The Latin phrase quid pro quo means “this for that.” Whereas these ten letters have become “dirty words” in the left’s lexicon, the phrase is the very foundation of a market economy, in which people trade goods and services based on the valuations buyers and sellers place on them.
Governments behave similarly. The United States values having a democratically elected government sans corruption on Russia’s doorstep. Ukraine values U.S. aid. A mutually beneficial exchange takes place when Ukraine values American aid more than corruption and the United States values a corruption-reduced Ukraine more than the dollars it must part with to secure it. This is all part and parcel of strategic efforts to secure U.S. interests abroad.
The seminal issue in play in the Ukraine controversy is whether this exchange served the public interest of the United States broadly defined, the private interest of President Trump in attempting to submarine the candidacy of Joe Biden, or some combination of the two. While the motives of the two parties will never be known with certainty, the case for impeachment on the merits is decidedly weak.
To put it succinctly, if Biden remained in office given his public pronouncements regarding the quid pro quo, transitivity argues that Trump should as well. That is, at least until the 2020 election, when the court of public opinion weighs in at the ballot box.
The Economics of Exchange
In a market economy, consumers allocate their scarce dollars to purchase goods and services to maximize their utility or satisfaction. Businesses produce the goods and services that consumers desire by securing inputs that generate more in revenues than they impose in costs.
When I purchase a car for $30,000, we may infer that I value the car more than I value the $30,000. Symmetrically, when the dealership sells me the car for $30,000, we may infer that it values my $30,000 more than the car that it sold me.
Sending U.S. aid abroad to elicit desired legal, business, and social behavior from foreign governments is really no different. The only question on the table insofar as Ukraine is concerned is whether the underlying motivation for the exchange was private or public interest?
Just as the managers of a corporation are agents of the shareowners, elected government officials are agents for the citizenry. As such, they are expected to carry out their duties that serve the best interests of the country—the so-called public interest. When elected officials serve their private interests instead, they are no longer good stewards of the public trust. In such circumstances, they may be removed from office by another branch of government or via free elections.
Blurring the Lines Between Private and Public Interest
When as vice president Biden publicly proclaimed on video that he was withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine until the prosecutor investigating his son’s company was fired, was he acting in the private interest of his family or in the public interest of the United States? Unfortunately, the two are not mutually exclusive.
It is not inconceivable that the Obama administration harbored legitimate concerns about the Ukrainian prosecutor. The question is whether the Bidens benefitted personally from the dismissal of this prosecutor as a direct product or merely as a byproduct of the quid pro quo?
Blurring these lines is not benign. To maintain the public trust, elected officials must not only avoid impropriety, they must also avoid the appearance of impropriety. At least on this latter score, Biden failed.
Likewise, President Trump, acting as an agent for the American people, has a legitimate interest in securing a corruption-free Ukraine. He could have stated in no uncertain terms to Ukranian President Zelensky that U.S. aid is contingent on eliminating corruption in their government and that means identifying and prosecuting any and all individuals regardless of party affiliation that are complicit in the corruption.
This statement would have cast a wide enough net to include the Bidens without identifying them specifically by name. The fact that Trump singled out Hunter Biden in the discussion blurred the lines between the public and the private interest, but only because Joe Biden is a potential presidential rival for Trump.
This is a non-issue if Joe Biden were merely a private citizen whose son was involved in questionable business dealings in Ukraine. Joe Biden does not warrant a free pass merely because he is running for president, nor does the president have license to invoke the power of the federal government to take out a political rival.
Nuance Needed, But Not Part of the Package
A more nuanced Trump would have found a way to motivate Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden as part of a larger corruption-eradication effort. Words do matter, and Trump is not as careful as he needs to be in parsing his.
This is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable. Trump did not work his way up to the presidency by winning a series of down-ballot elections. If he had, the rough edges that continually trip him up would have been smoothed over or he would have failed to advance. Nor did he work his way up to the presidency by climbing the corporate ladder and developing the diplomacy that is the sine qua non for such an ascent.
Trump’s path to the presidency was as unconventional as the man who occupies it. Working for change agents is never easy, precisely because they see the world differently, characteristically before the rest of the pack, and their relentless pursuit of the endgame invariably ruffles feathers along the way. To wit, for all of his creative genius, Steve Jobs would never have been anyone’s choice for boss of the year.
If Trump were more diplomatic he would unquestionably have less trouble with Congress, not to mention his cabinet. Unlike his predecessor, Trump is the antithesis of nuanced. He uses criticism as a form of political blood-doping; it energizes him.
Paradoxically, this may well explain why he is president. In electing Trump, the American people voted for the anti-politician in hopes of charting a different course for the country. It is perhaps not reasonable to ask Trump to be more artful in his discourse when he was voted into office precisely because he is not.
With both Biden and Trump, the lines were blurred between the private and the public interest. If nothing else, both men bear some culpability for failing to recognize that they were probably not the best choice to deliver the non-corruption message given the personal skin each had in the game. They failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Transitivity of ‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors’
There is ongoing debate as to whether Trump tied U.S. aid to the investigation of the Bidens, or to the eradication of corruption in the Ukraine more generally. This issue will not be resolved anytime soon, if ever. The transcripts of the phone calls with President Zelensky and the testimony before Congress will amount to little more than a political Rorschach test.
Biden tied U.S. aid to the dismissal of his son’s prosecutor, as video clearly attests. Did the U.S. have a vested interest in the dismissal of the Ukrainian prosecutor that transcends his investigation into the business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son?
Did Trump and Biden put personal interest above public interest? We will probably never have definitive answers to that question. What we do know is that Biden was not investigated, impeached, nor forced to resign for his actions. Is it principled for Trump to be impeached or forced to resign when the weight of the evidence supporting a personal interest quid pro quo is arguably stronger for Biden than it is for Trump?
Transitivity argues that if Biden remained in office despite a stronger signal of a personal interest quid pro quo, then Trump should as well in light of the decisively weaker signal of such impropriety. To impose a higher standard on Trump than Biden cannot be justified, particularly when Biden aspires to the office Trump now holds.
This is not to suggest that Democrats will not attempt to apply a different standard to Trump, because they already have. Nonetheless, this is one of those gambles in which Democrats win big or lose big.
If the Ukrainian affair bears no more fruit than their claims of Russian collusion, the Democrats will not retake the presidency or the Senate and risk losing the House in the process. House Speaker Pelosi is in for the fight of her political life, but this is an old story that the veteran, crafty politician should know well. If you go after the king, you had better not miss. That said, Pelosi’s party looks increasingly like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight.
Americans Aren’t Stupid
The issue on the table is not whether the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” however ill-defined these terms may be. The real question is whether behavior that has already been found not to constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors” for one candidate can still be found to constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors” for another candidate.
The American people are not stupid. In fact, they tend to exhibit uncommon wisdom and foresight at the presidential ballot box. If the past is prologue, Trump is well on his way to a second term while Biden won’t even be able to find his way to his own party’s nomination.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that Congress is investigating prospective corruption rather than passing intrusive and economy-killing legislation. Had the 2016 presidential election been decided differently, corruption would be standard operating procedure.