In Michael Cohen’s testimony Wednesday, he said President Trump “doesn’t give orders. He speaks in code. And I understand that code.” James Gagliano, a former member of the FBI’s organized crime squad, has said on Twitter that he couldn’t “begin to number” the amount of cooperating witnesses who described the orders that they got from mob bosses using similar language. This way of operating descends from the Mafia, which has its roots in Sicily. In my book on the political economy of trust, I discuss the oblique ways in which Sicilian Mafiosi communicate with one another and how this affects trust and distrust among them, building on the work of sociologists such as Diego Gambetta. Here is how it works.
It isn’t just about wiretapping
Popular culture shows how mobsters communicate in code when they are worried about being overheard by law enforcement, using indirect language to describe their intentions to commit crimes, so as to make it harder to pin responsibility on them. This is an important problem for criminals — but it isn’t the only such problem. And it probably doesn’t explain why Trump might have feared giving explicit orders to Cohen. The deeper issue is not just that crooks fear wiretaps — it’s that they fear one another. Criminals, almost by definition, are not notably trustworthy people. They are liable to lie to, cheat and betray one another for selfish personal gain.
This means that Mafiosi need to be taciturn if they want to survive — loose-lipped Mafiosi risk giving valuable information away to people who may not have their best interests at heart. The result, as the famous Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta describes it, is that Mafiosi communicate with one another about their crimes in code: “Within the mafia, no-one will give you a blow-by-blow account of a crime; it is enough, and one should never ask more, that a person makes it clear, even through his silence [that he was] the author of a certain crime. ... With us, a gesture, a look, a wink of the eye is enough to understand exactly what happened."
When the Mafia boss Michele Greco explained why Gigino Pizzuto was executed, he remarked that “a man who signs IOUs and defaults must settle them sooner or later.” A member of the Vicari crime family, when he was asked about the disappearance of a family member, responded that “once in Misilmeri a sheep vanished, and nobody has heard of it since,” indicating obliquely but unmistakably that the family had had a hand in the disappearance.
If Wednesday’s testimony is correct, Trump’s distrust of Cohen and other underlings was entirely rational. Cohen was a highly untrustworthy individual who kept recordings and other evidence incriminating others in case he would need them later. There is ample evidence that Trump used Cohen as a way to deliver warnings. For example, Cohen notoriously threatened a reporter investigating Trump, saying, “I’m warning you, tread very f---ing lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f---ing disgusting. You understand me?” Hatchet men like Cohen can be useful — but the boss should never trust the hatchet man.
Underlings learn not to ask awkward questions
If you work in a Mafia-style organization, you quickly learn that asking your boss direct questions is evidence of your untrustworthiness. After all, why would you need to know explicitly, if you didn’t want to trap your boss? The result is an organizational culture where not only do bosses not give answers, but underlings also learn not to ask difficult questions in the first place.
If Cohen’s testimony is truthful, then a similar dynamic explains why he was willing not to ask any questions when Trump signaled to him that he wanted this or that distasteful or illegal job done. Cohen had linked his career to Trump at an early stage. He knew that a condition of working for Trump was that one never sought clarity about what it was that one was being asked to do, as seeking clarity would be viewed as a hostile act and, very possibly, a fireable offense.
The mob is a toxic workplace
The mob’s approach to organization and communication comes with a lot of costs. No one is sure what anyone else really wants. Often, it is unclear what the boss really wants you to do — but you know that your job (and perhaps your life) is at stake if you don’t do it. As Gambetta describes it, everyone distrusts everyone else and constantly scan’s one another’s words and actions for hints and clues that can be used against them.
This can be psychologically crushing. The mobster Antonino Calderone describes how Salvatore Riina, the head of the Mafia’s “commission,” ordered Calderone’s brother murdered and later delivered a glowing eulogy to the murdered man.
Mobsters who turn government witnesses often seem to feel a sense of relief at escaping a world in which they never know what to believe, and finally being able to speak openly and plainly. Cohen, by his own testimony, seems to have been a highly unethical individual. He also has strong incentives to make it appear as though he is a changed man and genuinely feels guilty about his past wrongdoings. However, it is not impossible that he, too, is relieved that he no longer has to work in a world of ambiguities and unstated demands, where, for example, he had to take a line of credit out on his home to pay off an adult-film star who was threatening to go public about having sex with Trump.