Republicans have given some defenses of President Trump throughout this impeachment inquiry that are pretty easy to dismiss, but one they give frequently is a little harder to assess: There’s no evidence of a quid pro quo.

On Tuesday, Ambassador Bill Taylor testified that there was not one but potentially two quid pro quos. He said he learned that there was a clear condition given by Trump that Ukraine will receive military aid and/or a meeting with Trump if its president publicly agrees to investigate Trump’s political opponents.

Yet Republicans still said this:

Can a quid pro quo really be that subjective? Or are Republicans denying reality?

“It’s the new ‘no collusion,’ ” said Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles.

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It’s also the red line many Republicans have drawn on whether to stand by Trump, perhaps fully aware that it’s hard to prove.

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“Sure. I mean … show me something that … is a crime,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said to Axios on HBO in an interview last week. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.”

I called Levinson to get some clarity on the legal definition of a quid pro quo and how that fits into the current political debate. She made three main points:

1) It’s not that the term quid pro quo is subjective, it’s just that it’s hard to prove in a court of law. That makes it subjective in the political realm, where lawmakers can take advantage of that fact. “What happens in real life is in lead-up to the phone call [between Trump and Ukraine’s president], which is [that] everybody knows that military aid is on the line, and with that knowledge, you go into the phone call and say: ‘I really want something from you,’ ” Levinson said. “But you never say both parts of the sentence, which is, ‘You want something from me, and I want something from you.’ ”

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Politically, that means lawmakers can move the goal posts of the definition of a quid pro quo. It’s so extreme to explicitly ask for something in return for something that it seldom happens in real life, or even in mob movies. That gives folks such as Graham extra security to say: I do have a limit for what Trump does — it’s a clear quid pro quo. They probably know it never happened.

2) Talking about a quid pro quo risks missing the point of whether Trump broke the rules. This was Levinson’s main point. Sometimes quid pro quos are necessary and even good in governing, she said. You wouldn’t want to give taxpayer money to a country that is going to squander it corruptly, so a president might try to hold up funding until the country cleans up its act. But asking for a political favor is where it probably crosses the line.

Still, Washington is getting caught up in whether it crosses the line into a clear quid pro quo. That’s because even if you don’t have a clear quid pro quo (and Taylor shared secondhand conversations that sound very much like there was one), getting reelection help from a foreign government is illegal. It might even be a campaign finance violation.

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We could step back even further and point out that all this talk about crimes is somewhat beside the point in the impeachment debate: Trump doesn’t even have to have committed a crime to be impeached. Congress could decide what he did is just plain wrong as the nation’s leader. The Constitution allows for subjectivity on that, too.

3) There’s one big misconception about quid pro quos that people are using to defend Trump: that you have to carry it through for it to have happened.

As it becomes clearer that Trump did try to exchange military aid and/or an Oval Office meeting to get a foreign country to investigate Democrats, this is one argument we expect Trump’s defenders to make often. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board said this:

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“It may turn out that while Mr. Trump wanted a quid-pro-quo policy ultimatum toward Ukraine, he was too inept to execute it. Impeachment for incompetence would disqualify most of the government, and most Presidents at some point or another in office.

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That’s inaccurate, at least legally.

“An attempt is enough,” Levinson said. “The point isn’t whether you were successful, it’s whether you tried.”

So Trump doesn’t have to have been successful in a quid pro quo to be accused of one. He doesn’t have to be caught explicitly offering a quid pro quo to be accused of one. And he doesn’t even have to have been found committing a quid pro quo to be impeached.

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