When he was elected president, Donald Trump looked forward to having the protection of the country’s most powerful lawyer. “Where’s my Roy Cohn,” he reportedly lamented when Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign surrogate during the presidential campaign, recused himself (or semi-recused himself) from any matters regarding the campaign. Trump wanted Sessions to protect him as Cohn had once protected him and as he believed Eric Holder had protected Barack Obama.
Cohn is the vicious win-at-all-costs attorney featured in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The play is currently being revived, perhaps because we are witnessing Cohn-style ruthlessness in the White House at the moment. And although Sessions won’t accommodate Trump, we are seeing other Trump lawyers adopting the Cohn practice of issuing over-the-top threats to serve their client.
Stormy Daniels, for instance, reports that she received a Roy Cohn type threat prior to the election, which she says prompted her to settle for a $130,000 hush payment:
I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T– taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin’ all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, ‘Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.’ And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’ And then he was gone.”
While Daniels says that the man wasn’t Trump’s current lawyer Michael Cohen, Cohen has imitated Cohn in the past. For instance, here he is in 1993 threatening a Daily Beast reporter asking about Ivana’s Trump’s marital rape accusation:
I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know. So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?
You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word rape, and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.
Though there’s many literal senses to the word, if you distort it, and you put Mr. Trump’s name there onto it, rest assured, you will suffer the consequences. So you do whatever you want. You want to ruin your life at the age of 20? You do that, and I’ll be happy to serve it right up to you.
One wonders whether he learned the style from watching Kushner’s play. For instance, here’s Cohn making sure that Ethel Rosenberg gets the death penalty for relaying the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union:
I would have fucking pulled the switch if they’d have let me. Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was I legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice.
Cohn, as portrayed in Kushner’s play and probably in real life, was a closeted homosexual and a self-hating Jew who channeled his fury at the world through his take-no-prisoners approach to the law. Trump said of him, “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me. He’s a genius. He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.” Another lawyer who knew Cohn said, “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.”
Yet the reviewers of the revival observe that the play, when it first appeared, wasn’t only dark but altered history for the good. It did so by first describing reality as it was and then finding “seeds of change”:
It had bright humor and a wild need to entertain. Beyond that, it was hopeful. “Angels,” Kushner told us, “describes a time of great terror, beneath the surface of which the seeds of change are beginning to push upwards and through.” The play’s hope doesn’t come from self-delusion or from hiding the truth from the audience. In “Angels,” AIDS is portrayed in all its horrors, and its characters’ actions are far from ideal. Yet by portraying gay men as fully, complicatedly human — and central to the story of American history — “Angels” redefined how gay characters could be presented to mainstream audiences. “Before that, homosexuality was depicted as either some psycho perversion . . . or a cheap punch line,” the actor Karl Miller, who portrayed Prior in a 2009 production in Silver Spring, Md., told us. “Then Kushner comes along and lays down nothing less than a new book of the Bible with five titanic gay leading roles at its center.”
Consider the following reactions:
“I’d walk through the West Village,” said Marcia Gay Harden, who played the character of Harper, “and people would come up to me and say, ‘I took my parents to see the play and then I told them I was gay.’ Or ‘I took my parents to see it and then I told them I was dying.’ And we would cry on the street. That happened once every couple of weeks.”
The reviewers note that the play’s prediction of progress has actually come to pass:
Part 2 ends with Prior Walter — having survived, for the moment, both his illness and his dramatic ordeal — addressing the audience directly, combining theater and activism in a thrilling and touching final speech. Spinella played Prior for the show’s entire run, and for 217 performances, he delivered that speech to New York City audiences: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”
A quarter-century later, gay people are citizens, more rapidly and more completely than many activists of the AIDS era could ever have expected. And the invention of triple cocktails and preventative drugs such as PrEP has transformed — though not ended — the AIDS crisis in America. In hindsight, these advances seem inevitable, but they’re due in large part to those activists who cut their teeth on direct action in the play’s time — learning to be a movement and fighting together, no matter how hopeless the outcome looked.
While Angels in America shows us the gripping spectacle of a destructive man lashing out, it also assures us that decency and human compassion get the last word. We are seeing a version of this drama as the Parkland massacre survivors restore a humane perspective to the gun debate.
As the reviewers put it, the play
serves as a much-needed reminder that change for the better is possible and that hope, no matter how hard-won or embattled, can be a powerful political force.
Further note: My mother informs me that I am one degree of separation from Roy Cohn as my parents encountered him when they were in Paris on a Fulbright in 1952-3. She says that he and David Schine “routed out the staff of the USIS on a Sunday so that they could supposedly clean the library of Communist books. They found ONE, by Howard Fast. I don’t know the title. I’m sure they had a lovely time on the federal dime for a glorious vacation. Those were frightening times.”