There may be political reasons motivating the Democrats to use this specific word. The Washington Post reported last week that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asked focus groups which term—quid pro quo, extortion, or bribery—was the most “compelling” way to describe Trump’s conduct. Bribery won.
But the decision to use the term bribery rather than quid pro quo is unremarkable from a legal perspective. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “something for something.” As Justice Antonin Scalia explained 20 years ago, a quid pro quo is what distinguishes bribery from other crimes of corruption, such as graft or illegal gratuities. So people who are familiar with the law of bribery have always understood the discussion about whether there was a “quid pro quo” in the dealings with Ukraine to be a discussion about whether this was a case of bribery.
Defenders of the president, such as the Fox News host Laura Ingraham, have said that Trump’s actions are, at worst, “attempted bribery,” not bribery itself.
In making this argument, they are relying on the facts that the military aid was ultimately delivered to Ukraine and that the Ukrainian president never made a public statement announcing those investigations that President Trump wanted. Because things didn’t go as President Trump wanted, some seem to think that he can’t be guilty of bribery—he only attempted to commit bribery. This distinction matters, according to Ingraham, because “attempted bribery isn’t in the Constitution.”
Jane Chong: There’s never going to be a clear standard for impeachable offenses
But this view is incorrect about the crime of bribery. Nothing has to actually change hands for bribery to occur. It is enough that the exchange was offered or suggested. The law generally defines bribery as the “corrupt payment, receipt, or solicitation of a private favor for official action.” That definition appears in one form or another in criminal laws across the country.
Take, for example, the federal law of bribery. It prohibits public officials from corruptly accepting anything of value in return for an official act. But it also prohibits officials from corruptly demanding or seeking anything of value in return for an official act. In other words, the crime of bribery is committed as soon as the public official asks for or demands something in return for exercising his or her power. Even if the other person refuses to give the public official anything, the official is still guilty of bribery.
Here, the allegation that President Trump insisted on a public announcement of an investigation indicates that his motives were corrupt—that is to say, he was seeking something that would benefit him personally, rather than something that would benefit the nation more generally. While it is unremarkable for world leaders to make requests or demands in the ordinary course of diplomatic negotiations, Trump’s demand falls outside of those ordinary negotiations because, according to Sondland’s testimony, the Ukrainian president did not actually have to conduct the investigations (something that could arguably help U.S. interests); he merely had to announce them (something that could help only Trump).