Why 'quid pro quo' keeps showing up in the impeachment inquiry

Kate Murphy

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, this week revised his earlier testimony to the House impeachment committees, sparking headlines about how he now admitted demanding a quid pro quo from Ukraine.

For those not familiar with the phrase, that raises the question: What is a quid pro quo?

Merriam-Webster defines the Latin phrase, which directly translates to “something for something,” as “something given or received for something else.” 

In other words, a deal. Domestic and international politics are all about deals, as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged in a press conference in October (“We do that all the time”), so why is this one so notorious?

In Sondland’s revised testimony, he acknowledges telling an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that U.S. military aid was linked to Kiev launching investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, his son Hunter and the 2016 election. Congress had approved the nearly $400 million in military assistance to help Ukraine battle Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry after it was revealed that a whistleblower accused President Trump of holding the security aid hostage in exchange for help with his reelection campaign. It is illegal to ask for or receive anything of value from a foreign entity in U.S. elections for federal office.

In other words, the quid and the quo were mismatched: U.S. foreign policy was being leveraged for political advantage at home.

At the center of the whistleblower’s complaint: a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. According to a memorandum of the phone call released by the White House — not a verbatim transcript — Trump asked Zelensky to open an investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden in Ukraine. Trump also requested a probe into a debunked theory that the Democratic server hacked in the 2016 election is in Ukraine. 

For their part, Trump and his allies have rigorously denied the existence of a quid pro quo.

But Mulvaney muddled the argument during his press conference. 

“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money,” he said.

Mulvaney walked back his comments later that evening, releasing a statement saying there was “no quid pro quo.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham previously said that if there was additional evidence of a quid pro quo that it would be “very disturbing.” But Graham evidently changed his mind and now says the Trump administration was incapable of orchestrating a coherent policy on Ukraine.

Congress had approved the nearly $400 million in military aid to help Ukraine in its battle with Russian-backed militias after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. But the Office of Management and Budget froze those funds after they were appropriated, and evidence in the impeachment inquiry has shown that Zelensky’s cooperation in the investigations was the White House’s price for releasing them.