friday night in February 1979 when Cohn celebrated his 52nd birthday at Studio 54. That sprawling midtown Valhalla of the disco era, a nexus for boldface names, omnivorous drug consumption, anonymous sex, and managerial larceny, was owned by Cohn’s clients (and soon-to-be-imprisoned felons) Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. The guest list? “If you’re indicted, you’re invited,” went the comedian Joey Adams’s oft-repeated joke about Cohn’s soirées. Among the (all-white) Democratic revelers joining Republican and Conservative party leaders at Cohn’s black-tie testimonial were the borough presidents of Queens (Donald Manes), Brooklyn (Howard Golden), and Manhattan (Andrew Stein), not to mention the former Democratic mayor Abe Beame and a bevy of judges, including the chief of the U.S. District Court. The investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, who covered the scrum from the sidewalk for the Village Voice, noted that, among the usual Warhol celebrity crowd, politicians, and fixers, was a “surprise” attendee — “newcomer Chuck Schumer, a ‘reform’ assemblyman from Brooklyn who insisted he was just the date of a gossip columnist.” Also in attendance, less surprisingly, and camera-ready for the paparazzi, was the 32-year-old Trump, who by then had been in Cohn’s orbit for six years.
Like the other developers on hand, Trump had sought and won favors from some of the older, more powerful Democrats who were present. With Cohn’s imprimatur, Trump gained easy access to the ostensibly nonpartisan press Establishment as well. Si Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast magazines and Cohn’s best friend since their high-school days at Horace Mann, showed up for the Studio 54 blast. Earlier in the day, Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor of the Times, had brought his companion, Katharine Balfour, to pay homage to Cohn over lunch at the ‘21’ Club. In years to come, Rosenthal would enjoy Trump’s hospitality at Mar-a-Lago.
Neither the Newhouse magazine-and-newspaper empire nor Rosenthal’s Times was in those days conspicuous for prying too deeply into the shadows surrounding Cohn or Trump. Some journalistic big guns preferred to be behind velvet ropes with McCarthy’s former henchman than out on the pavement casing the joint like Barrett. A few months after the Studio 54 bacchanal, Morley Safer would front a soft 60 Minutes Cohn profile in which, among other euphemisms, viewers were informed that Cohn had never tied the knot with his oft-rumored fiancée Barbara Walters because “he’s just not the marrying kind.” In its effort to be “balanced,” the piece came off as a free ad for Cohn’s supposed legal wizardry and cast him as something of a victim. (Intriguingly, this 60 Minutes segment cannot be found on YouTube, while a tougher, if tardy, Mike Wallace profile, made as Cohn was dying seven years later, can be.) By that point, Walters had long since delivered for her platonic fiancé with her first promotional profile of his shiny young protégé for ABC’s 60 Minutes rival 20/20. Titled “The Man Who Has Everything,” it was, in the Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio’s description, “wealth pornography.” Among other superlatives, it floated the dubious claim (for the 1970s) that “the Trumps are treated like American royalty.”
For years it’s been a parlor game for Americans to wonder how history might have turned out if someone had stopped Lee Harvey Oswald before he shot JFK. One might be tempted — just as fruitlessly — to speculate on what might have happened if more of New York’s elites had intervened back then, nonviolently, to block or seriously challenge Trump’s path to power. They had plenty of provocation and opportunities to do so. Trump practiced bigotry on a grand scale, was a world-class liar, and ripped off customers, investors, and the city itself. Yet for many among New York’s upper register, there was no horror he could commit that would merit his excommunication. As with Cohn before him, the more outrageously and reprehensibly Trump behaved, the more the top rungs of society were titillated by him. They could cop out of any moral judgments or actions by rationalizing him as an entertaining con man: a cheesy, cynical, dumbed-down Gatsby who fit the city’s tacky 1980s Gilded Age much as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s more romantic prototype had the soigné Jazz Age of the 1920s. And so most of those who might have stopped Trump gawked like the rest of us as he scrambled up the city’s ladder, grabbing anything that wasn’t nailed down.
It was Democrats in New York who taught both Cohn and Trump that they could buy off politicians and try to get away with anything. Cohn’s father, Al, was a Bronx and then New York State Supreme Court judge. The elder Cohn’s roots in the party’s machine were hardwired into his son: Young Roy figured out how to pull strings to fix a parking ticket for a teacher while still in high school. Trump grew up with a father who had been intertwined with the Brooklyn Democratic machine while building his residential-real-estate empire. By the time the clubhouse hack Beame arrived in City Hall in 1974 after the reform mayoralty of John Lindsay, Fred Trump had known him for 30 years. The new mayor immediately gave both Trumps a license to steal by declaring that “whatever Donald and Fred want, they have my complete backing.” Never mind, as the Trump biographers Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher observed, that Donald Trump didn’t have the financing to snag the real-estate prize he then sought, the properties of the bankrupt Penn Central railroad. The Beame deputy mayor Stanley Friedman pushed through an enormous 40-year, $400 million tax abatement — this at the city’s bankrupt nadir — and in his waning weeks in office fast-tracked the agency approvals Trump needed to rebuild the decrepit old Commodore Hotel as the Grand Hyatt, his first big deal. Roy Cohn served as the closer: The day after the Beame administration was succeeded by Ed Koch’s in 1978, Friedman was paid off for his Trump handiwork with a new job as a partner in Cohn’s law firm. (It was not enough to save Friedman from federal prison a decade later, when he was convicted in unrelated kickback scandals the year after Cohn’s death.)
Trump’s other major political ally as he erected a new, Manhattan real-estate empire on top of his father’s outer-borough fiefdom was the Democratic governor Hugh Carey. Trump engineered a brazen conflict-of-interest that you’d be tempted to call mind-boggling were its contours not being replicated on a far grander scale within the current White House. In the 1970s, Trump hired as his lobbyist Carey’s chief political fund-raiser, Louise Sunshine, even as he and his father were the second-biggest contributors to Carey’s 1978 reelection campaign (only a Carey brother, an oilman, gave more). “He’ll do anything for a developer who gives him a campaign contribution,” said Trump of Carey. And so he did. Trump was unstoppable, though he kept writing checks to other useful Democrats, including a record $270,000 (for a Board of Estimate election) to the Cohn crony Andrew Stein, who served as Manhattan borough president and then New York City Council president from 1978 to 1994 and “whose varied public performances for Trump were a metaphor for gutter government,” in Wayne Barrett’s estimation. (Stein would years later plead guilty to un-Trump-related tax evasion.) Trump would also give to (among others) Schumer, Eliot Spitzer, and Andrew Cuomo, who took Trump as a client even as his father was governor and Trump was conniving to develop the West Side yards and build a domed football stadium in Queens.
Unlike Trump, Cohn had no interest in building anything. He wanted to tear down institutions and people for fun and profit. To shield him from repercussions, legal or otherwise, he didn’t have just a retinue of politicians from both parties in his pocket but a client list whose breadth was no doubt aspirational to the young Trump — the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the self-described “boss of bosses” Carmine “Lilo” Galante, and the city’s reigning real-estate titans (the Helmsleys, LeFraks, et al.), as well as the Newhouse publishing empire and Studio 54. This coterie either looked the other way or gave Cohn cover during transgression after transgression, some of them proto-Trump financial flimflams in which he looted banks or companies; others involving unpaid bills to creditors as varied as the IRS, Dunhill Tailors, and a local locksmith; still others more sensational. In the late 1960s, Cohn took a loan of $100,000 from a client for whom he negotiated a suspiciously parsimonious divorce settlement from a billionaire, and fought paying it back until the case threatened his law license in the early 1980s. In the 1970s, a Florida court ruled that Cohn had pushed an elderly friend in mental decline, Lewis Rosenstiel, the founder of the Schenley liquor empire, into signing a will that made Cohn a trustee of his estate. It was in 1973, the year he met Trump, that perhaps the most sinister of the Cohn horror stories of his post-McCarthy career unfolded. A yacht leased by a shell company Cohn controlled was sent to sea despite having been judged in dire disrepair by its previous captain. A suspicious fire broke out, the yacht sank, a crew member died, and Cohn collected both legal fees and a back-channel insurance payout.
Some of these escapades would figure in the disbarment proceedings that finally ended Cohn’s legal career in 1986, though in truth it was over anyway, since AIDS would finish him off six weeks later. But until then he was often protected by the press. Through a fluke, he had friendships dating back to childhood with Generoso Pope Jr., the owner of the very same National Enquirer whose current CEO, David Pecker, now tries to protect Trump, and Richard Berlin, the CEO of Hearst, as well as Si Newhouse. Before he joined McCarthy in Washington, the young Cohn had been an acolyte of and tipster for the mighty Hearst gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who demonstrated by example how the press could be enlisted into the Favor Bank of the powerful. As Thomas Maier writes in the 1994 biography Newhouse, Cohn used his influence in the early ’80s to secure favors for himself and Mob clients in Newhouse publications — even writing an IRS-trashing cover story in its national Sunday-newspaper supplement, Parade. After Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in 1976, Cohn wielded the paper as his personal shiv, slipping tips about friends and enemies to “Page Six.” His own ensuing image rehabilitation was at least as effective as his many face-lifts. “For younger people,” Nicholas von Hoffman wrote in the 1980s, Roy Cohn was no longer the McCarthy smear artist but “another name for a très smart lawyer, for Disco Dan, for the international, I-go-by-private-plane man.” The journalist Ken Auletta, in an unflinching 1978 dissection for Esquire, tried to puncture Cohn’s makeover, and was invited by 60 Minutes to be the contrarian in Safer’s sanitizing profile. Nonetheless, CBS’s piece ended with a generous summation, read onscreen by Dan Rather, that firmly humanized him: “Roy Cohn is not an enigma. He’s simply a man who is seen differently by different people. If you engaged in amateur analysis, you might say that Roy Cohn was the kid on the block that all the bullies beat up on. And so, when Roy Marcus Cohn was growing up, he was determined to get rich, and get even, and he has.” Tick tick tick tick.
During his steady rise in New York from the 1970s into the 1990s, Trump was tracked by some Aulettas of his own in addition to the Voice’s Barrett, from Neil Barsky at the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal and Daily News to the dedicated Trump-baiting magazine Spy. But these journalists, like many to come, could be outshouted and bulldozed by Trump’s relentless lies and self-mythologizing. With the aid of Cohn’s own compliant press pool and the contacts he courted at the television networks, Trump would continue to promote himself on his own terms in the pre-digital media era. Magazines, New York prominent among them, grabbed the commercial rewards of exploiting his latest stunts as glossily as possible. The most powerful news organizations and media barons often let Trump have his way. In a scathing editorial this month, the Times observed that “Mr. Trump has spent his career in the company of developers and celebrities, and also of grifters, cons, sharks, goons and crooks.” While the Times would start covering his corruption in earnest in the 2000s after Timothy L. O’Brien, the author of the hard-hitting 2005 book TrumpNation, was hired, the paper’s coverage was anything but aggressive during the crucial decades when Trump was amassing his power.
Exhibit A of the Times’ credulousness is the puffy feature that put him on the media map in 1976. “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford,” read the lead. At this early date, Trump had only proposed ambitious projects, not built them or closed any of the requisite deals, but the profile christened him “New York’s No. 1 real estate promoter of the mid-1970’s” nonetheless. The article accepted Trump’s word that he was of Swedish descent, “publicity shy,” ranked first in his class at Wharton, made millions in unspecified land deals in California, was worth $200 million, and with his father owned 22,000 apartment units. None of this was remotely true, but the sexy brew of hyperbole and outright fantasy, having been certified by the paper of record, set the tone for much that was to come.
In 1981, for instance, the Times could be found quoting an unnamed “real-estate official” (John Barron, perhaps?) furthering the implausible notion that Prince Charles and Diana were considering the purchase of a 21-room condo in Trump Tower for $5 million — a useful bit of free false advertising as the development’s condos went on the market for a 1983 opening. A 1984 Times Magazine profile christened Trump “the man of the hour” just as he was embarking on his financially reckless (and ultimately catastrophic) expansion into Atlantic City. Along the way, Trump continued to inflate his net worth. He was so obsessed with the Forbes annual list ranking the wealthiest Americans that he had Cohn muscle the magazine to fix it, a tale recently recounted in full by a former Forbes staffer, Jonathan Greenberg, in the Washington Post. By the 1990s, no less a television personage than ABC’s Diane Sawyer courted an exclusive PrimeTime Live interview with Marla Maples, complete with a best-sex-you-ever-had question, to facilitate the promotion of the Trump brand — “one of the low points in television journalism history,” in the judgment of the PBS anchor Robert MacNeil. The ultimate result of such fake news retailed by real-news outlets, as Michael D’Antonio would conclude just before Trump’s presidential run, is that “no one in the world of business — not Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffett — has been as famous for as long.” And one might add: No one as famous in business has been famous for a portfolio of low-rent businesses that included the likes of Trump University and Trump Steaks.
Trump knew he could get away with snookering the ostensibly liberal press Establishment because he’d seen Cohn do so. One of the most memorable examples occurred on Sunday, November 17, 1985 — the same day that Trump was the subject of his own first Mike Wallace 60 Minutes profile. That morning’s Times contained a gentle, reflective interview with the dying Cohn at a “Washington-area hospital” in which it was stated as fact that he was “fighting liver cancer” — a fiction Cohn vehemently maintained, much as Trump now tells staff members that the Access Hollywood tape is a hoax. The unnamed Washington-area hospital was the National Institutes of Health, where the Reagans had helped him cut to the front of the line for AIDS treatment. It was a given under Rosenthal’s editorship that the Times would bring up none of this to protect the criminally hypocritical Cohn, who had threatened closeted gay government officials with exposure in the McCarthy era and loudly fought gay rights ever since. Meanwhile, the star Times columnist William Safire had joined William Buckley Jr. and Barbara Walters among the three dozen celebrated character witnesses opposing Cohn’s disbarment. Trump, however, had distanced himself from his dying mentor, for a while dropping him altogether. “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me,” Cohn said. “Donald pisses ice water.” With the help of a new young factotum, Roger Stone, Cohn’s last favor for Trump may have been securing his sister Maryanne Trump Barry a federal judgeship from the Reagan administration in 1983 despite her having received the tepid Bar Association rating of “qualified.”
Eventually, the Times’ coddling of Cohn and its institutional homophobia before and during the AIDS epidemic would be aired thoroughly — a process facilitated by Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play The Normal Heart, Rosenthal’s retirement in 1986, and Kushner’s portrayal of Cohn in Angels. But much of the similarly embarrassing history of media collusion with Trump has been either forgotten or whitewashed. Look back no further than the obituaries and eulogies in the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Condé Nast magazines that followed Si Newhouse’s death last October at the age of 89. Not only was his history with Cohn omitted but, more pertinently in 2017, so was his considerable role in transforming Trump from a local celebrity into a national figure. After he added Random House to his family’s holdings, it was Newhouse, having met Trump through Cohn, who had the idea of signing up the book that became The Art of the Deal, an often-fictional exercise in self-promotion billed as an autobiography. At the time the book was published, in 1987, Trump was so vaguely known outside of the tri-state area that publishing insiders worried whether Random House would get back its investment. They hadn’t reckoned, as Newhouse had, that Trump had the ability to market himself with a zeal beyond the imagination of authors who write their own books. The press ate it up. “Mr. Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again,” enthused the Times’s daily book reviewer.
The actual author of The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, is the rare prominent collaborator in the burnishing of the Trump myth in those pre-Apprentice decades who has expressed public remorse at having put “lipstick on a pig,” and he tried to make amends by trolling Trump in 2016. “This is the most perilous moment in modern American history,” tweeted Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, in March of this year, as the Trump presidency careered into danger on nearly every front. “And it has been largely brought about by ourselves, not events.” You don’t hear many others in such circles on the Upper East or West Sides assuming any responsibility. It’s all someone else’s fault.
During his campaign, Trump made a cause out of the corruption intrinsic to pay-for-play political donations like those he used to give. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he claimed, “which is why I alone can fix it.” The second half of that sentence was a lie, but the first was true. As he’d elaborate in pitch-perfect Cohn-speak, he gave to “everybody” because “when I want something, I get it. When I call, they kiss my ass.” At the first Republican presidential debate in August 2015, he fine-tuned his target: “Well, I’ll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice, because I gave.”
He was referring to the fact that either he or his “foundation” gave at least $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He could have added that between 2002 and 2009, he had also contributed six times to Hillary Clinton’s political war chest. And that he had given Bill Clinton, whom he met with to discuss fund-raising as far back as 1994, free access to his northern-Westchester club, Trump National, and on occasion played golf with him there. Even without that degree of incriminating detail, Trump’s accusation of a quid pro quo stung Hillary Clinton — so much so that after her defeat, she felt compelled to revisit Trump’s wedding invitation, sort of, in the opening pages of her postelection self-autopsy, What Happened. “He was a fixture of the New York scene when I was a senator — like a lot of big-shot real-estate guys of the city, only more flamboyant and self-promoting,” she writes of Trump. “In 2005 he invited us to his wedding to Melania in Palm Beach, Florida. We weren’t friends, so I assume he wanted as much star power as you can get. Bill happened to be speaking in the area that weekend, so we decided to go. Why not? I thought it would be a fun, gaudy, over-the-top spectacle, and I was right.”
Let’s posit that Clinton is telling the truth when she says that she attended the wedding only because “Bill happened to be speaking in the area that weekend” and she wanted to take in a campy spectacle — an explanation that clears her of Trump’s charge that his contributions compelled her to turn up. Let’s also give her a pass for choosing not to regurgitate her and Bill’s financial history with Trump. Even so, everything else about this breezy and disingenuous paragraph epitomizes the honor-among-celebrities ethos of the bipartisan New York Establishment that helped Trump get where he was by 2005. To say that Trump was typical of “big-shot real-estate guys of the city” but merely “more flamboyant and self-promoting” is tantamount to saying that Robert Durst was typical of the big-shot real-estate guys in the Durst family but more prone to being accused of murder. The Clintons had to know that there was a more malevolent side to Trump’s so-called flamboyance than his boorishness, vulgar properties, television stardom, tawdry tabloid antics, and even his brazen destruction of bas-relief sculptures he had promised to the Metropolitan Museum when demolishing Bonwit Teller for Trump Tower. None of it was secret. If the Clintons didn’t know, it’s because they didn’t want to know.
After all, it had been front-page news, including in the Times, when the federal government sued the Trumps under the Fair Housing Act in 1973 for refusing to rent apartments to black applicants (whose paperwork they coded “C” for “colored”). This suit was filed just after Trump had met Cohn, who took on the case and filed a frivolous countersuit demanding $100 million from the government for “defamation.” The Trumps retreated two years later by signing a consent decree — and soon violated that, too, forcing the Department of Justice to file new complaints of racial discrimination in 1978. The Clintons might have also heard how in 1989 Trump, running amok in a trademark rage, tried to help toss the city into turmoil by taking out a full-page racist ad in the four daily papers demanding a reinstitution of the death penalty for “roving bands of wild criminals” after five black male teenagers were charged (erroneously, as DNA would confirm in 2002) in the rape of a white female Central Park jogger. The Clintons may have even encountered the news, as did most Americans, that Ivana Trump had accused her husband of rape in a sworn divorce deposition uncovered by Harry Hurt III for his 1993 Trump biography.
So to return to Hillary Clinton’s flip rhetorical question: Why not go to the Trump-Melania wedding in 2005? These incidents are just a few of the many reasons why a former president and sitting United States senator with presidential ambitions should not have gone to this particular “fun, gaudy, over-the-top spectacle” in Palm Beach. But they just couldn’t stop themselves, any more than so many Democratic leaders of a quarter-century earlier couldn’t resist dressing up for Cohn’s fun, gaudy, over-the-top birthday gala at Studio 54. In the bipartisan New York political culture that nurtured Cohn and Trump, the statute of limitations for nearly every crime or outrage lasts about 48 hours. Nothing sticks; even repeated racist bygones can be bygones. Whether Hillary Clinton attended the wedding (Bill showed solely for the reception) because she’d taken Trump’s money, or because she wanted to be in the mix of power and celebrity no matter how tacky, or because she hoped there might be more favors to extract from Trump or someone else in the wedding party, doesn’t matter. Whatever the explanation, the then–New York senator, sitting in a reserved seat in the front row, lent a touch of civic legitimacy to Trump that the other glitzy celebrities on hand could not. He got what he’d paid for. He had written his checks knowing that the Clintons could be counted on not to bite the small hand that fed them — at least not until their own self-interest was threatened in 2016.
In an aside that’s tucked into the Oval Office pyrotechnics of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff offers a glimpse into a representative back channel in the bipartisan Barter and Swap Exchanges of the Trump era: He points out that it was the flack Matthew Hiltzik, “an active Democrat who had worked for Hillary Clinton” and who “also represented Ivanka Trump’s fashion line,” who gave Trump’s prized aide Hope Hicks her start in public relations. Wolff also helpfully (and accurately) reports that Hiltzik had represented Harvey Weinstein, another major New York player in Democratic politics (and a Trump-wedding attendee), during those years when Hiltzik and his staff were expected to “protect him” from accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. Weinstein was further protected by his contributions to Democrats, led by those to the Clintons. Everyone in New York who had professional dealings with him knew he was a pig and a bully, much as they knew about Trump. But the parties, screenings, and star schmoozing were too much fun for Democratic politicians to resist. It’s because Weinstein had good reason to believe that his political donations and liberal bona fides would serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for even criminal behavior that he released that bizarre statement vowing to turn his “full attention” to fighting the NRA after the Times and The New Yorker uncovered his history of sexual assaults.
Wolff might have added that Hiltzik’s résumé featured stints as deputy executive director of the New York State Democratic Committee, as a consultant on Middle East issues for Kirsten Gillibrand and “Jewish outreach” for Clinton, and as a shill for Jared Kushner’s real-estate company. In December 2016, Hiltzik took on a month’s employment for David Pecker’s American Media Inc. at a time when its flagship, The National Enquirer, was dealing with the aftermath of its coverage (and suppression) of the alleged affair between Trump and the Playboy model Karen McDougal. Hiltzik is also a “longtime friend” of Bill de Blasio, according to the Washington Post, but what are conflicts of interest or politics among clients and friends in pursuit of power? The same strange bedfellows may be useful to de Blasio should he try to pursue Trump’s New York path to the White House.
As Cohn says in Angels, the questions that count are not matters of principle but “Who will pick up the phone when I call? Who owes me favors?” Cohn’s Favor Bank was such that he even gained access to the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and briefly sat in the unoccupied box of the liberal Eugene McCarthy. His extended circle included figures as diverse as Cardinal Francis Spellman, various members of the Gambino crime family, Norman Mailer, George Steinbrenner, and the inevitable Alan Dershowitz, who had requested and received Cohn’s help in gaining entrée into Studio 54. Cohn even became pals with the CBS News executive Fred Friendly, who decades before had produced the legendary Edward R. Murrow special that helped rid America of Joe McCarthy. Had Cohn not been struck down by AIDS, Trump might have arrived in Washington far faster.
Some of the rich, connected, and powerful New Yorkers who failed to stand up to Trump before it was too late tried to cover their tracks once the music stopped and he had won the Republican nomination for president. When in April 2016 The Hollywood Reporter called 89 guests who had been at his 2005 wedding to request a comment, it did not receive a single response. One attendee who did speak up during the election year was the novelist Joseph O’Neill, who had attended as the plus-one of an invited Vogue editor. Writing in The New Yorker, he suggested that “a revisionist remembrance” was called for given Trump’s “metamorphosis into a would-be dictator.” A wedding that he had viewed ever since as “an anomalous and trivial item of personal recollection” now struck him “as the stuff of historic testimony,” perhaps to be reviewed “in the spirit of a Hannah Arendt or a Victor Klemperer.”
I was not at Trump’s wedding, but O’Neill’s perspective resonated with me because of another wedding, one that I attended in 2012 — indeed the largest and most lavish wedding I’ve ever been to. It, too, calls for a revisionist remembrance. The two men getting married, acquaintances of mine from show business, held their ceremony in a large Broadway house, followed by a vast seated dinner in the old Roseland Ballroom a few blocks away. The mother of one of the grooms was a theater producer who had co-produced a Broadway revival of The Normal Heart a year earlier. Larry Kramer was there, and so were celebrities like Barbara Walters and such politicians as Christine Quinn, the out Speaker of the New York City Council, and her spouse. Quinn was then collecting chits for what would be her unsuccessful Democratic mayoral campaign.
There was premium seating at the ceremony, as it happened. Just before it began, the congregants were treated to the spectacle of Donald and Melania Trump swooping down the aisle to their seats down front. The Trumps were no doubt there because the father of one of the grooms and the host of the wedding was Steven Roth, a far more successful New York real-estate titan than Trump. Roth has also been in business with the scandal-and-debt-plagued real-estate family of Trump’s son-in-law, the (non-Tony) Kushners, themselves profuse Democratic donors until the family patriarch, Charles, went to prison for multiple felonies in 2005.
Three and a half years after this wedding, in February 2016, Trump appointed Steven Roth to his campaign’s economic-advisory team. Once Trump took office, Roth would remain a visible supplicant, appearing with the president at a public event in Ohio to lend credence to his bogus infrastructure initiative. By then, Trump was piling up the most aggressive record of assaulting LGBTQ rights since the era of Reagan and Cohn. His Justice Department would soon file a brief at the Supreme Court supporting the case of the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding like the one Roth hosted and Trump attended for Roth’s son.
It’s easy for me, and I imagine a fair number of this wedding’s other attendees, to say that we would never drink a glass of Roth’s Champagne again. But then, we’re not looking for any invitations, favors, or money from him. There’s no sign, however, that Roth is being shunned by the city’s most powerful elites, including those who practice a showy rhetorical liberalism that is a somewhat lower priority than advancing their own social and financial interests. So what if Trump is translating homophobia into federal law at every opportunity, from the transgender military ban to the en masse elevation of gay-rights opponents to the federal bench to the creation of a federal “religious freedom” office to defend health workers who don’t want to treat gay patients? The wedding was fabulous! Let’s move on.
Contrast the Vichy passivity of New York’s elites with the mind-set of the citizenry of Abington, Pennsylvania. As the Times reported this month, this Philadelphia suburb was outraged to learn that another billionaire Trump economic adviser, the New York financier Stephen Schwarzman, had purchased the naming rights of its public high school, his alma mater, in exchange for a $25 million gift. As one horrified Abington graduate put it to the Times, if the school’s name can be auctioned off, “what else is for sale?” The local protests were so loud that the school district rescinded the renaming. Needless to say, no such questions or qualms prevented Schwarzman’s name from being plastered all over the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street flagship in exchange for a gift of $100 million.
In Angels in America, Prior Walter, these nights embodied by Andrew Garfield, declares that “the world only spins forward.” It can also spin in circles, as it turns out: Steven Roth’s son, married at a gay wedding attended by Roy Cohn’s protégé, is a co-producer of the current Broadway revival. Cohn is dead at the end of Angels, as is the Cold War in which he first thrived, but Prior is still standing, frail but determined, an apostle of hope. Yet the specter of Donald Trump casts a pall over this eight-hour epic, as it does over nearly everything else in America. Watching Angels now, you can’t help but be struck by how the strain of evil that Kushner identified a quarter-century ago has only metastasized in both political parties, albeit in different degrees and in different ways, ever since. Nor can we escape the realization that the cancer now consuming Washington was incubated not in that city’s notorious swamp but in the loftiest Zip Codes of New York.