There are quid pro quos and then there are quid pro quos.
There is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about a quid pro quo. We engage in one every time we do a business transaction or agree to any other exchange. Some quid pro quos involve illegal quids or quos, but in those cases the wrongful act lies in the illegality of the quid or the quo, or in the bribing of a person to commit an illegal act, not in the quid pro quo per se.
So the persistent fixation on whether or not there was a quid pro quo in President Trump’s conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is not the right question. Did the president seek to bribe Zelensky, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi claims? Is asking a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political opponent a high crime or misdemeanor? Did the president lack authority to withhold authorized funding for Ukraine and, if so, is that a high crime or misdemeanor?
These are the questions that should be being asked in the impeachment investigation.
But there is another type of quid pro quo that our representatives in Washington should be questioning, not because it’s illegal but because it can undercut our foreign policy and risk our national security. Everyone understands that Gordon Sondland was nominated to be U.S. ambassador to the European Union in return for his $1 million contribution to the president’s inauguration. That is a quid pro quo. There is nothing illegal in either the quid or the quo. It is not bribery. Indeed it is commonplace in both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is an accepted and expected practice.
Everyone also understands that Sondland has no qualifications for a high-level diplomatic position. He has been a hotelier and philanthropist. During Sondland’s confirmation hearings, Oregon senator Ron Wyden suggested that he is qualified because his parents fled Nazi Germany.
Really? If his parents were farmers would that qualify him to be secretary of agriculture? Why did the Senate confirm by voice vote a person who was nominated in return for a large political contribution and who is totally unqualified for the job he now holds?
After Sondland’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee it was acknowledged by several TV commentators that Sondland was appointed in return for his $1 million contribution. None of these commentators or their fellow panelists raised an eyebrow. None suggested that there is something unseemly about the purchase of ambassadorships, or that Sondland’s resume does not qualify him to engage in high-level diplomacy relating to important U.S. interests and the safety and welfare of millions of Ukrainians.
Of course the quid pro quo by which Sondland attained his position as ambassador is not unusual, although top donors usually get less significant positions.
Occasionally a big donor-cum-diplomat proves to be good at the job. But why take the risk? The State Department is filled with professionals with years of foreign affairs experience, like Marie Yovanovitch who served as ambassador to Ukraine and undersecretary of state David Hale who has served as ambassador to Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon.
There is nothing illegal about a quid pro quo, but sometimes such mutually beneficial exchanges reflect poorly on one or both parties and sometimes quid pro quos have negative consequences for the public.
The nomination and confirmation of an unqualified individual to a sensitive position of public responsibility in return for a generous political contribution is such a legal, but potentially harmful, quid pro quo.
Now that Congress is familiar with the concept of the quid pro quo and once they complete impeachment proceedings, the Senate should reflect on the Sondland saga and give some thought to the wisdom of confirming the quid pro quo purchase of high-level public offices.