How Trump speaks like a mob boss

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
February 28, 2019

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.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post