It was March of 2017 and cold and bleary in Washington when Trump shouted to his advisers, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” His anger was fueled by a common catalyst—the president believed one of his underlings to be less than absolutely loyal. Even worse, it was his lawyer.
Or, rather, it wasn’t. The president was bellowing at his aides because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had just announced his recusal from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The attorney general is not the president’s lawyer. The attorney general is not supposed to be loyal to the president.
While Roy Cohn died in 1986 after a career that spanned Senator Joseph McCarthy, Rupert Murdoch, and Trump, the president has managed to accrue enough Cohn wannabes to ensure his and his family’s legal protection over the last four years.
This will all change with his exit from the White House, this week, when his reputation as a tax-dodging private citizen and business mogul will be on trial. Trump faces at least nine major, ongoing civil lawsuits—including defamation cases and investigations into the financial workings of the Trump Organization—and, in New York, Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. are already hungry for a conviction that could give rise to their own political stars.
The president will receive no leniency resulting from his single term in Washington, a tenure which ended with a second impeachment (the only president ever to manage this). With the publicity that he spent years cultivating gone sour and his power expired, Trump is helpless and facing legal battles certain to further his disgrace. He didn’t inspire a lot of confidence this week when he told his aides to stop paying Giuliani’s legal fees.
Lawyers in New York aren’t eager to talk about Trump’s future representation. But there will be one.
The Good Old Days
Trump was represented for decades by Harvard-pedigreed superlawyer Jay Goldberg. During his courtroom years, Goldberg had a client list that ranged from mafiosi to the Rolling Stones.
But the lawyer, who represented Trump in his divorces from Ivana and then Marla Maples, has since retired to the Hamptons. Goldberg remains loyal to his former client, telling me that he considers the outgoing president a member of his family, before adding, “They’re going to go after him. They’re going to talk to his family. It’s going to be horrible. And who’s going to come to his aid? You’ve got a Democratic city that’s going to fucking enjoy it.”
Goldberg is one in a series of lawyers Trump has surrounded himself with since the start of his career. In 1973, Trump was still only the son of a slumlord when he was sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his housing projects. His attorneys countersued in what would be the beginning of a long history of litigiousness.
Nearly half a century later, Trump’s lawyers defended him against last year’s impeachment. His roster for this occasion included former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who was registered as a foreign agent for the government of Qatar before she defended the American president. There was also Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor who has tweeted and written everything he can to convince the public that he had nothing to do with the pedophiliac crimes of Jeffrey Epstein; he just thinks the age of consent is two years too high. And Ken Starr, who at this point will say anything on Fox News to regain some semblance of his Clinton-era relevance.
“They’re going to go after him. They’re going to talk to his family.... And who’s going to come to his aid? You’ve got a Democratic city that’s going to fucking enjoy it.”
The strength of Trump’s legal team has since nose-dived. Bondi, Dershowitz, and Starr followed in longtime lawyer Michael Cohen’s desertion. In came former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose failed and imagined lawsuits contesting the results of the election are living proof that loyalty alone doesn’t get you very far.
Trump’s legal network continued to unravel until it was re-written by a troupe of improv comics doubling as lawyers. Trump brought on Sidney Powell. She accused the late Hugo Chávez of rigging the 2020 U.S. election. He fired Powell and hired former attorney for the District of Columbia Joe diGenova, who later said on a radio show that the nation’s former cyber-security chief should be shot and quartered. DiGenova got sued.
When Washington, D.C., lawyer Cleta Mitchell joined the president in a phone-it-in effort to bully the Georgia secretary of state into overturning the election, she was publicly criticized in a statement by her law firm. She resigned three days after that call.
The Anti–Roy Cohn
Kramer Levin, a law firm that previously represented Trump before eventually butting heads with him in a complicated Washington tale, said that they are not representing the president but declined to comment further. Michael Cohen told me, “More than likely, Trump will seek the assistance of someone he already knows.” Among these might be Marc Kasowitz.
The New York lawyer has been quietly representing Trump for years. The Kasowitz Benson Torres Web site lists clients including Teva Pharmaceuticals (recently charged with conspiring to fix generic-drug prices, which the company denies), Google, and Harbinger Capital (Philip Falcone’s New York City hedge fund, which settled securities-fraud charges in 2013). Trump’s name is noticeably absent, though the site does mention the president under a section listing the firm’s bankruptcy clients. Trump Entertainment Resorts is included alongside the firm’s other bankruptcy cases, which include Lehman Brothers, Borders booksellers, and J. Crew.
“More than likely, Trump will seek the assistance of someone he already knows,” says Michael Cohen.
Kasowitz’s name is coming up more and more often ahead of the Biden inauguration. What the lawyer must think of Trump’s reputation for not paying his lawyers—for which he was sued by New York law firm Morrison Cohen, among others—is anyone’s guess, though Michael Cohen adds that, in addition to the usual hefty legal fees, Trump’s rap has primed anyone willing to take him on to “demand a substantial retainer.” (Kasowitz did not respond to requests for comment.)
Kasowitz is not a typical Trump lawyer. He does not appear on Fox News. You won’t see him floating conspiracy theories to his 1,056 Twitter followers. And the news that he had e-mailed “Watch your back, bitch” to a stranger quickly faded after Kasowitz apologized, which Trump considers one of the deadlier sins. Kasowitz is no Cohn.
Jay Goldberg, who still carries the Brooklyn accent of his youth, tells me, “It’s going to be a disaster because every fucking prosecutor is hungry for publicity.”
And so we meet that final irony: Donald Trump, a man with an Icarian appetite for publicity and power that eventually led him to the Oval Office, will face his final battles against publicity-hungry prosecutors. Even worse, he’ll tread into those battles without his Roy Cohn.
Alex Thomas is a Washington, D.C.–based writer. He reports for Playboy and Men’s Health