Many years ago, when I was a young lawyer in Albany, New York, I read an article in a legal newspaper about the controversial Roy Cohn. The reporter asked Cohn (with a certain innuendo) about his ethics. To which Cohen replied, “My personal ethics is to win.”
This was less cynical than it sounds out of context. The article described how often the plaintiff's and defendant’s attorneys would come out of the courthouse to go off to drinks together. Cohn stood aloof from such socialization feeling that it might cause him to pull his punches on behalf of his clients, for whom he held an unwavering duty, and commitment, to win.
Cohn was a key advisor to Trump during the crucial early stages of Trump’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with. Obsession with winning has its own costs. In Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett’s magisterial 1992 biography of Trump,
titled Trump, Barrett reports that Trump repeatedly, including to reporters, called Cohn his “best friend.”
And then Roy Cohn began to die.
Cohn was dying, covertly, of AIDS. This was an illness then with enormous social stigma. Not something that could add to one’s negotiating leverage.
While Cohn told Trump and the rest of the world he had cancer, everyone knew, from the fall of 1984 to his death in 1986, that AIDS was killing him. Though Cohn was struggling to maintain his practice, Donald quickly began withdrawing work from him, wounding and outraging the bulldog lawyer who was using his vast array of connections to secure every form of experimental treatment. ‘I can’t believe he’s doing this to me,' Roy complained. ‘Donald pisses ice water.’
Barrett’s Trump is an extensive, meticulously detailed, and mesmerizing account of Donald Trump’s obsession with winning. Whoever sat across the negotiating table from Trump — strangers, rivals, friends, allies, business partners, bankers, politicians, officials, relatives, even his then-wife Ivana, found him resourceful, relentless, and even ruthless in seeking to win everything at every turn.
An obsession with winning is Trump’s most fundamental characteristic. It has an elemental quality.