Who is Roy Cohn? A timeline of his career and how he’s linked to Donald Trump

With Sky Documentaries releasing a film about Roy Cohn, we've put together a timeline of the reviled US attorney's controversial career

Roy Cohn

Coming to Sky Documentaries in August is a documentary about one of the most notorious, reviled and pitied American attorneys in history – Roy Cohn.

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Bully, Coward, Victim – The Story of Roy Cohn tells the story of the American lawyer and legal celebrity who played a large role in McCarthy’s investigations of suspected communists, campaigned against homosexuality (despite being a closeted gay man himself) and represented both Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch during his private practice career.

Directed by Ivy Meeropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were sentenced to death over espionage charges brought by Cohn, the film looks at how the infamous lawyer acted as “a power broker in the rough and tumble world of New York City business and politics”, having close relationships with a number of Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan.

If you want to know a bit more about what Roy Cohn did before watching the gripping Sky documentary, we’ve compiled a timeline of controversial lawyer’s career and its gradual decline.

What did Roy Cohn do? Full timeline

  • 1948 – A 21-year-old Cohn joins the office of United States Attorney Irving Saypol in Manhattan and begins working on the Smith Act trials (leaders of the Communist Party of the United States were accused of violating a statute that was in place to stop an overthrowing of the government).
  • 1950 – During his time working for Saypol, Cohn worked to secure conviction of William Remington, a former Commerce Department employee accused of espionage. Although he could not be indicted for espionage, he was convicted of perjury – having previously denied his long-time membership of the Communist Party.
  • 1951 – Cohn prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of spying for the Soviet Union and providing them with secret information about nuclear weapons. The couple were convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to the death penalty, which Cohn had apparently advocated for, according to The Rosenberg File. They were executed in 1953.
  • 1953 – Republican US Senator Joseph McCarthy hired Cohn as his chief counsel to assist his work in interrogating suspected Communists with the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. During that time, Cohn and McCarthy played a role in President Dwight Eisenhower banning gay men from working in the federal government as they alleged that various Communists were convincing several closeted homosexuals in the government to pass on national secrets in exchange for keeping their sexuality secret. This resulted in 425 employees being fired from the State Department due to allegations of homosexuality.
  • July 1954 – The US Army claimed that McCarthy and Cohn had applied undue pressure on the Armed Forces to apply special treatment to their friend and consultant, G. David Schine, who had been drafted into the Army the year before. This led to the Army-McCarthy hearings, and although Cohn argued that the Army were holding Schine “hostage” in order to hinder McCarthy’s investigation into Communists in the Army, the committee concluded that Cohn engaged in “unduly persistent or aggressive efforts” for Schine.
  • August 1954 – As a result of the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn resigned from McCarthy’s staff and entered private practice.
  • 1973 – Cohn began to represent Donald Trump, who had been accused by the Justice Department of violating the Fair Housing Act in 39 of the properties he had built two years earlier. The government accused the now-President of quoting different rental terms and conditions to black people than those he provided white people, telling black people that apartments were unavailable. Cohn filed a countersuit against the department for $100 million, but it was unsuccessful. Trump settled the charges out of court.
  • 1978 – Cohn represented Trump in court again when the CEO of the Trump Organisation was accused of violating the terms of the previous settlement.
  • 1979 – Cohn assisted in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and, together with political consultant Roger Stone, arranged for John B. Anderson to receive the Liberal Party of New York’s nomination which would ultimately split Reagan’s opposition.
  • 1983 – Cohn, who had also represented News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch, organised face-to-face meetings with the media mogul and President Ronald Reagan, asking the Head of State for political favours in exchange for good news coverage.
  • 1986 – Cohn was disbarred by a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court for unethical and unprofessional conduct. This included misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application and pressuring a comatose client to amend his will by forcing a pen to his hand and lifting it to the will in an attempt to select himself and the client’s granddaughter as beneficiaries.
  • August 1986 – Cohn died  aged 59 of complications caused by AIDS. Almost all his possessions were seized by the Inland Revenue Service.

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Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn will air on Sky Documentaries in August. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.