THE phrase “quid pro quo” has been said and repeated countless times by US President Trump and other American personalities embroiled in a national debate in that country during the past several days.
We who watch from afar tend to believe that Trump’s fate might rest on how the controversy over “quid pro quo” would unravel. How much could a phrase or term dominate that nation’s conversation?
The US press is obsessed with the story of an impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives against President Trump. Trump insists that what he did–swapping US military aid to Ukraine for dirt on presidential rival Joe Biden--was not “quid pro quo.”
And the phrase, Latin for “something for something” or exchange of goods and services, is all over the various media platforms.
A whistleblower reported Trump to the US inspector general that the President withheld military equipment approved by Congress for Ukraine until that country, through its president Volodymyr Selensky, would investigate alleged corruption by Joe Biden’s son. In sum, release of the military aid in exchange for dossier on the alleged corruption by the son of Biden, Trump’s Deomocratic rival in the next US elections.
“Quid pro quo” carries a sinister meaning only when it is associated with prostitution, sexual harassment, bribery, extortion, or something else illegal or immoral. It is generally not criminal or evil in the regular conduct of affairs of nations and individuals.
The US or United Kingdom grants aid to the Philippines but wants our President to respect human rights. China offers investments but wants our government to accept onerous contracts and allow their workers, including prostitutes, to compete for local jobs. They scratch our back; we scratch theirs.
A president negotiates for his country. That’s basic in conducting foreign affairs. But the “quid” must be legal and so must the “quo” be. The military aid for Ukraine was approved by Congress. But Trump’s exchange from Ukraine for that was not for the US national interest but to get himself reelected.
He should’ve conceded there was quid pro quo but then he still had to convince the public that his motive was public good not personal or party gain.
He and his defenders have raised a clutch of arguments: from (a) denial that it was “quid pro quo” to (b) insistence that it did not happen because it was hearsay and the whistleblower was a spy, and (c) that Trump didn’t mean it and it was a joke.
It is the quarrel over meaning that has eaten up more time in the controversy.
Trump exploits semantics, confusing instead of enlightening, on what is argued about: inviting foreign meddling in the US elections to keep his seat at the White House for another four years. There was no specific and categorical declaration of the exchange of favors. But of course. Most shady “quid pro quo” deals are not spelled out in an oral sales pitch or in a document.
No label, not literal
Presidents and other politicians constantly do “quid pro quos” although they may not label each as such. When the government leader gives a concession-–plum position, juicy contract, or legislation or order that benefits a company or individual–it is usually in return for a favor already received or expected to come.
The deal is often couched in non-literal language. The parties are reluctant to bring it on the table in stark nakedness, especially when there is some question about the legality or morality of the transaction.