None of his crimes, however, even begin to justify the lawless methods Cohn utilized to prosecute him and Ethel on charges of espionage, rendering Michael and his brother Robert orphans at the mere ages of ten and six. In a series of candid interviews, Michael recounts how he began fighting to clear the names of his parents, including a galvanizing TV appearance where he stands up to Cohn, daring the bullheaded lawyer to sue him for libel. Even Cohn’s own cousin, author David L. Marcus, dubs him “the personification of evil,” though the film effectively illustrates how such a term is too reductive when attempting to thoroughly examine his sociopathic psyche.
Whereas Tyrnauer’s film delved into the shame showered upon Cohn by his mother, Meeropol suggests that it was the incarceration of his uncle Bernard Marcus at Sing Sing—the same prison where he later sent the Rosenbergs—that cemented his refusal to be victimized. Being a closeted Jewish man, Cohn saw his own attempts at transcending the societal taboos of his identity as a way of sticking it to the establishment, holding others accountable for laws he had no intention of following himself. His money laundering schemes were as rampant as his failure to pay taxes, accentuating how he prioritized winning over all else. His adversarial nature extended far beyond the courtroom, causing him to resist every opportunity to apologize, a characteristic clearly inherited by his protégé Trump upon being first accused of racism in the early ’70s.
Just as Trump has used tabloids as a mouthpiece to dupe his base, Cohn convinced gossip columnist Cindy Adams to “take care of people he didn’t like.” Cohn’s description of his client, crime boss Tony Salerno, as a “warm, decent human being,” isn’t a far cry from Trump’s fawning praise for the tyrants he desires to not only befriend but emulate. Salerno supplied the concrete that erected NYC’s Trump Tower, while Cohn’s law firm arranged for Trump’s sister, Maryanne, to become a federal judge in the Reagan White House. What’s especially maddening is how Cohn’s hollow claims that he’s a friend of the middle class are every bit as glaringly fraudulent as those made by Reagan and Trump, whose favoring of deregulation causes corporations to be valued far more than people. And yet, it is Cohn and Trump’s skill in ingratiating themselves with those whom they wish to get something from, whether it be their money or their vote, that make them so formidable in their influence.