In recent days, Democrats have begun describing President Trump’s demands that Ukraine discredit his domestic opponents as “bribery.” Conservative media has excitedly seized on the new terminological emphasis as proof that the substantive case against his conduct has fallen apart.
This claim formed an important basis of the Republican defense. “After trying out several different accusations against President Trump, the Democrats have recently settled on ‘bribery’ — according to widespread reports, they replaced their ‘quid pro quo’ allegation because it wasn’t polling well,” sneered House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes in his opening statement. “The American people are asking, if the facts are the same, why do the crimes the president of the United States are accused of keep changing?” demanded Representative John Ratcliffe. “Why do we go from quid pro quo to extortion and now to bribery?”
This is the kind of sharp analytic insight Ratcliffe might have brought to the post of director of National Intelligence, had his candidacy not been tragically sunk by a combination of Republican concerns and his own résumé inflation.
In fact, it was not Democrats who introduced “quid pro quo” as the name of Trump’s crime. The first uses of the phrase I could find in mainstream media in conjunction with this scandal came through reporters conveying a defense of Trump. “One source familiar with the contents of the [July 25 Trump-Zelensky] phone call said that Trump did not raise the issue of American military and intelligence aid that the administration was at the time withholding from Ukraine — indicating that there may not have been an explicit quid pro quo expressed in that conversation,” reported the Washington Post on September 20. A September 21 Wall Street Journal report contained a similar defense: “Mr. Trump in the call didn’t mention a provision of U.S. aid to Ukraine, said this person, who didn’t believe Mr. Trump offered the Ukrainian president any quid pro quo for his cooperation on any investigation.”
Trump himself quickly picked up on this terminology. “No quid pro quo, there was nothing,” he told reporters the next day. Republicans began repeating “no quid pro quo,” as their major talking point. The purpose of this line was to draw a defensible position, conceding that Trump had asked for investigations but denying he had tied them to any favorable actions in response. This defense quickly collapsed, as a string of revelations proved beyond any conceivable doubt that Trump’s extortion did include explicit quid pro quo demands.
Obviously, “quid pro quo” was not a description of the crime itself. A quid pro quo is not inherently improper. People trade things all the time. The impropriety is trading official government acts (a White House meeting and military aid) in return for political favors (ginned-up investigations against Trump’s enemies).
That offense could be described as extortion, if you want to emphasize the pressure exerted on the Ukrainians. It could also be described as bribery, if you want to emphasize the favor Trump was soliciting. In any case, using different words to describe the same improper act is not changing the accusation.
So to say that Democrats are changing the crime Trump is being charged with is doubly wrong. “Quid pro quo” is not and never was the crime. It was a denial used by Trump. And using different words for the same crime does not mean the suspect is innocent.