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Explained: What is the meaning of quid pro quo?

Quid pro quo, like many Latin phrases, made its way into legal terminology, where it is now used to imply a mutually beneficial deal between two parties. Why is it being used in the Trump impeachment inquiry?

Written by Yashee | New Delhi |
Updated: November 24, 2019 10:28:46 am
donald trump impeachment inquiry quid pro quo with ukraine In US Congress, transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky. (AP Photo)

As the dramatic proceedings to impeach President Donald Trump unfold in the United States Congress, one expression that has been heard over and over again is “quid pro quo” — something that the President and his supporters have insisted cannot be established in his dealings with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, thus absolving him of blame.

So what is quid pro quo, the Latin expression that describes the issue at the heart of the Trump impeachment inquiry?

Explained: What is Quid pro quo?

Quid pro quo, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “something given or received for something else”.

In the 1500s in England, it was often used in the sense of apothecaries substituting one medicine for the other, by accident or design. It has also been part of trade lexicon as a term for the barter system.

Quid pro quo, like many Latin phrases, made its way into legal terminology, where it is now used to imply a mutually beneficial deal between two parties. In political contexts, like the one involving Trump currently, it is often seen as an essential requirement to suggest or establish corruption, wrongdoing, or impropriety.

The expression is frequently used in India as well. Most recently, Rahul Gandhi, then the president of the Congress, repeatedly alleged ahead of the Lok Sabha elections that rules were bent to get the offset contract of the Rafale jet deal for Anil Ambani — the BJP’s defence then was that the government had no say in the choice of offset partner, and no quid pro quo could thus be made out.

Impeachment inquiry

The impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump has been initiated on the allegation that he made a White House visit for President Zelensky, and/or nearly $400 million in US military aid to the country, conditional upon Kyiv opening a corruption inquiry against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who at one time was on the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company.


Under the scanner specifically is a telephone conversation between Trump and Zelensky on July 25, during which Trump asked the then newly elected Ukrainian President “for a favour”. The inquiry is focussed on establishing the propriety or otherwise of Trump’s request, and how the President stood to gain from it.

Biden is one of the likely Democratic candidates against Trump in the presidential elections of 2020. Trump is alleged to have tried to enlist a foreign country, Ukraine, on his side in a personal political battle with Biden in order to discredit him.

President’s defence

On Wednesday, after the US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified, Trump posted on Twitter: “…Ambassador Sondland asks U.S. President (me): “What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas & theories. What do you want? It was a very abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood. He (the President) just said, “I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO! TELL PRESIDENT ZELENSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING!” Later, Ambassador Sondland said that I told him, “Good, go tell the truth!”…”

The President’s camp has resolutely stuck to this one phrase in its defence, that there was no quid pro quo — and that he did not want anything in return for Ukraine “doing the right thing”, i.e. order a corruption investigation. While taking the help of foreign powers in an election is illegal in the US, asking another country to launch a corruption probe is not wrong per se — unless it can be established that Trump stood to gain from it.


On Wednesday, the President spoke to reporters outside the White House holding handwritten notes in large block letters that read “I want no quid pro quo”. According to Trump — whose version Sondland appeared to confirm — he had used the same words in a phone conversation he had with the ambassador on September 9. As evidence for the “no quid pro quo”, the Trump camp has said that the US did release the military aid to Ukraine, although only on September 11, after the House of Representatives had already started taking interest in the President’s July 25 phone conversation with Zelensky.

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First published on: 22-11-2019 at 04:20:33 am
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