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Legal-Linguistic Analysis: Trump’s ‘Though’ isn’t Quid Pro Quo

Legal-Linguistic Analysis: Trump’s ‘Though’ isn’t Quid Pro Quo

President Trump was acquitted of all impeachment charges on February 6, 2020, following more than a month of impeachment proceedings, legal arguments, and political grandstanding on both sides of the aisle.  Trump’s impeachment could have been avoided long ago simply by breaking down the President’s words, before the articles of impeachent, before the Senate trial, before any request for witnesses. The President’s language has gone back and forth between Republicans and Democrats since the businessman came down that escalator and announced his candidacy.  Now that the impeachment is over, we can only wait for the next drama to play out Washington. But the language used by President Trump remains, and must be analyzed by breaking the arguments and language down to their basic semantic usage. Words, like elections, have consequences, and using semantic analysis, you can decide for yourself whether Trump’s ‘perfect’ phone call included a ‘quid pro quo’ from a linguistic perspective. Guilty! Or Innocent! One doesn’t have to go beyond the words of the president himself.  

“I want you to do us a favor though.” 

This is the so-called ‘damning’ statement or the ‘smoking gun.’  If the gun is smoking, there must be fire.  For the purposes of this article, I will only consider the linguistic content of this passage, and through the discussion, hopefully provide the tools for anyone to analyze the other parts of the call, witness testimony, and other facts surrounding the case. “I want you to do us a favor though.” Based on my expertise in the English language, especially with my background in legal English, the conclusion based on this passage is that no matter what the president may have intended, this statement is too vague to create a true quid pro quo situation. 

Quid pro quo definition:  a favour or advantage granted in return for something.

Latin is seen throughout the law.  It’s almost a cliche, from the res ipsa loquitur to the mens rea. The Latin phrase ‘quid pro quo’ originally implied something was substituted for another thing (i.e., this instead of that).  More modern uses of ‘quid pro quo’ was first seen, in English, in the mid 1500s and was accepted to mean generally that ‘something’ of ‘value’ was exchanged reciprocally, with a clear connotation of personal interest.  Under the common law, quid pro quo suggests that an item or a service has been traded in return for something of value, particularly in cases where equity of value is in question, furthering the concept of reciprocity of exchange.

For a quid pro quo to be considered bribery under U.S. Federal Law, there must be an ‘identifiable exchange’ between parties, for example political contributions in exchange for official acts.  

The primary question, in the analysis of whether quid pro quo exists, is who the associated parties are.  A casual observer would see the parties implicated here are President Trump himself and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.  However, considering President Trump’s words, the parties seem to be the royal court as much as the king himself. 

The Royal We:  I or Us?  

“‘I’ want you do to ‘us’ a favor, though.” 

In English, pronouns are used to define the subject in a sentence.  Here, it is unclear who the president is talking about because he speaks in mixed pronouns.  The president starts with ‘I’. Whether he is speaking of himself as ‘I’ personally or speaking on behalf of the office makes no difference.  The use of ‘I’ clearly indicates that President Trump was referring to himself in the passage.  However, he follows up with ‘us,’ without defining who exactly that ‘us’ is.  Is it merely a slip of the tongue, or was he trying to implicate a larger group due to his use of the plural pronoun. Under plain and basic English rules, his use of ‘us’ could mean nearly anything: his family, the party, the nation, other nations, the world?  

In politics, the connotations of ‘us’ are vast, and can be beneficial like the United Nations, or devastating as Nixon’s gang of plumbers.  This usage could indicate that President Trump welcomes countries all countries, of course including China and Russia, to investigate corruption of U.S. officials. From a linguistic perspective, this could easily be true as the President could argue that the subject of the sentence could be more ‘us’ than ‘I’ and thus reflect the interests of his office rather than his personal gain.

The Dude agrees

The royal we, or majestic plural (pluralis majestatis), is the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a single person who is a monarch. The more general word for the use of a we, us, or our to refer to oneself is nosism.  As described above, the ‘royal we’ can clearly be seen from the passage. Trump’s usage of this linguistic device makes it unclear who exactly is referred to by ‘I’ and ‘Us.’  While this may seem unimportant, language and usage, especially coming from the Leader of the Free World, can implicate severe and serious consequences.

But the royal we is not the only interesting linguistic device in the passage.  Consider the use of the phrase ‘favor, though.’

“I want you to do us a favor, though.”

The ‘favor’ in this context is undeniable, as he directly refers to the Bidens in subsequent statements.  But our analysis is not complete. ’Favor’ is an important word here because there could have been laws broken by the type of favor requested. There could have been criminal charges based on a favor, but not by use of the word ‘favor’ alone. Consider this example:

“Can you do me a favor?”

What exactly is a favor?  It’s concisely defined as overgenerous preferential treatment. At this point, there is no obligation on either party.  The person being asked has not agreed, nor so much as asked for additional information. There is no ‘return’ of ‘something for something.’  In other word, the exchange requirement of a quid pro quo is not seen, and without some kind of acceptance, through words or actions, of the thing or action being asked for.  But the word ‘favor’ is also clear in the President’s statement.

So the ‘I or us’ was arguably asking for ‘overgenerous preferential treatment’ with the word ‘favor.’   This analysis is quite straightforward, and based on the above, should be clear to anyone from any political polarization.  Again, I am not commenting on the President’s intent, nor the nation’s political climate in this article.  I am merely considering the actual words used to clarify the legal meaning of those actual words.  However, this passage is not done just yet.  Only with the addition of the conjunction ‘though,’ the statement is complete and we can finally finish our linguistic work.  

“I want you to do us a favor though.”

The linguistic question is whether the inclusion of the word ‘though’ creates a quid pro quo.  As with the use of ‘but’ or ‘however,’ the use of the word ‘though’ may or may not imply a condition.  Of course, when a device may or may not imply a condition, the meaning can be argued from various positions.  The impeachment managers argue ‘though’ created a conditional structure, or more clearly ‘if you do X then we do Y’ or ‘If you investigate the Bidens then we give you the aid.’  In other words, the ‘though’ in this context implies the favor itself, in this case the withholding of previously funded aid unless the Ukrainians publicly investigated the Bidens.  

But, does ‘though’ mean ‘unless’?  

The President’s lawyers argue that it does not.  When the President says ‘favor, though’ he means anything but a condition. He could be saying ‘hey, but there was this thing in addition I wanted you to consider’ or ‘but my interests are also to combat corruption in Ukraine.’  His defense said in the impeachment trial he was ‘raising a concern’ through giving a specific example of the larger corruption issue. 

No one expected the President’s lawyers (nor the President himself) would ever agree with the Democratic impeachment managers, especially on the linguistics of a partial transcript of a telephone call with a foreign President whose English might not be up to that level of nuance, even if that linguistic analysis could very well turn the case to one side or the other.  

Both sides do agree on one thing linguistically, though.  They can agree that “though” is used in the sense of contrasting two items as a conjunction.  Both sides also agree that the President is using Spoken, rather than Written English. So in any case we cannot judge adequately from a transcript the intention found in the speaker’s tone. 

So is ‘though’ being used as a synonym of ‘however?’  Especially in spoken English, we can use ‘though’ (but not although or even though) with a meaning similar to however or nevertheless.  In these cases, we usually put it at the end of a clause.  Does ‘though’ in the sense of ‘however’ imply consideration?  At common law, consideration is the exchange of something of value for something else of value. 

In this case, Trump’s statement with ‘though’ does imply consideration, because he directly asks for something of value – the Biden investigations – in exchange for something of value – the missiles already promised. He seems to tag the word ‘though’ onto the end of the ask for a favor to indicate a favor for a favor, or indeed, a quid pro quo.  

Consider this transaction as the most basic of contracts, and to form a valid contract, 4 elements are required: offer, acceptance, intention to create binding relations, and consideration.  We saw that the term ‘though’ fits the criteria of consideration. Interesting, in most Civil Law jurisdictions, the concept of consideration is not a part of the equasion.  Instead, they use the concept of ‘cause,’ meaning basically that both parties to the contract have a reason for entering it.  Since the United States is a common law country, we’ll stick to that analysis.

To form a valid contract, there must be an offer and an acceptance.  The impeachment managers argue that Trump’s statement itself constitutes an offer under contract terms.  It, at least, indicated that President Trump wanted something from President Zelensky.  The asking for a favor could be seen as an offer, even if the specifics of the deal itself only revealed themselves at a later date.  Where this contract fails is a lack of an acceptance by President Zelensky.  Had he responded to President Trump’s request by saying “Yes sir, we’ll investigate the Bidens, make TV appearances regarding same, and will get you a great photo of Joe and Hunter Biden in a prison jumpsuit.  Just give us the arms,” then clearly this would have been acceptance.  But this didn’t happen, at least with the information known at the time of this writing.  Therefore, as ‘perfect’ as this call was according to the President, even if he did offer an ‘implied’ contract, he didn’t get a “yes” from the other side.  

It’s unclear whether Presidents Trump and Zelensky intended to bind themselves to the contract.  There simply is not enough information known at this point of time.  Could this be seen as a contract of adhesion, at least from President Zelensky’s perspective?  Do the President’s words hinge his relationship on the exchange?  Not really. Does he aim to create a specific binding relationship based on the words in the conversation?  Not really.  Is the intention from both sides to develop a stronger relationship through a political favor.  Absolutely!  

But under any contractual analysis, there was no contract developed even if an offer was presented and consideration clear from the terms mentioned in the conversation.  

The use of spoken English rather than written is an extremely important consideration here.  Could President Trump simply have said something he didn’t intend?  It’s conceivable.  Could his grammatical mistakes be causing the confusion?  What was the tone of his statement?  Was the President making a statement or asking a question?  That is also unclear from the statement.  We don’t know the President’s tone on the call, for example take a look at  Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen saying this exact phrase in different voices:

Gandalf agrees

Although the actors and comedians see no other option than dismissing Trump’s perfect call as a ‘guilty phrase,’ use of ‘though’ at the end of a sentence is clearly a conjunction meaning ‘however’ in Spoken English, and use of the word ‘though’ doesn’t linguistically imply a binding relationship through a necessary condition.  On Thursday, February 6, 2020, the United States Senate acquitted President Trump on all impeachment charges stemming from this ‘perfect’ phone call.  The laws and rules of English linguistics agree with their assessment.  President Trump is therefore linguistically innocent. Based ‘bigly’ on his general language, he might be guilty of corrupting English, though.  

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