“It would be no different if I said, ‘That’s the nicest looking tie I’ve ever seen, isn’t it?’ What are you gonna do, you gonna fight with him? The answer is no, so you say, ‘Yeah, that’s the nicest looking tie I’ve ever seen.’ That’s how he speaks. He doesn’t give you questions. He doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in a code. And I understand the code.”—Michael Cohen, before the House Oversight Committee
Mr. Trump, as reformed goon Michael Cohen calls the man who cast him aside like a Filet-o-Fish wrapper, is the Don of a shockingly unsophisticated criminal organization. Per Cohen’s testimony last week, the Trump family operates amid an easily pierceable veil of secrecy. Because Trump doesn’t want to be implicated in his many crimes, he tells his underlings to do his dirty work in ways they understand but he thinks no one else does. The crime gets done, and he can say he never told nobody to do nothing. Capeesh?
Sorry, allegedly. Let’s presume I say that in every sentence. The point stands. Eighteen months ago, I wrote this tweet. I feel pretty good about it now.
For confirmation, take a look at his bagman-in-law Jared’s security clearance. Trump says, hey General Kelly, you take care of this whatever way you see fit. If Cohen got that instruction, he’d just take care of it. But Kelly is a decorated general and doesn’t acquiesce when the nation’s security is at stake. He filed a memo outlining his justifiable lack of confidence in Kushner. Trump and his daughter Ivanka were apparently outraged. Kelly didn’t get—or didn’t accept—the coded instruction. So Trump ordered it done. Now he’s exposed. Not the way it’s supposed to go in the Trump Crime Family.
This is how mafia members speak. Cohen’s words caused every prosecutor in America to nod along. But if this veil is so easily pierced, so easily (and willfully) misinterpreted, why speak in code at all? Why lie? Why leave a trail of thugs who can divulge the shadiness of your operation? Why be so stupid?
The answer is in the nature of codes. If you’ll permit a little puzzle theory in your game theory, I’ll spell it out, and you won’t even need a decoder ring.
Normal humans conflate two different types of communication under the banner of “codes” (which I will also conflate after this paragraph, frustrating nearly everyone who cares about this subject). One type is symbolic codes like Morse code and Braille, where letters and numbers are transformed into non-alphabetic representations. The second is ciphers, where letters and numbers are exchanged for each other. These can get way more complicated than T=X or T=⠞. Encryption has advanced quite a bit beyond our capability to process it. A single letter in a password can be encrypted into thousands.
A coded message has three components: a plaintext (an actual message or understood way of expressing concepts), a key (the method of changing that to something else), and a ciphertext (the output in encrypted form). Using these three features, a code’s job is to shift the balance of comprehension in favor of the intended recipient. A code must create certainty in the recipient and increase ambiguity in those who don’t know the code.
Let’s say I have the plaintext “the British are attacking by sea.” If I shout from the rooftops “The British are attacking by sea!” the British might hear me. Instead, if I put two lanterns in the Old North Church, the British might think “Blimey, those are some cracking good lanterns on that church steeple” but you might think “We need to defend the harbor right now.” That’s because you know the code “one if by land, two if by sea.” You learned that from Paul Revere. He taught you the key, which you used to change the ciphertext of “two lanterns” into the plaintext “the British are attacking by sea.”
Or let’s say I’m a follower of the prophet Jesus, and I need to tell other followers that they can meet in my house. I might put up a symbol of a fish. This is way before the loaves and fishes thing, so the Roman soldiers don’t know that fish are associated with Jesus. They likely also don’t know that the Greek invocation Ιησούς Χριστός, Θεού Υιός, Σωτήρ (“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”) has as its first letters ΙΧΘΥΣ, which spells “ichthys,” the Greek word for “fish.” Persecuted Christians inscribed the fish symbol as a way of celebrating their savior without giving away their faith to the uninitiated.
Or say I’m Sgt. Jeremiah Denton, a prisoner of war in Vietnam in 1966. I’m forced to record propaganda, and I need to tell my people I’m being tortured.
I blink out the word “TORTURE” in Morse code, alerting Americans as to my true state. I’m gambling that my captors do not have the key. Thankfully, they do not. But American intelligence officials do, and now they know American POWs are being tortured in North Vietnam.
These codes saved lives, as they disguised the substance of the messages while imparting understanding from those who knew their secrets. These examples show the other main reason to use a code: the nature of your communication is illicit. Revere was a revolutionary; he risked being killed for treason against the Crown. The Christians were adherents of a banned savior; they risked being crucified for their beliefs. Denton was a POW; he risked being killed for revealing the North Vietnamese Army’s violations of the Geneva Convention. Their codes were ways to communicate without revelation of behavior punishable by death.
And these are just the good guys.
The bad-guy transgressors use codes like there’s no tomorrow, because if they slip up, there probably isn’t. The early practice of thieves’ cant (later dubbed the “Rogues’ Lexicon”) disguised the actions of grifters leading travelers into confidence games and murder. American street gangs use complex combinations of clothing cues, hand signals, and color displays to show allegiance and warnings. Russian thugs emblazon ornate prison tattoos on their bodies to describe their crimes, connections, and intentions. These are all codes that require significant effort from law enforcement authorities to decipher and counter, all the while wondering if the malefactors have changed the codes out from under them. It’s back-breaking work.
This assumes the authorities can even get to those malefactors. Until this year, Quadriga Fintech owned Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. During the bitcoin crash of 2018, QuadrigaCX users suddenly couldn’t access their funds. As the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce froze Quadriga’s accounts, they discovered that founder Gerald Cotten had died under mysterious circumstances in India in December, and the entire exchange was on his encrypted laptop. No one knew the password. So $250 million CAD owed to over 100,000 customers just vanished. Meanwhile, Quadriga was still blithely accepting deposits, in what may have been an exit scam.
And I can’t leave this subject without mentioning the Aryan Brotherhood. In 1997, the white supremacist prison gang wanted to wipe out the leadership of the DC Blacks, an African-American gang being transferred to various supermaxes. So (I swear I am not making this up) the Brotherhood members used a 400-year-old binary alphabet Bacon cipher written in invisible ink to coordinate murders under the noses of the wardens. Which might have worked if the Aryan Brotherhood was made up of smart white supremacists. One of them decoded the dates improperly and shivved his target a day early, leading to the plot being busted before further murders could be executed.
Which, weirdly, brings me back to our white-supremacist-in-chief and his incompetent cronies. They had to speak in codes. They needed both benefits: to increase certainty for the receivers and ambiguity for the authorities, and to hide illicit behavior amid seemingly innocent actions. For a very long time, per Cohen’s testimony, this approach mostly worked. But Donald Trump made a singularly foolhardy mistake.
There’s a third benefit to criminals using codes: They compartmentalize information. When codes are used properly, they can tell one part of an organization something crucial without exposing it to another. If one member falls to the authorities, he can’t betray information he hasn’t been exposed to. Even if the information was shared in plain sight, the criminal doesn’t have the key, so cannot divulge the truth.
Trump had a very small circle of trusted associates, and he used the same code with all of them. Listen to Cohen talk to Rep. Justin Amash, the only Republican on the committee to treat the word “oversight” as if it didn’t mean “Sorry I didn’t do my constitutional duty, it must have been an oversight.”
Cohen: I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.
Amash: And it’s your impression that others who work for him understand the code as well?
Cohen: Most people, yes.
By making all his collaborators use the same code, Trump ignored the most problematic element of using codes — not that they can be pierced or misinterpreted or lost. It’s that codes are exhausting. Imagine living your life trying to translate what appears to be plaintext but is really ciphertext through a key into a different plaintext every day. Cohen was Mr. Trump’s fixer for ten years. He had to be on the alert 24/7 for the correct interpretation of non-order orders, from which he threatened 50 … no, 100 … no, 200 … probably 500 people on Trump’s behalf. That wears a person out. The only thing that kept him doing it was Trump’s loyalty.
Yet Trump gave no loyalty. He broke the other kind of criminal code, the one that says you don’t sell out your allies without suffering fatal consequences. When Cohen got snared in the Mueller and SDNY probes, the president had his back for a nanosecond, then swiftly called him a rat. That’s straight-up mobster talk, and it means something. As Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings noted in his eloquent closing, getting called a rat is a huge deal. You don’t want that word around your neck when you enter federal prison—which is exactly where Cohen will be reporting in two months.
Trump broke the code. Now Cohen’s giving everyone the key. One by one, the rest of his gangster buddies—Allen Weisselberg, David Pecker, Felix Sater, and, if there is a God in Heaven, even the deliciously named Matty Calamari—will turn on Trump for breaking the code. Because if you can’t stand by your fixer, who will you stand by? Nobody, that’s who.
With dozens of investigations ranging from the Russia probe to garden variety crime like bank, tax, and insurance fraud, the Trump Crime Family is looking at a large number of jail sentences ahead. Yeah, the Don can pardon his coworkers, even his kids, maybe even himself. But he will have to. Meanwhile, the knives will still be out on the state level. He’s looking at a future worse than those of Richard Nixon and his criminal V.P., Spiro Agnew. There’s no good future for anyone in TrumpWorld.
Nothing hard to decipher about that.
This is the thirty-second installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, and in-party impeachment. Many of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking the link. Or, for more on codes, check out my new book Puzzlecraft.