What is quid pro quo and does it matter?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

Quid pro quo. Quid pro quo. Quid pro quo. A phrase that was previously unknown to anyone who wasn’t a legal expert or Latin enthusiast suddenly seems to be the most important three words in America.

The impeachment inquiry into President Trump has brought the saying — which translates as “something for something” — into the popular lexicon. At issue is whether Trump should be impeached for withholding $391 million in aid money (the quid) in order to compel Ukraine to investigate the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son (the quo).

The phrase literally means an exchange between two parties, but it has historically carried a connotation of impropriety. The question of a quid pro quo is frequently raised in legal cases considering corruption, bribery and extortion.

Why there’s debate

Much of the public debate since the launch of the impeachment inquiry has centered around whether available evidence proves the existence of a quid pro quo.

Trump has repeatedly said there was no quid pro quo in his dealings with Ukraine. Democrats say they have clear evidence of one. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said a quid pro quo “happens all the time” and everyone should “get over it,” before later retracting those statements.

Not everyone believes a quid pro quo is the key to impeachment, however. Rep. Adam Schiff, who’s leading the inquiry for the Democrats, said “there doesn’t need to be a quid pro quo” to determine that the president abused his power. Some Republicans, on the other hand, have argued that quid pro quos are common in foreign policy.

Some political analysts worry that too much focus on an archaic, ill-defined phrase like quid pro quo confuses the public, especially when a much more common and well-understood concept, bribery, is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution’s impeachment clause. “When you’re trying to persuade the American people of something that is really pretty simple … it is probably best not to use Latin words to explain it,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut.

What’s next

The inquiry moves into a new stage this week with the start of public hearings. Questions about the president’s motives in his dealings with Ukraine will be a key part of witness testimony. It’s unclear, however, whether the importance of the phrase “quid pro quo” will continue now that the proceedings are open to public view.


The inquiry should focus on bribery rather than quid pro quo

“Enough with all the Latin. ‘Quid pro quo’ is a namby-pamby, wishy-washy way to describe the crime President Trump clearly committed in his dealings with Ukraine. The correct term is bribery.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

Quid pro quo isn’t an important phrase in the legal basis for impeachment

“The term doesn't appear in the whistleblower complaint that set the entire impeachment inquiry in motion. It doesn't appear in the Constitution, which lays out the impeachment process as punishment for ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ It's not in the Federalist Papers, where Alexander Hamilton expanded on what those crimes might be.” — Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

Trump’s strategy backfired after evidence of a quid pro quo became clear

“Donald Trump’s defenses tend to boil down to catchphrases: ‘no collusion,’ for instance, or ‘no quid pro quo.’ In the latter case, however, he may have hit a stumbling block.” — Kevin Fitzpatrick, Vanity Fair

Quid pro quo is not necessary for impeachment

“This quid-pro-quo dispute misses the larger, and more important, point: What Trump did was wrong, and an abuse of his power as president, irrespective of whether there was a quid pro quo.” — Robert Robb, Arizona Republic

Quid pro quo is a common strategy in foreign relations

“Quid pro quo just means ‘this for that.’ It’s an exchange, and it is a feature of all commerce. The Latin term only sounds sinister because we most often hear it in connection with bribery and public-corruption prosecutions. But crooked transactions make up just a sliver of state, interstate, and international commerce” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

Using the phrase makes it harder for voters to understand impeachment

“They say, ‘We know there was quid. Was there a quo?’ And they start dissecting the meaning of the phrase without explaining the meaning of the phrase in the first place, and I imagine if you haven’t taken some Latin, that adds to the feeling of elites who are highly educated speaking in ways no one understands.” — Political language expert Mary Kate Cary to Boston Globe

Trump and his allies employ the phrase to confuse the case against them

“This is also a classic of the Bulls*** Avalanche genre: there was no quid pro quo, but it's cool if there was, because it's not an impeachable offense. But ‘perhaps so’ (!?), read the transcript ... and in conclusion, there was no quid pro quo.” — Jack Holmes, Esquire

Proof of a quid pro quo won’t convince the public Trump should be removed

“Americans are never going to agree to removing a President from office for engaging in acts described by a Latin term many don't understand or at least would never use.” — Arick Wierson, CNN

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