“there’s no business in Russia:” Speaking in Implicatures

During his testimony to congress, Michael Cohen reported, with respect to Donald Trump’s Russian enterprises:

In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for [Donald Trump], he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.

Michael Cohen

What does he mean “he was telling me to lie,” exactly? The linguistic subfield of pragmatics — how meaning is communicated beyond the mere logic of an utterance — illuminates this quite clearly. In short, it’s through a conversational implicature that Trump told Cohen to lie.

Human Language is Cooperative

To a great extent, the meaning we draw from language is based on shared knowledge and the shared assumption that other individuals want to cooperate with us. Grice articulated this as the cooperative principle. Specifically, he stated it as:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

-Grice, Paul (1975). “Logic and conversation”. In Cole, P.; Morgan, J. Syntax and semantics. 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press. pp. 41–58

The cooperative principle allows us to do some funny things with communication, which Grice further enumerated through his maxims of conversation. These aren’t rules of conversation, but expectations we have about other speakers. When these maxims are flouted—that is, ignored—the cooperative principle allows us to make new meanings that aren’t present in the literal content of what was said.

Specifically, what Grice called the maxim of quality is relevant to Cohen’s case, which states that contributions to conversation should be true. So, for example, say it’s raining heavily, and I walk up to you drenched, and say “great weather, huh?” Based on our shared understanding that being drenched is undesirable, this statement is obviously false, but specifically, because it’s false, it invokes sarcasm. This meaning is achieved through flouting the maxim of quality. Communicating an obvious falsehood to you achieves a new, shared meaning, knowing that you and I both agree that the weather is not good, and that you know it would be non-cooperative for me to lie about something so immediately evident to both of us.

One way we can test for an implicature is by cancelling it: you can state explicitly something that contradicts an implicature to cancel its meaning without the statement becoming contradictory as a whole. Following my “great weather” comment in the above example, I could have followed my weather comment up with “No, I really do love when it rains like this; I don’t mind being wet.” This removes the implicature without contradicting the original statement.

Lying to Obscure

So what about with Cohen? Both Cohen and Trump knew that Cohen was actively negotiating a deal in Russia on behalf of Trump, and Cohen knew that Trump knew that. Consequentially, Trump flouted the maxim of quality in stating that “there’s no business in Russia.” Cohen, via the cooperative principle, inferred an intended meaning—to act as if there were no deal in Russia: that is, to lie.

I don’t really see any other way to interpret such a statement in the given context. It could be interpreted as Trump having forgotten about such a deal, but that seems unlikely. Especially if Trump had communicated such unethical acts in such an implicated way before, Cohen knew that this was the best and only interpretation.

Why would Trump do this, instead of just telling Cohen to lie? First of all, telling Cohen to lie explicitly, Cohen could later state that Trump told him to lie about it. By putting the burden of interpretation onto Cohen, Trump can affirmatively and truthfully state that “I never told him to lie,” and when Cohen quotes him as saying “there’s no business in Russia,” all that does is spread a message Trump wants heard.

This is cancellability in action, as stated above. By speaking in implicatures, Trump can at any time rescind any of his “commands.” According to Cohen’s testimony yesterday, Trump does this sort of thing a lot. He called it “a code,” which it partially is. You have to have shared knowledge that Cohen acquired for 10 years in Trump’s employ to make the right implicatures from such statements.

Trump’s usage is the kind of brilliant linguistic insight I’d expect from someone so manipulative and narcissistic: someone who understands that other people are cooperative, but has no interest in ever reciprocating. Trump isn’t a smart man when it comes to abstract or learned matters, but he is a master at human manipulation. He knows how to speak and let others fill in the blanks. This shows the darker side of our instinct for cooperation: when it’s not reciprocated, we can be exploited, and when someone has acquired the shield of wealth our society and laws uphold, they are immune from justice for the betrayal.

The problem for this one-trick President is that eventually one has to deliver actual products promised, and those promised were the ones in the imaginations of all those who accepted his word. He’ll never know what he really meant, what dreams and expectations he stirred in those who find him infallible. At some point, they will come to audit their accounts of his promises, but those promises will be revealed bankrupt.

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