The Lawsuit That Changed Donald Trump’s Life

At age 27, the future president had a fateful encounter.

Donald Trump and Fred Trump during an undated celebration for The Art of The Deal.
Donald Trump and Fred Trump during an undated celebration for The Art of The Deal in New York City. Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Excerpt adapted from Plaintiff In Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits, out now from St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

In October 1973, the government accused Fred and Donald Trump of violations of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 at 39 Trump-built-and managed buildings in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

President Lyndon Johnson had approved the FHA in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The measure was designed to eliminate all traces of racial discrimination from the housing field. Trump’s father, a multimillionaire real estate operator, had repeated clashes with the Open Housing Center, a local fair-housing group that was working with the Justice Department, as well as the New York City Human Rights Commission, which asked the government to investigate racial discrimination in the Trumps’ neighborhood housing.

The community groups handed their findings to the Nixon Justice Department on a silver platter. The Trumps were drowning in evidence of systematic racial discrimination. On at least seven occasions, prospective tenants had filed complaints against the Trumps with the human rights commission, alleging racially discriminatory patterns and practices.

It seemed that in a July 1972 test at the Trumps’ Shore Haven properties in Brooklyn, when a black woman sought to rent an apartment, the superintendent turned her away, informing her that nothing was available. Shortly thereafter, when a white woman applied, the same superintendent told her she could “immediately rent either one of two available apartments.”

The two women were “testers” from the Open Housing Center. One white tester said that a building superintendent admitted that “superiors” had directed him to follow “a racially discriminatory rental policy.” As a result, there were only a few black occupants in the buildings. There was also evidence that Trump employees had noted black and Latino applications with cryptic designations such as “C” or “No. 9.” Also, the proof showed that Trump ghettoized his properties, packing minorities into Patio Gardens, his apartment buildings on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, that were 40 percent black. He largely excluded African Americans from others, such as his Ocean Terrace Apartments, where blacks comprised only 1 percent of all residents.

Investigative journalist Wayne Barrett, writing in the Village Voice, reported that the evidence of racial discrimination against the Trumps was overwhelming. The government contended that no fewer than four rental agents had stated that applications sent to the Trump offices for acceptance or rejection were coded by race. Doormen stated they were instructed to discourage African Americans seeking apartments by saying the superintendent was out. A super stated that he was instructed to send black applicants to the central office, while he was authorized to accept white applicants on the spot. Another rental agent said that Fred Trump had instructed him not to rent to African Americans. The Trumps had quoted different rental terms and conditions to African Americans and made false “no vacancy” statements to African Americans for Trump-managed apartments.

The Trumps needed a lawyer to help them defend the case. It was the kind of case that any lawyer would advise the Trumps to settle. But Fred Trump was not inclined to settle. Donald, then 27, began searching for a lawyer to represent him and his father, and his life took a new turn.

Fred tasked Donald with funding legal representation in the discrimination case. Most of the lawyers Trump consulted told the Trumps to settle. “They all said, ‘You have a good case, but it’s a sticky thing,’ ” remembers Trump.

A “sticky thing,” indeed! Trump’s was one of the largest apartment management companies in New York City. It owned and managed 37 apartment complexes, comprising a total of at least 14,000 rental units. The government investigation revealed evidence of discrimination at seven of the buildings containing over 3,100 units, or about one-third of the total. Trump rental agents told the FBI that only 1 percent of the tenants at the Ocean Terrace Apartments were black, and there were no black tenants at the Lincoln Shore Apartments. Both housing centers were in Brooklyn.

In the 1970s, Donald Trump often visited Le Club, located on 55th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an exclusive watering hole for demimondaine café society. There he met lawyer Roy Cohn, who was seated at a nearby table. It was a fateful encounter. Trump explained to Cohn his legal predicament. He was thrilled when Cohn instantly declared, “Tell them to go to hell, and fight the thing in court.” Most reputable lawyers take the time to examine the pleadings and to interview the client and witnesses before venturing an assessment of the merits of the case, and rarely guarantee the outcome. Trump was thrilled when Cohn instantly declared, without even examining the evidence, “Oh, you’ll win hands down!” Trump instantly retained Cohn to represent him and his father, and there arose an extraordinarily close relationship, lasting until Cohn’s death almost two decades later. In Trump’s eyes, Cohn was a sorcerer who could beat the system, and Trump eagerly cast himself as the sorcerer’s apprentice.

They hit it off. “Roy had a whole crazy deal going,” Trump said, “but Roy was a really smart guy who liked me and did a great job for me in different things.” Trump’s relationship with Cohn evolved into something transcending that of lawyer and client. The two became very close.

Cohn showed Trump that if he succeeded in blackening his opponent, nothing the opponent said would be believed. The best way to defend, Cohn knew, was to go on the attack, bashing your enemies. The best way to attack was to destroy the character of an accuser, even when the counterattack was untrue or exaggerated or irrelevant or prejudicial, and to repeat the bashing again and again. Cohn used this approach effectively with Bob Morgenthau and Robert Kennedy, who he claimed carried personal grudges against him.

The tactic resonates. Trump has called special counsel Robert Mueller a “conflicted prosecutor gone rogue”—a gutter attack without foundation that is vintage Roy Cohn. For Trump, litigation became a way of life, a tool to get attention, to bring his enemies to book, and to achieve strategic advantage. The flaw in the American system is that, if you are willing to spend the money, scorched-earth tactics often work. In short, he abused the process of a lawsuit, making it into something it was never intended to be—a way to win out against whomever he considered to be his adversary.

Cohn’s impression on Trump was indelible. In November 2017, with Mueller closing in, Trump met with Jeanine Pirro, one of his favorite Fox News talk show hosts, to discuss the Russia investigation. A “visibly agitated” Trump told Pirro, “Roy Cohn was my lawyer,” suggesting the bare-knuckled Cohn-type defense was just what he needed. When he wanted to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to remain in charge of the Russia inquiry so he would have an attorney general to protect him, he told his White House counsel Donald F. McGahn to lobby Sessions to stay in the case. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” he fumed. It’s no wonder that on election night 2016, once the result was known, Trump said to columnist Cindy Adams, who had known Cohn well, “If Roy were here, he never would have believed it.”

From Plaintiff in Chief by James D. Zirin. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Cover of Plaintiff in Chief
All Points Books