Quid pro quo in Ukraine? No, not yet

Quid pro no.

The current impeachment debate is being framed in terms of whether or not there was a “quid pro quo”— as if that is the bar that will determine whether or not President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE did something egregious.

There are big flaws with this framing, as well as with the use of the term. 

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Diplomatic quid pro quo — requiring certain actions, behavior or “conditions” in return for U.S. aid — is common, according to current and former diplomats I spoke with, and foreign policy guidance. “Under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the President may determine the terms and conditions under which most forms of assistance are provided.”

The notion that there’s something inherently wrong with this sort of foreign-aid diplomacy is raising concern among some career diplomats. A former Obama administration State Department official told me that, by controversializing this common practice, “the Democrats are basically hamstringing any future president.” He adds: “That’s why this is a constitutional moment.”

It is true that few Americans would think it’s appropriate for a U.S. president to use his foreign aid diplomacy to set conditions to receive “dirt” on a political opponent. But the available information is proving to be a far cry from the original “whistleblower” allegations that Trump “solicit[ed] interference from a foreign country" in the 2020 presidential election, in quid pro quo fashion. 

Foreign aid is widely considered a tool to allow the U.S. “access and influence in the domestic and foreign affairs of other states,” particularly “national security policy.” It also “helps governments achieve mutual cooperation on a wide range of issues.”

All of this appears to neatly fit the definition of the very things President Trump’s critics allege he did: try to ensure Ukraine’s cooperation in the U.S. investigation into the 2016 presidential campaign, and obtain a commitment from Ukraine to open an investigation into widespread corruption that could have U.S. ties — including a possible tie to the 2020 presidential election. 

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Most Americans may not know it, but Ukraine could be uniquely positioned to assist the U.S. in these matters. Multiple reports allege that Ukrainian officials, under a previous Ukrainian president, partnered with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016 to “sabotage Trump.” According to Politico, “Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race In 2020, democracy will be decided at the margins Michelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award MORE and undermine Trump.” A paid consultant with the DNC, Alexandra Chalupa, met with Ukrainian officials in 2016 to “expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDemocratic impeachment investigators looking at whether Trump misled Mueller Gates sentencing set for next month Yovanovitch says John Solomon's columns were used to push false allegations MORE and Russia,” Politico reported, and “the Ukrainian efforts had an impact in the race, helping to force Manafort’s resignation and advancing the narrative that Trump’s campaign was deeply connected to Ukraine’s foe to the east, Russia.” 

It could be argued that Trump’s interest in digging into Ukraine’s corruption and foreign interference in the 2016 campaign transcends political desires. It fits a mandate. Since he was elected, Trump and Congress have been pressed to get to the bottom of improper foreign influence in the 2016 election that happened under the watch of Obama intel officials such as then-Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperThe curious timeline for taking down Trump Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward Schiff: Barr 'weaponizing' DOJ 'to go after the president's enemies' MORE, then-CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanTrump bemoans 'double standard' in Stone conviction The curious timeline for taking down Trump Brennan: Russian election interference 'changed the mind of at least one voter' MORE and then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien Comey3 reasons why impeachment fatigue has already set in Day 2 impeachment ratings drop by more than 1 million from first day Chris Wallace on Yovanovitch testimony: 'If you're not moved, you don't have a pulse' MORE. And the Trump administration and Congress have pledged to do all they can to prevent a repeat in 2020.

Back to the Democrats’ notion that it’s improper — or possibly even criminal — for President Trump to hold out U.S. aid in order to achieve cooperation from Ukraine’s new president. On Tuesday, headlines were made from widely leaked closed-door testimony by William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who assumed that position in July. Taylor reportedly testified he was “alarmed” that the Trump administration supposedly was withholding military assistance unless Ukraine committed to investigating 2016 election corruption, including alleged wrongdoing by the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. 

Yet Ambassador Taylor is very familiar with the process of “conditioning” U.S. foreign aid. He spoke of it extensively in November 2011 after he had just been handpicked by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a new position as the State Department’s Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions, specifically Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

“You’ll condition your aid based on the direction in which these countries are going?” a reporter asked Taylor at a news conference.

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“Our assistance is part of our foreign policy. This is clear,” Taylor replied. He went on to give examples of how U.S. aid would be used as leverage. Quid pro quo.

“We will say to the Egyptians, don’t send us that check [you owe the U.S.] for a billion dollars, which is actually 300 million over three years, keep that there, but we will agree with you — we, the United States Government, will agree with you, the Egyptian Government, on how to spend that billion dollars in Egypt,” Taylor told reporters. 

A more recent example is the admission by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Democrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage MORE that he was able to get Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor as a condition to receive U.S. foreign aid. Quid pro quo.

Even if it were to be considered wrong for Ambassador Taylor, former Vice President Biden, President Trump or any U.S. president to engage in quids pro quo involving foreign aid, there’s still an issue in the current impeachment debate. A quid pro quo has two essential parts. First, a deal must be understood between the parties. In this case, it would be President Trump delivering U.S. aid if, and only if, the president of Ukraine delivers dirt on Trump’s “political rival” and potential 2020 opponent — Joe Biden. 

Second, the goods must actually be delivered. In this case, President Trump would have had to receive the requested packet of “dirt” on Biden, in order to trigger release the U.S. aid to Ukraine. So far, there is not an allegation that Part Two ever occurred. Without delivery of the dirt, there’s no quid pro quo. Just a quid. 

The most that can be reasonably alleged against President Trump at this stage is that he offered a quid pro quo — something both Trump and the other party, the president of Ukraine, deny — but that it was never consummated. New facts could emerge but, right now, there seems to be less than meets the eye.

One thing is clear. Some State Department diplomats, maybe lots of them, disagree with President Trump’s ideas and strategies. Ambassador Taylor confirmed as much. The fact is, the authority on these matters comes from the top down. Diplomats are not freelancers who develop and implement their own policies and goals independent of the wishes of a president; they are tasked with implementing a president’s foreign policy, whether they like him (and his policies) or not. Diplomats who disagree are generally not entitled to unilaterally defy, undermine and work against a president’s wishes.

All things considered, it begins to look like the quid pro quo accusations are an extension of the strategy that sought to keep President Trump from providing typical direction to the Justice Department for the better part of two years … because his critics cried that it would be obstruction of justice or interfering with the Mueller probe. With that investigation closed, Trump’s enemies appear to be trying to keep him from digging into dark, uncomfortable places about how it all came about and who was behind it, from Washington, D.C., to Kyiv, Ukraine.

Places where many Democrats and Republicans would rather he did not dig.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”