The evolution and history of 'quid pro quo'

The evolution and history of 'quid pro quo'
Congressman Adam Schiff image via ABC Screengrab

Quid Pro Quo: A favor or advantage granted or expected in return for so.

Over the past two months, the impeachment inquiry has sparked intense debate over the alleged quid pro quo agreement between President Donald Trump and the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for lifting halted military aide.

In the rough transcript of the phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky released by the White House, President Trump states “I would like you to do us a favor though” to President Zelensky while discussing the United States providing military support for Ukraine. President Trump has fiercely defended himself, claiming that there was “no quid pro quo” in his “perfect” phone call to the Ukrainian President. As Congress brings public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, it is important to understand exactly what “quid pro quo” means to determine if it applies to this phone call. Historians have provided an important perspective on how our understanding of “quid pro quo” has changed over time.

In an interview with NPR, the Wall Street Journal’s language columnist Ben Zimmer discussed the definition and past understanding of the term. Quid pro quo means “something for something” in Latin. Zimmer explained that in the 16th century, apothecaries would substitute one medication (quid) with a similar one that often did not work as well or may have even been harmful (quo). It was a “practice people were scared of,” Zimmer stated.  Once the term quid pro quo was used in a legal context, the term retained its initial negative connotation although it should seem neutral. Even though “quid pro quo” has been used in the English language for over 500 years, “the political situation can't help but reform the way that we're going to understand this particular phrase.” History demonstrates that the use of this term has evolved based on the ways it has been utilized over time, the most recent being its legal use in the impeachment inquiry.

Today, lawyers evaluate quid pro quos in cases involving bribery, extortion, and sexual harassment, Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault explained in a New York Times article. He highlighted that while not all instances are illegal, in politics the term is often used to describe corruption. The Washington Post’s video “Quid pro quo, explained” highlighted that quid pro quo is usually very hard to prove because it is rare that there is an explicit demonstration of trading one thing for another.  The initial deal does not have to be successfully completed to be considered quid pro quo; an attempt is sufficient.

Doug Rossinow, a history professor at Metropolitan State University, compared the Ukrainian quid quo pro with the Iran-Contra affair in a Washington Post article.  In 1984, Congress passed a law that essentially barred President Ronald Reagan from using a proxy army, known as the Contras, to destabilize the socialist government in Nicaragua. In an attempt to secretly maintain supplying the Contras with weapons and money, Reagan engaged in illegal efforts with other governments to supply the contras for the United States in return for U.S. military aid. The article explains that what made this the Iran-contra affair was the fact that once this scandal came to light in 1986 after a supply plane was shot down by Nicaraguans, it was also discovered that Reagan’s team had authorized the sale of weapons to Iran, which was labeled a terrorist state. Even when this scandal emerged publicly, Reagan avoided impeachment. Rossinow emphasized a key difference between these two situations: “Like Reagan, Trump has played fast and loose with American assets and security policy… Reagan committed impeachable acts out of zealotry, Trump played the Ukraine card in what seems a crassly political gambit.” Reagan was able to avoid impeachment his motives did not seem to be for his own personal political gain.

While the use and meaning behind “quid pro quo” evolved over time, its history demonstrates how it has come to be associated with corruption and abuse of power. Understanding the history of this phrase is important because it allows for an informed opinion on the current impeachment.

Samantha Benthien is an Intern at the History News Network.


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