In his testimony today, Ambassador Gordon Sondland said that President Trump wanted an explicit quid pro quo deal with Ukraine, under which it would announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s family in exchange for a meeting with Trump at the White House. However, he did also said that Trump had not explicitly said this. Instead, Sondland said "The aid was my own personal guess based, again, on your analogy, two plus two equals four.” In the past, President Trump has said that “I did not make a statement that, ‘You have to do this or I’m not going to give you A.’ I wouldn’t do that.”

It is very likely that Trump never did say you have to do this or I am not going to do that. We know from Trump’s former lawyer that Trump does not like to say things explicitly when they might get him into trouble. Instead, he prefers to communicate indirectly.

As my research describes, this is the way that mafia bosses like to talk. They don’t want to say things directly when those things could be used against them, either by eavesdropping law enforcement agencies, or by other criminals. When both parties to the conversation know that Trump is withholding funding for Ukraine, a threat doesn’t have to be made directly. Instead, the subtext: “it’s a very, very good relationship with Ukraine: it would be a terrible shame if something happened to it" can be readily understood by both parties.

Trump speaks in code

Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen has said President Trump “doesn’t give orders. He speaks in code. And I understand that code.” That’s the way that mafiosi speak to each other, in order to avoid trouble. 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.

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, so as to make it harder to pin responsibility on them. Similarly, Trump very possibly never said explicitly that Ukraine would be frozen out unless it helped discredit Trump’s potential election rival. Sondland’s testimony suggests that Trump tried to get Ukraine to hurt his presidential opponent through intermediaries using careful language that left no doubt what he wanted, but did so in a way that would preserve a crucial minimum of deniability.

Sicilian mafiosi excel in using this kind of language. Loose-lipped Mafiosi risk giving valuable information away to the cops, or to fellow criminals 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.

Trump and his officials use different kinds of ambiguity to similar effect. When Trump reportedly told officials that he would pardon them if they broke the law in order to get his border wall completed, a senior official insisted that he was “only joking.” Perhaps so: but jokes may very usefully provide plausible deniability in indicating to officials what the president believes they should do.

Ambiguity makes it hard to prove intent

There is a reason why mob bosses prefer ambiguous language: it makes it harder to prove charges against them. The same is plausibly true for Trump. That is especially so when much of the jury (in this case, Republican senators) have strong political reasons to want to find Trump innocent. Trump has made a very successful career out of speaking in code, and ruthlessly throwing subordinates under the bus when they do what he wants them to do but then gets caught. It’s unlikely that he is going to stop any time soon.

[Story updated November 20, 2019]