Jailbirds by and by

President Donald Trump speaking at the Heritage Foundation's annual President's Club meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

When President Donald Trump was a candidate in the 2016 presidential race, he portrayed himself as an alternative to the existing world of dirty politics. Trump famously promised to “drain the swamp” by kicking lobbyists and corporate bureaucrats out of government. In September 2016, he told a Michigan crowd that Clinton was “an insider fighting only for herself and her donors” while he was “an outsider fighting for you”. Americans ought to realize that Trump’s claim to be different from politics as usual was and is a lie. Even though he never held public office before he became president, Donald Trump has been rubbing elbows with political racketeers throughout most of his professional career. In fact, Trump’s political persona was sculpted over a period of several decades by Roger Stone and Roy Cohn, two political hit men who slithered up from the bottom of the swamp.

Roger Stone was earning a reputation as a political advisor before he finished high school, and started working for President Richard Milhous Nixon while he was in college. Stone was initially an assistant to Nixon underling Herbert Porter, and once traveled to Kentucky under a false name to pay a spy $5,800 for information on the President’s political opponents. For this and other tricks he pulled while in the Nixon White House, Stone was investigated by the Senate Watergate Committee and the FBI . They let him go, though the man for whom he worked, Herbert Porter, was convicted for lying to the FBI.

Stone has made no secret of his love for his erstwhile boss, the president who illegally scuttled the 1968 Paris Peace Accords . The two maintained a relationship for years after Nixon’s resignation. Stone continued to be Nixon’s consigliere, and arranged meetings between the former president and elites in the press . He even had a picture of Nixon’s smiling face tattooed between his shoulder blades. Despite his devotion, Stone could not limit himself to working with only one of the most notorious crooks of the 20th century. He continued his climb.

Long before Stone found his way into the Nixon ring, a young Jewish man from the Bronx named Roy Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of twenty and began his career as a United States attorney specializing in subversive activities. Roy Cohn would find himself thrust into the public spotlight due to his role as prosecutor in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a husband and wife accused and eventually convicted of committing espionage against the United States. David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother and co-conspirator, confessed that he had witnessed his sister transcribing top-secret data on the atomic bomb on her typewriter in 1945. This piece of information would be key in convicting both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Many decades after the trial’s conclusion, Greenglass would state that his assertion about the typewriter was a lie that he was pressured to tell by Roy Cohn and the other prosecutors. In his autobiography, Cohn alleged that that he was the one who convinced the judge to order the execution of Ethel Rosenberg along with her husband. Julius and Ethel had two sons, Michael and Robert, who were ten and six years old respectively when their parents went to the electric chair.

Cohn’s work in this case caught the eye of Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin who pioneered the art of political persecution in America. Bobby Kennedy named Joseph McCarthy the godfather of his first child, and McCarthy still chose Roy Cohn over Kennedy when deciding who to name his chief counsel . McCarthy and Cohn perpetuated the sinister lie that Communists had infiltrated every compartment of American culture. Part of Cohn’s crusade against Communism involved spreading the idea that there were closeted gays in the federal government who were exchanging confidential information with Soviet operatives. Cohn, a not-entirely-closeted gay man himself, helped persuade President Eisenhower to sign an executive order prohibiting gay people from being employed by the federal government.

In a somewhat inexplicable move, Joseph McCarthy attempted to investigate the United States Army, which he believed was rife with Communist sympathizers. The political establishment promptly ended the Wisconsin senator’s reign of terror with the Army-McCarthy Hearings, which precipitated Cohn’s exit from government employment and the beginning of his private practice.

Unsurprisingly, Cohn was a phenomenal lawyer. He established his own firm and counted the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Newhouse newspapers, and the Ford Model Agency among his clients. His reputation for underhanded tactics only bolstered the popular notion that he was the man for millionaires and moguls to call when they were caught in legal imbroglios. Americans remembered Cohn, the young, viperish man photographed whispering into the ear of Joseph McCarthy. During the sixties, Cohn was indicted four times and acquitted in every case. In the seventies, the FBI investigated a mysterious incident that led to the sinking of a yacht off the coast of Florida and the death of a young man named Charles Martensen. Martensen’s father believed that Cohn, who leased the yacht for many years, may have been involved in a plot to kill Charles, sink the boat, and collect the insurance money. Cohn categorically denied receiving any compensation, but was demonstrated to have been given at least $7,950 in insurance money for the loss of his property.

In 1973, a 27-year-old real estate tycoon named Donald Trump was accused of ordering his employees to refuse housing for black and minority tenants. Allegedly, 39 Trump properties used clandestine practices to prevent the renting of rooms to blacks. One specific and prevalent tactic involved writing the letter “C” on applications for apartments sent in by minorities. The “C” stood for “colored.” If this had been proven in court, Trump would have been penalized for violating the Fair Housing Act. Luckily for him, he ran into the perfect lawyer, a man who would successfully prevent Trump from being forced to admit any guilt when the trial ended. That man, of course, was Roy Cohn.

Cohn quickly became Trump’s right-hand man, and handled all of the real estate baron’s most sensitive business, whether it came in the form of a racial discrimination case or a prenuptial agreement. To allow his client to refurbish an old hotel near Grand Central Station, Cohn secured a four-decade, $400,000,000 tax abatement from the city of New York. During this time, mob bosses controlled New York City’s concrete industry, and the plan was for Trump Tower to be built using mostly concrete. This happy coincidence allowed Roy Cohn to establish a business relationship between Donald Trump and a Teamster racketeer named John Cody, who later claimed that he came to know the billionaire and his lawyer “quite well.” Cohn spoke with Trump, whom he referred to as his “greatest friend,” fifteen to twenty times a day. He taught Trump once of his key tenets: “The only earth the meek inherit is that in which they are eventually buried”.

Seven years after he played his bit role in Watergate, Roger Sone began working as a campaign aide for Ronald Reagan. On a quest to raise funds, Stone flew to New York and walked into the office of Roy Cohn, who was busy instructing the boss of a major New York crime family to support Reagan in the upcoming election. Cohn immediately directed Stone to two of his clients, Fred and Donald Trump.

For decades, Roger Stone and Donald Trump were inseparable. Seventeen years ago, the two were ordered to pay a total of $250,000 “to settle a New York state probe into whether [they] illegally lobbied to stop a proposed Indian-run casino”. Stone is often credited with convincing Donald Trump to enter the world of politics, and he helped coordinate the early stages of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign . He even raised the possibility of hiring Paul Manafort as a campaign aide. Perhaps Pres. Trump regrets his decision to listen to Stone in this particular instance, what with Manafort’s lobbying activities and financial ties to Russia now being of extreme interest to special counsel Robert Mueller.

Stone had a tremendous amount of influence on the man who is now the President of the United States, but the two try to keep the current status of their relationship a secret. Amid rumors that Stone helped convince him to fire James Comey, Trump claimed on May 10, 2017 that he “had not spoken to Roger in a long time.” One day afterward, the two spoke to one another over the phone.

Stone, Cohn, and Trump came from very different places, but each had an inborn talent for conducting illicit business and coming out unscathed. Trump’s continued dismissal of the discrimination case typifies his ability to minimize a history of wrongdoing. His role in the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five also comes to mind as an example of how he has used his power and wealth to get away with unconscionable deeds. In 1989, five black and Latino teens were accused of beating and raping a white jogger named Trisha Meili in New York’s Central Park. Donald Trump immediately bought the space for a full-page ad in all four of the major daily papers in New York City. He used this space to request that New York reinstate the death penalty and execute the Central Park Five.

Meili had no memory of the attack. DNA testing failed to match any of the other suspects to the sample found on the victim. Four of the five suspects, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Anton McCray, confessed that they were present when the crime was carried out, but blamed one another for it. The district attorney found the statements to “differ from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime”. Nonetheless, the Central Park Five were convicted and sent to jail. At the time, they were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old. Eleven years later, a man already in prison by the name of Matias Reyes confessed that he and only he was responsible for the assault of Trisha Meili. In fact, a DNA test positively matched Reyes to the semen left on the victim’s body. Twelve years after they were convicted for a crime that they did not commit, the Central Park Five were retroactively exonerated.

Trump unnecessarily involved himself in the conviction of these innocent men. The vitriolic media attention surrounding the case was the primary reason that the supposed perpetrators’ coerced testimonies were accepted. Though the Central Park Five were not legal adults at the time of their trial, Trump wanted them to be executed. All of this might have been excusable if Trump simply said that he was convinced of their guilt at the time, and that he and everyone else had been mistaken. Instead of acknowledging reality, he stated in October of 2016, two years after the Central Park Five were paid forty-one million dollars in a settlement with the state of New York, that the Five were still guilty. Most people would feel some sort of regret after realizing that they may have played a hand in the wrongful conviction of five minors for sexual and physical battery. The evidence that the Central Park Five did not rape Trisha Meili is irrefutable. Here is an illustration of how Donald Trump carries out his immoral dealings with impunity. He learned how to do it from Roger Stone and Roy Cohn.

Cohn and Stone continued their work as shysters long after they met Donald Trump. Stone claims that Roy Cohn and he hatched a plot to illegally get independent candidate John Anderson the Liberal Party nomination in New York during the 1980 presidential election. The two believed that an Anderson candidacy would take votes away from Jimmy Carter and allow Ronald Reagan to win the three-way race. Stone alleges that he and Cohn gave a suitcase containing $125,000 to a lawyer with pull in the Liberal Party, and John Anderson won the nomination two days later. Ronald Reagan won the state of New York with 46 percent of the vote. Stone eagerly offered this information once the statute of limitations for bribery expired. A superficial knowledge of the lives of Roger Stone and Roy Cohn, the two men who were Donald Trump’s chief advisers many years ago, proves that the 45th President has always had a crooked pedigree.

Roger Stone spends most of his time these days toying with the media, but that does not mean that he no longer engages in malevolent artifice. When he isn’t using racial slurs to insult liberal personalities or palling around with the psychotic radio host Alex Jones, Stone is appearing before the House intelligence committee to answer questions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. At the age of 65, Roger Stone has the physique of a bodybuilder, fake hair sewn into his scalp, hundreds of custom-made suits, a rap sheet of criminal ties to the most powerful politicians of the 20th century, and the ear of the 45th President of the United States. It is doubtful that he could be happier.

Roy Cohn’s later years were not as enjoyable as Roger Stone’s. It has been over three decades since Cohn died of complications caused by AIDS. It is ironic that Cohn, who actively persecuted gays during his time as an adviser to Joseph McCarthy, was gay himself. It is even more ironic that he helped elect Ronald Reagan, who did not publicly address the AIDS epidemic until more than 5,000 Americans had already been killed by the disease. Susan Bell, Roy Cohn’s former secretary, stated that Donald Trump stopped dealing with Cohn after discovering his mentor’s diagnosis. She said, “Donald found out about it and just dropped him like a hot potato”. Cohn was buried in a Queens cemetery. His gravestone describes him only as a “lawyer and patriot”.

Trump is surely a man of his own creation, but traces of Stone’s and Cohn’s philosophies are not hard to find in strands of his DNA. Trump’s eagerness to go for childish insults and diversions is a ploy he picked up from Stone. There is a stark similarity between Pres. Trump’s mocking of John McCain for being held as a prisoner of war and Roger Stone’s recommendations that Hillary Clinton, Dan Malloy, and Bernie Sanders be executed. By being outrageous and provocative, Stone and Trump change the topic of the political discourse, and thereby control it.

Pres. Trump also inherited Stone’s preternatural talent for bragging and self-promotion. Stone once expressed regret over his involvement in the Brooks Brothers riot, the successful attempt by GOP operatives to halt the Florida recount during the 2000 election. By exaggerating his skill as a power broker, Stone spreads the idea that he is someone GOP strongmen want working for instead of against them. Similarly, Trump’s repeated declarations of how talented, smart, and bold he is are nothing more than self-congratulation, but they become widely accepted purely because he repeats them so often and some are still willing to believe him. Though he may not have been the one to make Pres. Trump a braggart, Roger Stone surely cultivated this aspect of his character.  

As for Roy Cohn? It is difficult to overstate the effect that he had on Donald Trump. Descriptions of Cohn’s demeanor often sound eerily similar to descriptions of Pres. Trump’s. Take, for instance, this commentary on Cohn written by an Esquire journalist in 1978: “This is quintessential Cohn. Be tough, always attack. Don’t apologize, except for … “technical” mistakes – style, not substance”. This is a perfect encapsulation of the personality that Donald Trump attempts to project – that of the tough guy who is always on the offensive and who never admits that he has done anything wrong. Roger Stone himself made revealing comments on the similarities between his two friends. He said “There’s a dozen Trump-isms that are adopted from Roy. For example, you’d ask him a question, instead of saying yes, he would say, ‘100 percent.’ That’s Roy. ‘Forget about it.’ That’s Roy. ‘A lot of people say.’ That’s Roy. Those are all Roy-isms. ‘Believe me,’ or ‘I tell you this’”.

If Stone’s testimony can be believed, Roy Cohn’s influence on Donald Trump was strong enough to encourage Trump to appropriate his mentor’s turns of phrase. In the same interview, Stone said that “To a certain extent, Donald learned how the world worked from Roy” and “Donald, I think, learned the tabloid media, and the media cycle, from Roy”.

Stone is not the only one to notice the remarkable likeness between the McCarthyite and the billionaire scion. Author Sam Roberts noted three distinct principles that the two shared. “1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat”.

Trump, either consciously or unconsciously, adopted Cohn’s ethos and his mannerisms, and why would he not? Why would a young real estate broker trying to learn “the art of the deal” not set out to emulate a brilliant and effective lawyer who always evaded the consequences of his actions?

In a novel of his, Kurt Vonnegut set out to satirize the corruption, malevolence, and megalomania at the heart of mid-20th-century American politics. For obvious reasons, one of the primary topics of this novel was the Nixon White House. In one part of the book, Vonnegut rattled off key members and co-conspirators in the former President’s cabinet, including Spiro Agnew, Henry Kissinger, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman. In the sentence that gives the book its title, Vonnegut said of the politicians who were not yet tried or convicted that “they, too, would be jailbirds by and by.”

It would have been better if Cohn’s and Stone’s influences on American history ceased after the careers of Nixon and McCarthy came to abrupt halts. However, the two continued throughout their lives to sully the political system. They rigged elections, bought information from spies, collaborated with mob bosses, and persecuted political minorities. But their greatest legacy will be the presidency of Donald Trump, who has gulled half of America into believing that he is differentiable from corrupt politics as usual. Regardless of whether he ever sees the inside of a courtroom again, Pres. Trump learned from the jailbirds, and he, too, will be a jailbird by and by.


Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu.