Cohn was a defense attorney and fixer who mastered the dark side of American discourse. He defended John Gotti and fixed elections and bilked clients (he was finally disbarred) while partying at Studio 54 and palling around with Bianca Jagger and Rupert Murdoch. A closeted gay man and a self-hating Jew, Cohn died in 1986 at age 59 while being treated for AIDS, an illness he refused to admit he had.
In the decade before his death, he made a protégé of Donald Trump. Cohn’s pitbull methodology became Trump’s own: never apologize, never explain; attack, attack, attack; when in doubt, create a diversion and blame the press.
One of the most remarkable moments in Tyrnauer’s documentary comes near the end, when it’s no longer possible to pretend that Cohn isn’t a liar and a fraud, when it’s no longer possible to deny that he lacks both shame and conscience. When Cohn was about to be disbarred in 1986 for defrauding his clients and for taking advantage of a dying and incompetent man, character witnesses began to emerge. There were letters to the court from William F. Buckley Jr., Barbara Walters, William Safire, and, of course, Trump, who wrote that Cohn “has been extremely loyal and extremely honest.” Were Cohn’s parties—was his protection—really that good?