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’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, as Trump has said, he knew that his phone call with Ukraine was being listened to by intelligence officials, who would write up a permanent record of the call. We don’t know what Trump said - except that an intelligence official thought it worrying enough to take the risk of becoming a whistleblower. But we can reasonably guess that if Trump wanted to get Ukraine to hurt his presidential opponent, he did so using careful language that left no doubt what he wanted, but did so in a way that would preserve a minimal 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
US officials apparently feared that Trump would use his leverage with Ukraine for his own political gain, and Ukraine’s president reportedly worried that the money was being held up because Ukraine was unwilling to investigate the Bidens. However, Trump can certainly argue that he was not suggesting that he would free up the money for Ukraine in return for help on this call. He also complained about how Germany was not helping Ukraine, and pressed Ukraine’s president for a “favor” with regard to a computer server that he seemed to believe might provide evidence relevant to the Mueller inquiry. It could be that Trump is telling the truth. Certainly, people who want to believe him can believe him.
The challenge for those who want to show that this indirect communication is indeed an implicit threat, will be to find other evidence that helps to make the case for what Trump’s actual intentions were. It is clear that there were a lot of concerns among security officials about what Trump wanted to do. As the investigation continues, we may find out more about what Trump said in other circumstances, and whether there were other reasons apart from the record of the phone call that led the whistle blower to file a complaint.
[Story updated September 25, 2019]