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Helsinki and the Ghost of Roy Cohn

“Many are saying this is a day that will live in infamy,” CNN anchor Chris Cuomo said last week. “That’s true. They say it will be remembered as the day the presidency as the symbol of America’s protection died.”

Donald Trump’s “decision to choose to believe Vladimir Putin over his own government on a matter of Russian attacks on our election, as simple and as shocking as it was embarrassing to hear those words—but when it happened, everything changed. It was like the free world gasped,” said Cuomo. Trump “betrayed America. And after that gasp at Trump’s perfidy came all the exhaled words of outrage and calls for justice.”

“I see a realization in this unity. The realization is this, the truth is a side. And we were all on the right side in this moment, in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

“And in that moment, Trump’s luck ran out. He wasn’t going to escape from doubling down and insulting his way out of it. He tried.”

What Trump did “does resemble aiding and comforting, and the law has very harsh penalties, including disqualifying the treasonous from holding office,” said Cuomo.

Did Trump after two years of outrageous actions by him and his band of scoundrels reach a tipping point last week in his performance with Putin in Helsinki? Was it a “day of infamy?” Was it analogous to the end of the demagogic U.S. senator, Joseph McCarthy, the key event also televised with millions watching.

In 1954, McCarthy—in his publicity-seeking crusade against purported Communists—“picked a fight with the U.S. Army,” as the U.S. Senate Historical Office relates in its official account on what brought down McCarthy titled “Have You No Sense of Decency?

“The army hired Boston lawyer Joseph Welch to make its case. At a session on June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: ‘Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.’ When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

“Overnight, McCarthy’s immense national popularity evaporated. Censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press, McCarthy died three years later, 48 years old and a broken man,” relates the Senate Historical Office.

The late investigative reporter Jack Anderson commented that McCarthy “didn’t know what happened”—but in front of millions he had been exposed for being the amoral, reckless bully he was.

Not too incidentally, McCarthy’s top Senate aide was a man whom New York magazine wrote about in a recent article headlined “The Original Donald Trump.” The piece, by Frank Bruni, detailed how Roy Cohn was “Trump’s mentor.”

Politico also published a piece, in 2016, on Trump’s connection with “Roy Cohn, the lurking legal hit man for red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose reign of televised intimidation in the 1950s has become synonymous with demagoguery, fear-mongering and character assassination. In the formative years of Donald Trump’s career, when he went from a rich kid working for his real estate-developing father…Cohn was one of the most powerful influences and helpful contacts in Trump’s life.”

“Over a 13-year-period, ending shortly before Cohn’s death in 1986, Cohn brought his say-anything, win-at-all-costs style to all of Trump’s most notable legal and business deals.”

“Cohn engineered the combative response to the Department of Justice’s suit alleging racial discrimination at the Trumps’ many rental properties in Brooklyn and Queens. He brokered the gargantuan tax abatements and the mob-tied concrete work that made the Grand Hyatt hotel and Trump Tower projects. He wrote the cold-hearted prenuptial agreement before the first of his three marriages and filed the headline-generating antitrust suit against the National Football League. To all of these deals, Cohn brought his political connections, his public posturing and a simple credo: Always attack, never apologize.”

And never tell the truth.

In the mid-1980s, I got a tip that Cohn, a homophobe, was ill with AIDS and staying with a relative in the Hamptons, near where I live, and where my newspaper column is circulated. I got the phone number, called and asked Cohn about his being ill with AIDS. He exploded at length on the phone, threatening to sue every newspaper that published my column. He insisted he didn’t have AIDS but liver cancer, his claim to his death.

In a piece earlier this year—”’Witch hunt!’: Donald Trump, Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy and the dark history of the president’s war cry”—Salon related how what Trump learned from Cohn has been central to how Trump has tried to counter Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of his collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

In Helsinki, Trump “sold the American people out,” charged U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on CBS News’ Face The Nation program Sunday. “And it makes me think that either Trump doesn’t understand what Russia has done, not only to our elections, but to cyberattacks against all parts of our infrastructure. Either he doesn’t understand it, or perhaps he is being blackmailed by Russia because they may have compromising information about him or perhaps also, you have a president who really does have strong authoritarian tendencies and maybe he admires the kind of government that Putin is running Russia. And I think all of that is a disgrace and a disservice to the American people. And we have got to make sure that Russia does not interfere, not only in our elections, but in other aspects of our lives.”

Senator John McCain, from the other side of the U.S. political aisle, said of Trump in Helsinki: “One of the most disgraceful performances of an American president in history.”

The rejection of the Trump performance was broad—and global. The New York Daily News front page headline: “OPEN TREASON.” The U.K.’s Mirror’s front page headline was: “TRUMP BRANDED A TRAITOR. PUTIN’S POODLE.” Treason has been the operative word for Trump in Helsinki.

As former U.S. intelligence chief John Brennan tweeted: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.” Brennan added: “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you?”

However, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, cautioned on Fareek Zakara’s program GPS on CNN Sunday: “We need sober realism on Russia.” She spoke of her time in Russia.

I, too, have spent time in Russia. In the 1990s and into the early 2000s I took seven trips to Russia, invited by Alexey Yablokov, considered Russia’s foremost environmentalist. A biologist and author of many books, he was environmental advisor to Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. He died at the start of this year.

I participated in the efforts of Dr. Yablokov’s Center for Russian Environmental Policy to create a new environmental and energy program for Russia. The blueprint for the program was brilliant. It stood to greatly benefit Russia, and if emulated internationally greatly benefit the entire world.

Dr. Yablokov arranged for me to speak at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, of which he was a member. I was the only westerner to give a presentation before a gathering of 2,000 people, attended by representatives of the U.S., U.K. and other countries and the United Nations, at an All-Russia Congress on Protection of the Environment, held in a sports stadium in Saratov, Russia. I traveled the country widely, from its west to east and Siberia, giving presentations and meeting and working with environmentalists and safe-energy advocates.

And then Putin came to power—and everything changed. Journalists critical of Putin were getting killed. People who challenged Putin politically were murdered.

The last time I was with Alexey was at my family’s apartment on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. He had just spoken at the United Nations, at a conference on whales, a long-time focus of Dr. Yablokov. He told of, under Putin’s authoritarian rule, being followed in Russia.

Yes, we need “sober realism on Russia.”

And we need sober realism on—and strong resistance to—all of what Trump is up to.

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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