Quid pro quo. There’s no escaping the Latin phrase in the United States right now. It’s front and centre of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
The expression, literally meaning “something for something”, made headlines again this week when the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, said Trump had sought such a deal with Ukraine.
The Democratic-led investigation is considering whether Trump abused his position as president by withholding aid in the hope Ukraine would dig dirt on his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.
The Democrats allege that Trump wanted Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for a coveted White House summit or $391-million of military aid — in other words 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: “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 repeatedly is a 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.
But it is unclear how effective the phrase is.
Earlier this month, 33 authors sent 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 favour 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.”
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 sceptical of the impeachment proceedings.
A sample of voters interviewed by Democrats in early November 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.” — AFP