In a now-famous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in July 2019, President Donald Trump offered to release $400 million of military aid to Ukraine in exchange for Zelenskyy’s help in investigating Trump’s political opponents, including Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
According to the official transcript, the relevant part of the conversation went like this:
“Zelenskyy: I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.
"Trump: I would like you to do us a favor though...”
Trump then goes on to talk about the 2016 U.S. election and the Bidens.
When the story broke two months later, commenters pointed out that on the face of it Trump was using national policy for personal political gain, a type of bribery, which is explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution as an impeachable offense in Article II, Section 4. As the classic litmus test for bribery is evidence of an exchange of benefits, or quid pro quo (Latin for “this for that”), Trump’s defenders in the GOP and rightwing media were quick to say “there was no quid pro quo.”
“There was no quid pro quo,” — Trump’s chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, Sept. 26.
“As the president said, this was a perfect call. ... If you read what’s there, you see what’s not there – no quid pro quo," — Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, Sept. 28.
“There was no quid pro quo,” — Vice President Mike Pence, Oct. 3.
“There was no quid pro quo,” — Fox News host Lou Dobbs, Oct. 4.
“There was no quid pro quo,” — Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Oct. 6.
Trump himself, at numerous campaign rallies in September and October, repeated the mantra. “There was no quid pro quo!” he would shout, to great applause.
But was there “no quid pro quo”? A close look at the transcript shows Zelenskyy expressing an eagerness to buy the military equipment (Javelins) that was being held up at that time by the Trump administration. Trump immediately responds, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
Consider the word though in this context. Why does he use it? What does it mean in this context?
Of course, given Trump’s long history of misstatements, self-contradictions, malapropisms and outright lies, there’s no saying for sure what anything he says means to him. But by using standard linguistic and rhetorical analysis, we can say what certain uses of language conventionally mean to normal users.
According to language experts, the word though is a sentence adverb that “qualifies or imposes restrictions on what was said previously.” In this case, what was said previously was Zelenskyy expressing interest in purchasing Javelin missiles from the U.S. When Trump responds by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though,” the word though effectively “qualifies or imposes restrictions” on that impending purchase.
It clearly implies that Ukraine will get its missiles only if it does the “favor” that Trump wants, namely, an investigation of Joe Biden and his son. In short, it creates a quid pro quo that can only be denied by refusing to recognize the regularities and conventions of English.
By claiming “there was no quid pro quo,” Kudlow, Conway, Pence, Dobbs, and other Trump acolytes, including Trump himself, are effectively challenging the expertise of professional lexicographers, rhetoricians, grammarians, indeed all well-educated native speakers of standard English.
No one should be surprised by that. And no one should take such a claim seriously.
Tom Huckin, a University of Utah professor emeritus, is the author of numerous scholarly articles and several textbooks on grammar, rhetoric and linguistics.