President Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow flew into a rage Tuesday evening because he misheard a common legal phrase. Representative Val Demings, one of the House impeachment managers, said, “The president’s lawyers may suggest that the House should have sought — that this House should have sought these materials in court, or awaited further lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act, a.k.a. FOIA lawsuits.” She repeated a phrase “FOIA lawsuits,” which — even though “FOIA” is a well-known term for lawyers and journalists, and even though she helpfully spelled out the acronym for her audience — struck Sekulow as unfamiliar.
Sekulow decided the word he had heard was “lawyer lawsuits.” He further decided that this phrase was a pejorative and launched a furious riff, denouncing her use of this heretofore novel term with a level of indignation that would be appropriate if she had used some kind of racial slur:
“And by the way — lawyer lawsuits?” he said. “Lawyer lawsuits? We’re talking about the impeachment of a president of the United States, duly elected, and the members — the managers are complaining about lawyer lawsuits? The Constitution allows lawyer lawsuits. It’s disrespecting the Constitution of the United States to even say that in this chamber — lawyer lawsuits.” Nobody had any idea what “lawyer lawsuits” was even supposed to mean — aren’t all lawsuits filed by lawyers anyway? — or why Sekulow was so enraged by having imagined hearing it.
Unbelievably, having been caught in this absurd and embarrassing error, the White House insisted Sekulow was correct. “When you read the transcript, it says ‘lawyer lawsuit,’” insisted White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland. “It’s not clear to what transcript Ueland is referring,” reported the Washington Post, “but the Federal Document Clearing House transcript includes no references to ‘lawyer lawsuits’ besides Sekulow’s.”
The exchange demonstrated two interesting aspects of the impeachment trial. First, Sekulow is prone to making absurd claims based on comically obvious errors. And second, when he is called on these undeniable errors, the White House will back him up anyway.
The pattern recurred Wednesday, when Sekulow unveiled what seemed to him a devastating omission. Even though Adam Schiff described President Trump demanding Ukrainian investigations as a quid pro quo for a meeting and military aid, the articles of impeachment don’t say anything about a quid pro quo!
“Adam Schiff today talked about quid pro quo,” Sekulow told reporters. “Notice what’s not in the articles of impeachment: allegations or accusations of quid pro quo.”
What? The charge is right there:
Granted, it doesn’t use the term “quid pro quo.” But it describes the exact same concept — conditioning acts of value in exchange for another thing. “Quid pro quo” is a Latin phrase meaning the trade of something for something. It’s not necessary to use that Latin phrase to describe that concept.
In case Sekulow remains confused, in this sentence — “President Trump also sought to pressure the Government of Ukraine to take these steps by conditioning official United States Government acts of significant value to Ukraine” — the quid is “official United States Government acts of significant value to Ukraine,” the quo is “these steps,” and the pro is “conditioning,” which means something will be done only if another thing is done.
Naturally, rather than pretending Sekulow’s latest mortifying gaffe didn’t happen, the White House is actively highlighting it as one of the sharper points raised in Trump’s defense:
It’s probably inevitable, given the nature of the defendant and the charges against him, that Trump’s lawyers will bungle the facts and the law. But is it really necessary for the president of the United States to employ a lead attorney who is unable to understand words?