NEW YORK – “Quid pro quo.” There is no escaping the Latin phrase in America right now. It is front and center of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and omnipresent across airwaves and social media.
The expression, meaning “something for something,” made headlines again Wednesday when the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told lawmakers Trump had sought such a deal with Ukraine.
He declared to impeachment investigators that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had explicitly sought a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Besides a U.S. offer of a coveted meeting between the U.S. and Ukrainian presidents at the White House, Sondland testified it was his understanding that Trump was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid, which Ukraine badly need with an aggressive Russia on its border, in exchange for the country’s announcement of the investigations.
Sondland conceded that Trump never told him directly the security assistance was blocked for the probes, a gap in his account that Republicans and the White House seized on as evidence the president did nothing wrong.
But he said his dealings with Giuliani, as well as administration officials, left him with the clear understanding of what was at stake.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?'” Sondland asked. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
The rest, he said, was obvious: “Two plus two equals four.”
The Democratic-led investigation is probing whether Trump abused his position as president by withholding aid in the hope Ukraine would dig dirt on potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.
The Democrats allege that Trump wanted Ukraine to open a corruption probe into Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for a coveted White House summit and/or $391 million of military aid — a quid pro quo.
If the House of Representatives, which has a Democratic majority, votes to impeach him, Trump will face trial in the Senate to decide whether he be removed from office.
Pushing back at the accusation, Trump, his Republican supporters and right-wing commentators have chosen a rallying cry: there was “no quid pro quo.” Repeated ad nauseam, the phrase echoes the “no collusion” mantra adopted by the president during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Linguists say using the same expression over and over again is a clever way of lodging a specific idea in voters’ brains.
Since Republicans have the majority in the Senate, impeachment is unlikely.
But Democrats hope they can at least convince voters that Trump abused his position to serve his political interests, thereby encouraging them to vote him out of office next year.
It is unclear how impactful the phrase is, however.
Earlier this month, 33 American writers signed a letter to The New York Times asking it to stop using the phrase in regard to the impeachment inquiry.
“Most people don’t understand what it means, and in any case it doesn’t refer only to a crime,” they wrote.
“Asking for a favor is not a criminal act; we frequently demand things from foreign countries before giving them aid, like asking them to improve their human rights record,” they added.
The writers, clearly Trump opponents, urged the newspaper to use terms such as “bribery” or “extortion,” to make clear that what the president asked of Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky was “a crime.”
Democratic bosses might have been reading.
Last week, their leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, referred to “bribery.”
On Monday she went even further, using the word “extortion” to dispute Republican claims there was no quid pro quo because Trump eventually released the aid.
The use of language more explicitly associated with criminal activity was a clear attempt at trying to win over voters skeptical of the impeachment proceedings.
A sample of voters interviewed by Democrats in early November all said they found the term “corruption” much more striking than “quid pro quo,” according to The Washington Post.
But Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer, says Sondland’s statement will give the term “quid pro quo” another boost. “He is explicitly saying there was one, that means we are going to go through a whole round of arguing over ‘quid pro quo’ again,” he said.
And so it was: Midway through Sondland’s appearance before Congress, Trump appeared on the lawn of the White House to address reporters, reading from notes on the testimony.
A photographer captured what the president had scribbled in a black marker pen: “I want no quid pro quo.”