Donald Trump Was Not Speaking in Code
Even though Trump knew he was negotiating the Russian business deal during the campaign, Cohen said the then-Republican candidate would look him in the eye and tell him “there’s no business in Russia.”
Later, Cohen said he lied to be consistent with Trump’s public story.
“He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders,” Cohen said. “He speaks in a code, and I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”
In his testimony before congress, Michael Cohen said that Trump let him know that he should lie about Russia without explicitly saying it. How did he do this? Cohen said that he was using a code, which he could understand due to his long service. But there is no code here. And that’s why the testimony is so damning.
If Trump had actually spoken in a code, Cohen’s claims about its meaning would be eminently deniable. If Cohen’s testimony had been that Trump said “Frederick has four teacups”, and that he knew this was their agreed way of communicating to lie about Russia, that would have been a code — a secret language that only some people are allowed to know. And Trump could easily have denied it, insisting that it really meant simply that Frederick was carrying a lot of crockery, or even that it was code for something innocent. We would have no way of knowing who was right about “Frederick has four teacups”.
What Trump did instead — and this is why it’s so much easier for us to understand — was to draw on quite general principles of conversation. The philosopher HP Grice pointed out that when we converse we assume that the people we are talking to are basically trying to be cooperative — to tell the truth, to be relevant, and so on. If they stray from this too obviously, we wonder what they are actually trying to do. This fact is used by speakers to convey information without actually, literally spelling it out — they say something that would seem obviously false, irrelevant, or not worth saying, leading the audience to figure out that they must be trying to communicate something else. If I say “I just love it when it rains for three weeks non-stop”, you know that’s unlikely to be true, so you figure out that I must be using irony to convey that I hate it.
Because this method allows one to communicate without actually spelling things out, it is often used for dodgy activities. Take the classic threat “it would be a shame if something were to happen to your lovely family”, or a variant like “it would be sad if your business burned down”. Threatening utterances like these are so obviously true that, taken literally, they wouldn’t be a useful contribution. And that’s why the audience so easily looks for what else could be communicated and realises that they must be threats. Importantly, these would also be taken to be threats under US law, even though their literal content is not threatening.
Trump’s way of communicating with Cohen fits this model perfectly. He says something obviously false, and obviously known by both Trump and Cohen to be false: “there’s no business in Russia”. He looks Cohen in the eye, making sure that he’s getting the message. Taken literally, this is deeply uncooperative: why would Trump utter a clear falsehood, and look at Cohen significantly while doing so? Quite obviously, though, this literal falsehood is doing something else: it’s telling Cohen what he should say. This is just as clear as the classic threat to one’s family. And we all know this, because it’s just how human communication works. It’s not a code at all.
In fact, Trump may end up wishing he’d developed a code — there’d be much less danger for him from Cohen’s testimony.