Note: We are reposting (with a new introduction) this article from Nov. 9, 2019, written during hearings on Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s president, as it appears relevant to Tuesday’s House Jan. 6 committee hearing.
In her closing comments at the House Jan. 6 committee hearing Tuesday, Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said that at least two witnesses had been contacted by people connected to former president Donald Trump to tell them that he was watching.
Cheney described the words of one of the unnamed witnesses this way: “What they said to me is, as long as I continue to be a team player, they know that I’m on the team, I’m doing the right thing, I’m protecting who I need to protect, you know, I’ll continue to stay in good graces in Trump World. And they have reminded me a couple of times that Trump does read transcripts and just to keep that in mind as I proceeded through my depositions and interviews with the committee.”
Trump has used this kind of diffuse and ominous language in the past, and there is no evidence that Trump directly instructed his supporters to attack the Capitol and stop official proceedings. That is not how he talks. We know from former Trump attorney Michael Cohen that Trump does not like to say things explicitly when they might get him into trouble. Instead, he prefers to communicate indirectly. In the past, Trump has said, “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.”
As my research describes, this is also the way that Mafia bosses like to talk. They don’t want to say things directly when those things could be used against them, by eavesdropping law enforcement agencies or by other criminals.
Trump speaks in code
As Cohen put it, Trump “doesn’t give orders. He speaks in code. And I understand that code.” That’s the way that Mafiosi speak to each other, to avoid trouble. In my book on the political economy of trust, I discuss the oblique ways in which Sicilian Mafiosi communicate with each other and how this affects trust and distrust among them, building on the work of sociologists such as Diego Gambetta.
Popular culture describes mobsters communicating 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, there is no evidence that Trump has made direct threats about what might happen to people who testify against him. Instead, Cheney’s witness claims that people associated with Trump have suggested that he is watching, and implied that it might be wise for the witness to stay in Trump’s good graces.
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 was president, he reportedly told officials that he would pardon them if they broke the law 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.
Codes of silence can break down
There is a reason mob bosses prefer ambiguous language: it makes it harder to prove charges against them. The same is plausibly true for Trump. He 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 get caught.
Equally, this strategy has its limits. For decades, mafia bosses used implied threats and grisly examples to enforce ‘omerta’ — a code of silence, under which no one, ever, spoke to the cops. When mobsters started to talk, the code broke down relatively quickly, as Mafiosi started to testify against each other to avoid punishment. Cheney’s closing remarks suggests that some actors in Trump’s orbit are trying to enforce their own code of silence among possible witnesses. They presumably lack the bloody ruthlessness and resources of the Sicilian Mafia, perhaps affecting their odds of success or failure.