NYT: Pinker on the “Ukraine conversation”

In this short piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Steve Pinker takes a linguistics approach to the recent conversation between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, parsing their words and looking at how they’re used socially, all to figure out if there really was a “quid pro quo” going on. That, of course, is the crucial question, for a quid pro quo is illegal: in this case an agreement by the U.S. to give Ukraine weapons if they’ll investigate the Bidens, Trump’s political opponents. Pinker takes the conversation pretty much line by line (click on screenshot):

And so Pinker, in his characteristically engaging prose, gives away his conclusion (one with which I agree) at the outset:

It’s true that the transcript of the reconstructed conversation does not reveal a smoking sentence with an “if” and a “then.” But to most readers, Mr. Trump’s claim that he was merely musing about his druthers does not pass the giggle test. That is because people in a social relationship rarely hammer out a deal in so many words but veil their offers in politeness and innuendo, counting on their hearers to listen between the lines.

Pinker then throws in an old Jewish joke to make his point. (He and I have a rivalry to find a joke the other person hasn’t heard, and it’s hard since we both pride ourselves on our knowledge of Jewish humor. But this one is new to me.)

The Trump-Zelensky dialogue could be used in the chapter of a linguistic textbook on conversational analysis. The exchange begins with the two leaders cementing a communal relationship with fulsome congratulations and flattery and a celebration of their similarities and common interests. Mr. Trump abruptly steers the conversation to the prerequisites of calling in a favor. He reminds his interlocutor (three times) that the United States has been good to Ukraine, that Ukraine now is in need (“Things are happening that are not good”) and, with some token hedging, that America’s goodness remains to be repaid (“I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily”).

Announcing an undesirable state of affairs is a classic stratagem for asking the hearer to rectify it without the rudeness of an imperative. In an old joke, a couple is lying in bed and the wife says, “Murray, it’s cold outside.” Murray gets up, closes the window, and says, “So now it’s warm outside?” Mr. Trump is saying, “Volodymyr, it’s not reciprocal.” His partner can be counted on to know what he is being asked to do.

(If you doubt that this is a Jewish joke, then you don’t know Jewish humor. And of course “Murray”.)

Then Zelensky unobtrusively asks for help, and in response Trump proffers the fatal glass of beer:

Mr. Zelensky shrewdly tries to even the balance sheet. Sounding more like someone repaying a favor than requesting one, he extends an offer: “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins” — anti-tank weapons — “from the United States for defense purposes.” Though the sale is ostensibly to the benefit of both sides, Mr. Trump’s retort treats it as a perk granted to Ukraine: “I would like you to do us a favor though … ”

The word “though” signals a violated expectation. It means, “Something which you may think would have prevented this in fact failed to do so.” Mr. Trump is implying, “Notwithstanding Ukraine’s readiness to buy the Javelins — which you may think makes a further favor unnecessary — a favor by Ukraine is called for.” He reinforces the request by stating the prerequisites to a favor: The beneficiary needs it (“because our country has been through a lot”) and the benefactor is in a position to grant it (“Ukraine knows a lot about it”).

I think anyone who has read the conversation realizes that this really is a quid pro quo, and thus unconstitutional, illegal, and an impeachable offense. Indeed, it was this conversation that made me finally decide that Trump needs to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office; and that we shouldn’t worry about the process making him a martyr.

Pinker’s conclusion hearkens back humorously to an earlier impeachment attempt:

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Trump has habitually appealed to not-quite-plausible deniability, claiming that his various calls for abuse of power were made in jest. His supporters insist he should be taken “seriously but not literally.” Yet this time it may be the nonliteral meaning of his words that proves his undoing. The common-sense interpretation of his conversation makes it impossible for him to maintain, “I did not have quid pro quo relations with that man, Mr. Zelensky.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if Pinker was called into the impeachment hearings to testify about the linguistic and social context of the conversation? And I’m only partly joking.

h/t: Les


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    “So now it’s warm outside “ ….because Murray’s wife’s next request would be to open the window?…

    Asking for a friend

    • Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      No: She was asking for the window to be closed.

      So Murray is pointing out that he did what she really wanted but it didn’t affect what she spoke about.

      At least that’s my interpretation. 🙂

      • paablo
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        It makes more sense to me if *she* said, “So now it’s warm outside?”. But I don’t know Jewish humor.

      • Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

        I agree with you. In addition, he’s being sarcastic because he’s kinda annoyed, as many a man would be, that his woman doesn’t make a direct request. (“What am I… a mind-reader?!”)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Jewish bedroom joke: The joke is that their marriage is cold & Murray ain’t gettin’ none! It’s so cold a marriage that the bedroom is freezing up the outside world.

      When the missus says it’s cold outside & Murray shuts the bedroom window, he makes a comment that means “now I’ve closed the window, the outside gets a chance to warm up.”

      That’s my 1st take – my 2nd take is that it’s a logic joke, but that’s not as interesting. It’s like complaining about how noisy it is outside & expecting it to get quiet outside if one closes the window.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        Something along those lines occurred to me. I thought, if she’s complaining of being cold, maybe she’s hinting she’d like some attention. His comment sounds like he didn’t understand her hint, or he did but was not interested.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          There’s the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,whose meaning is clearly amorous. Late last year PCC(E) had a post about this song not passing the woke feminist, Me Too smell test: those who took offense claimed the lyrics imply that the man drugged the woman so he could rape her. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/12/03/annual-christmas-grinch-ery-baby-its-cold-outside-once-again-gets-the-thumbs-down-from-the-outrage-brigade/

          • rickflick
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I remember it well. I saw an interview (or transcript?) with the authors, Frank Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland talking about their song. They did not show any hint of the “woke” interpretation.

          • rickflick
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

            I like this version:

            • Jenny Haniver
              Posted October 8, 2019 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

              That’s charming and fun. I like it a lot but what a surprise it was at first.

            • merilee
              Posted October 8, 2019 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

              Very cute.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

          Good alternative. Better.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    (If you doubt that this is a Jewish joke, then you don’t know Jewish humor. And of course “Murray”.)

    Reminds me of the punchline from the old Catskills comic played by Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night, about the guy who finds his best friend in bed with his wife:

    “Murray, I have to. But you?” 🙂

    • EdwardM
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Jewish jokes are the best. One of my favorites (apropos with a recent topic here);

      “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.”

      -Woody Allen

      • Mark R.
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        LOL! I remember that one.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, from Alvy Singer’s opening soliloquy in Annie Hall.

          • Mark R.
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            I need to re-watch that one…and Zelig

            • EdwardM
              Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              “A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken. The doc says, why don’t you turn him in? The guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

              • Mark R.
                Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

                Love that one!

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Pinker’s explanation on this telephone call as well. However, we have far more evidence to confirm all the items that Trump was pushing in this phone call. The need for dirt on Bush and son is one. And by the way, you do not need the quid pro quo for this to be an impeachable matter. When you are asking a foreign government to get information on your opponent in the election that is illegal by itself without the extortion of money and military aid.

    He is also asking for info on the 2016 election interference based on a conspiracy with no factual foundation that Ukraine and not Russia hacked the democrats. Just crazy but that is also what Trump is looking for. He wants to get Russia off the hook for what they did and thus get the sanctions on Russia lifted. This is why we know Trump is working for the Russians. If you do not believe that, look at what he just did in Syria.

    But as I said, many of Trump’s people have been directly involved in this crap in Ukraine far beyond the phone call and the whistle blower.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I mean Biden, not Bush.

      • Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        We knew that! 🙂

        • Taz
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

          I had to think about it for a second. Mainly because I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump was involved in an additional piece of political sleaze I hadn’t heard about yet.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      The last two sentences of your first paragraph are the key point of this: Trump can say “no quid pro quo” all he likes, but it doesn’t matter – the fact that he asked at all is a Federal crime.

    • just josh
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Bingo, all the talk around explicit or implicit quid pro quos is important, but it shouldn’t distract from the fact that it’s completely disgraceful for the president to ask another head of state a ‘favor’ in dredging up conspiratorial nonsense on his political opponent.

      Even putting that aside, the whole conversation (presumably cleaned up in the not-literal-transcript) is an embarrassment. It shows Trump is completely out of his depth and incoherent as a political leader.

  4. Timothy Reichert
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    If the testimony of a linguist is not relevant then who’s testimony is relevant? I’d say a linguist is the best person to determine a quid pro quo in this situation.

  5. Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    The Jewishness comes through fine in that joke.

    I remember only part of a joke about two pirates, Morty and Saul [Jewish pirates, from Brooklyn …}

  6. Mike Anderson
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    This is all psycho mumbo jumbo from a Coastal Elite. Not once did Trump say “let’s do a quid pro quo”.


    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I am not a “coastal elite” and what you are saying is just silly. As I said above, you do not have to have a quid pro quo for this to be impeachable. However, it is a quid pro quo or extortion might be a better word. For a murder to be committed you do not have to confess to it either.

      • Mark R.
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        The “/s” tag is noting this is sarcasm.

        • Posted October 9, 2019 at 3:03 am | Permalink

          Not once did you say /s means sarcasm 😉


    • Randy Bessinger
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      But if he did say “quid pro quo”, it would be the best quid pro quo ever because he invented Latin and speaks it better than anyone.

      • Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Indeed! 🙂

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          Many people are saying that. Terrific people. Tremendous people.

          • Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

            The best people in the world! These people are so much better.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        In a tweet about Syria yesterday, the Donald referred to his “great and unmatched wisdom,” as one does.

        • Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Eh. I can see how he was simply being flippant there; trying to make a crass joke out of it.

          If Obama had tweeted about some major change in foreign policy and commented about his ‘great and unmatched wisdom’, it would have gotten a puzzled laugh.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            If Obama had tweeted it Fox News would have projected it onto the side of the great pyramid for the next fifty years.

            And I’m not sure he was being flippant and ironic.

            What is it they say about narcissists? That they know ‘narcissist’ is not a positive description, but they admit they are one anyway because they just don’t care. They think they’re so brilliant that being labeled a narcissist won’t make any difference.

            That’s how I see these kinds of statements he makes – he really means this stuff, and he loves himself so much he doesn’t care how ridiculous it sounds.

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

            Trump has fired everyone around him that’s not a sycophant. In that context, I don’t think he’s joking when he calls himself “very stable genius” and has “great and unmatched wisdom”.

            Was he joking when he said the military was out of ammunition when he took office, or when he said his approval polls jumped up 17 points?

            There’s lots of evidence suggesting that Donald living in an alternate reality.

            • Posted October 8, 2019 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

              On this topic, a narcissist can definitely tell jokes and a self aggrandizing but also terrible kind of joke is exactly what they would tell.

              • EdwardM
                Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

                Yeah. I think he was just messing with people with that one.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

                If “great and unmatched wisdom” is a joke, he’d be playing on his reputation for narcissism, mocking himself. I don’t think he’s capable of that. I’ve never heard him do that.

                Throughout his entire public life he’s been blatantly overstating his achievements, his wealth, his hand size, his sexual conquests, etc., and never the slightest hint of self-mockery.

              • Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

                “Dude’s gotta go!” — Kamala Harris

                I would be interested to know what people here think of that slogan. It hits me as “fake folksy”.

              • merilee
                Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                I like it, and I think Kamala can carry it off (the expression, thst is.) i only hope that SOMEbody can carry the idiot off the stage…

            • merilee
              Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              I read something yesterday saying that he had 1 foot in his mouth and the other in the twilight zone. Pretty much sums him up.

          • Jenny Haniver
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

            When I heard Dear Leader Trump’s claim of possessing “great and unmatched wisdom,” I had absolutely no doubt that he was deadly serious. That claim came not long after he’d reminded us that he was a “stable genius” and everything he does is “perfect.”

            A megalomaniacal solipsist such as he has no sense of irony in this regard. Just recall the numerous instances when he demands almost idolatrous obeisance from his minions and look how they fawn. It’s obscene and pathetic.

            • Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, after all, he’s ‘the chosen one’ (he looks skyward while saying this).

              • Jenny Haniver
                Posted October 8, 2019 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

                How could I have forgotten that?!

                This is stupefying.

        • Posted October 9, 2019 at 6:41 am | Permalink

          Apparently the Kurds couldn’t invent anything against the Bidens …

    • Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s the only legal phrase he can pronounce, aside from “not guilty.”

      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        I think he’s still working on saying subpoena out loud in front of the mirror.

        • Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink


        • merilee
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          But he might mix subpoena up with the pee tapes…

    • Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m a Midwestern cretin. Keep this stuff straight! Jeez!

  7. Mark R.
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m just glad Mr. Zelensky was elected. His predecessor would have gladly made up dirt on Biden or whomever to aid Trump’s reelection. A lot of Trump’s devious plans were dashed when Poroshenko went bye-bye.

  8. BobTerrace
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Better than having Steven Pinker testify, it should be Murray. He can bring Sol and Morris to back him up.

    • Randy Bessinger
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Bill Murray testifying as his Ghostbuster character would be fun.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        As I recall, the NY mayor character was named “Lenny,” and was pretty clearly Jewish. As Dr. Venkman told him about the EPA inspector Aykroyd referred to as “dickless,” so it is with Trump: “Yes, it’s true; this man has no dick.” 🙂

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    As is to be expected from such a revered source, Dr. Pinker’s linguistic analysis of the Trump-Zelenskiy conversation is right on the money.

    Moreover, the conversation’s broader context — from the machinations of Rudy Giuliani, to the messages carried from Trump to Zelenskiy by VP Pence and Energy Secretary Perry, to the otherwise-inexplicable freeze on Ukrainian military aid, to the White House’s initial efforts to bury the incriminating transcript, to the godawful contemporaneous text messages between special envoy Kurt Volker, chargé d’affaires Bill Taylor, and EU ambassador Gordon Sondland — leaves no doubt that the phone call was a military-aid-for-oppo-research shakedown, pure and simple.

    Plus, it appears we’re now in the midst in a constitutional crisis, with Trump forbidding Sondland (a diplomatic neophyte who was appointed after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund and who, as EU ambassador, had no business sticking his nose in the Ukraine) from testifying before congress today for no justification other than, as Trump said in his tweet this morning, that the impeachment inquiry is “a kangaroo court.”

    This is Nixonian style “stonewalling” on steroids.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      A good review of the many involved. Apparently the democrats plan to use the block of Sondland testifying as another nail in Trump’s coffin regarding obstruction of congress. I don’t know how high they want this pile to be but I think they have enough on this one.

      • Posted October 8, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Does any of this at this point really make a difference? Is it going to cause sufficient numbers of the Senate Republicans to turn on him? I am not seeing nearly enough signs of that. So it is interesting stuff, but I don’t yet see it going anywhere, really. I want to be wrong.

        I am reminded of the recent SNL sketch where you had a bunch of white and black cast members discussing these events, and the white members were excitingly saying that Trump is finished now, but the black characters were knowingly saying “Not gonna happen”.

        • Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          Latest poll says a slight majority of US citizens think starting impeachment proceedings is the right thing to do. They are really the ones that matter as they vote next year. I still think it is doubtful Trump gets removed from office by impeachment. Although I would love to see a Trump “perp walk” or resignation, that still seems doubtful. Still, the impeachment process has only just begun and the poll is pretty good news.

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, very little chance of Trump being removed from office (there are rumors Mitt Romney is building a coalition to vote against Trump, but I don’t think he can get 20 Republicans).

            I think the Dems plan is to build a solid case against Trump, present it to the American people, and force Republicans to vote. If they do it right, they can damage both Trump and his supporters in congress for the 2020 elections.

            • Posted October 9, 2019 at 6:43 am | Permalink

              I agree: Pelosi is a very skillful politician.

        • Posted October 9, 2019 at 4:19 am | Permalink

          I’m hoping the Senate does not convict Trump. Mike Pence isn’t a shining beacon of charisma, but he doesn’t have the same sleazy baggage that Trump does, so I’d rather not see Pence get a chance.

          • Posted October 9, 2019 at 4:22 am | Permalink

            Sorry, you don’t want Pence to be President because he doesn’t have the same “sleazy baggage” as Trump. You want a President with sleazy baggage? I don’t understand.

            • Posted October 9, 2019 at 4:25 am | Permalink

              I want someone who is obviously very bad for the country to lose with near certainty, rather than someone who is still bad for the country (but not so obviously) to have a decent chance to win.

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted October 9, 2019 at 10:51 am | Permalink

            +1. Pence, having been a representative and a governor, would be much more effective at pushing a conservative agenda through the system. Plus he might pardon Trump.

  10. Nicholas K.
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Attorneys know that quid pro quo is rarely if ever directly stated when committing extortion. There are plenty of mobsters in prison who used more delicate language than Trump.

    • Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      + a large numba — a offa you canna refuse!

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Re. Murray, it always cracks me up that one of the main drags in Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, is Murray Ave. No idea how that came about, if it was tongue-in-cheek.

  12. Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    “The common-sense interpretation of this conversation. . .” —Pinker

    Common-sense or no, the key word here is “interpretation.” And as a wise man has pointed out “Knowledge is not knowledge until it’s factual.” Hence, we won’t know whether there was a quid pro quo until we get more facts. 😊

    • Randy Bessinger
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      And if it is the facts, it won’t matter to his supporters. It isn’t how you win that matters, only that you win.

    • Posted October 8, 2019 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      That seems like what I was wondering about. I can agree that the phone conversation implied quid pro quo, but it seems to me that a conclusion that it was quid pro quo would require evidence beyond reasonable doubt. I am wondering if statements that imply, or statements that can be interpreted as quid pro are good enough.

      • Posted October 9, 2019 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        M$400 in aid funds withheld days before the call?

        Visit to the Whitehouse (international legitimization) being dependent on “the deliverable”?

        How much more does anyone (aside from Trump supporters (“I could shoot someone on 5th Avenue …”)) need to understand the nature of this call?

  13. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Getting Steven Pinker to linguistically analyse the speech of one Donald F. Trump is like getting Yo Yo Ma to play Uptown Girl on the bongos. A brilliant natural talent…looking through the tea-leaves left behind by a mad old man.

    It’s just crazy that so many incredibly intelligent, talented people have, for the last three years, been forced to parse the words of a halfwit for meaning. The colossal waste of intellectual energy…ugh.

    • Blue
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Again, I agree. Exhausting, Mr Sorrell – Till
      so I ‘ve up and myself quit with that “energy waste.”

      Not more than 11 steps from me ( cubicle – wise ) each
      are officed two tRump – supportin’ evangelists.
      INside an institute of “higher” “education”
      … … no less.

      ‘TIS such a good, good thing that:
      politics, religion, even sex is best NOT
      brought up within ( my ) / the workplace !


      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        “politics, religion, even sex is best NOT
        brought up within ( my ) / the workplace !”

        Very much so. I can’t mention Brexit with certain people. The speed at which the conversation deteriorates when I do is astonishing.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      … like getting Yo Yo Ma to play Uptown Girl on the bongos.

      Okay, maybe THAT never happened, but Itzhak Perlman did sit in with Billy Joel on “Downeaster Alexa” 🙂 :

  14. rickflick
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I thought a “quid pro quo” is not the crucial question. Just asking for support for tRump’s campaign should be enough. No?
    The qpq aspect is certainly bad too.

    • Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      A: Yes.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        I see Randall mentioned this above too.

    • Posted October 9, 2019 at 4:22 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Can you say emoluments? Democrats really need to stop letting tRump define the terms of the conversation.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 9, 2019 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure you can. He took away “fake news” and he’s working on undefining “corruption”. “I’m all after corruption. I’m the anti-corruption president”.

  15. Posted October 8, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Although a quid pro quo would go nicely on top of all the other evidence against Trump, it isn’t even necessary for impeachment. He has asked Ukraine to help him in his election. Impeachment is not about breaking laws. If we make it about Trump breaking laws, he will fall back on the old “a sitting president can’t be indicted” excuse. Of course it doesn’t apply to impeachment but he doesn’t care about that as he can still use it for cover with his fan base.

    At the same time, there is obviously a quid pro quo and it depends on evidence other than the call itself, as others have pointed out.

    Although we don’t have as much detail on Trump’s attempt to get China to gin up a charge against Biden, if true, it’s more useful for impeachment than the Ukraine call. The latter is just Trump going after his political enemies, something his voters counted on from the start. With China we are in a tariff negotiation and Trump has offered to stay silent on Hong Kong in exchange for them digging up Biden dirt. This ought to be important to US foreign policy and is a potential bargaining chip in the trade negotiations, Instead, Trump offered them up in exchange for help with his personal political future. It is as much treason as the tariff battle is a war and affects our economy rather than just Biden’s campaign hopes.

    • Steve Cameron
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. My understanding is it’s not necessary for there to have been an actual quid pro quo — the ask is impeachable by itself. It’s Trump and his surrogates who are pushing the quid pro quo argument, since it allows for some wiggle room. While I’m not surprised the media has been taken in by this, I am disappointed to see that Pinker has too.

      But I don’t think the China “deal” would amount to treason, as despicable as it is, since treason involves helping enemies, not trading partners (however tense the trade relationship may be).

      • Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        The Trumpians have really followed Trump’s lead on this, offering up one false hurdle after the other. Off the top of my head:

        1. Whistleblower’s information is secondhand. It doesn’t matter if the information can be verified. The point of a whistleblower is to alert others to something worth investigating and may or may not be a witness used in prosecuting any crime that results.

        2. Whistleblower contacted a House Intelligence Committee before submitting the complaint. AFAIK, it is common for a whistleblower to seek advice this way on the proper procedures.

        3. There’s no quid pro quo. Not needed though it obviously helps.

        I’m sure there are others, not to mention the outright lies.

        • rickflick
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

          Within another 24 hours, tRump and his cronies will be saying – nothing to see here – let’s move along now. They will have convinced some voters who don’t pay attention to details that there’s no there, there. But, of course, this will not dissuade the House Democrats. It will be interesting to see what various judges do with White House stonewalling of the House Intelligence Committee.

  16. max blancke
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Normally, in civilized countries, corruption involving high officials is something that is expected to be subject to investigation. Using political influence to stop such an investigation would seem to be more suspicious than encouraging it. That is why the Ukraine Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office reopened the Burisma case last year, and many other such cases.

    I think many here underestimate how difficult it will be to convince the average person that inquiring about an ongoing corruption investigation is a crime at all, much less one of high enough magnitude to make overthrowing the executive branch the best solution.

    It bears mentioning that both parties to the conversation deny that any sort of pressure or transaction was taking place.

    None of the above is intended as proof that Trump is not crooked. I assume he is. But we seem to be at the point where we are debating not what Trump actually said, or what Zelenskyy understood him to be saying, but what a linguist believes he really meant by his words, to go along with the original anonymous account by an operative of what he heard someone claim Trump said. Not the highest standard of evidence.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      I think many here underestimate how difficult it will be to convince the average person that inquiring about an ongoing corruption investigation is a crime at all, much less one of high enough magnitude to make overthrowing the executive branch the best solution.

      Support for the impeachment inquiry is above 50% now. Relax, we’ve got a lot of investigating to do before we get to the removal-from-office stage, assuming we ever get there.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

        He could resign in glory.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

          Trump has waaaaay too much legal exposure as a non-president person. He’s a caged rat – as soon as loses the legal armour of the White House, he’s in a lot of trouble. He’s fighting for his life, and that’s why he’s getting crazier and crazier.

      • max blancke
        Posted October 9, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        The first 50% is pretty easy. They would likely support impeachment over the quality of his spray tan.
        Although I suspect Trump is crooked in some way, I have a much higher level of confidence that Hunter Biden is crooked. At some level, much of this looks like an ongoing attempt to help Hunter avoid prosecution. And although his prosecution would affect Biden the candidate, I have heard no evidence that he profited directly from his son’s business dealings.
        My layman’s view is that the “triangle” approach to profiting from politics, where a relative is given an extraordinarily high paying job or absurd speaking or consulting fees, is pretty hard to prove as being unlawful. Thus it’s popularity.
        But Hunter did not just get another job on the board of MBNA. He went to work for Zlochevsky at Burisma, who was a key player in the Ukrainian corruption machine. The current Ukrainian administration is trying to investigate and dismantle that machine.

        They may well fail, as Trump similarly will not end up “draining the swamp” as he pledged to do. Both Trump and Zelenskyy came from non-political backgrounds, and both ran on anti-corruption platforms. Some of that corruption involves both countries, and many others.

        It will be interesting to see how this will be seen looking back from a distance.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted October 9, 2019 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          At some level, much of this looks like an ongoing attempt to help Hunter avoid prosecution.

          Only in the minds of the poorly educated. The Trumpkins haven’t been able to come up with a single charge against Hunter Biden, but they somehow think he should be investigated anyway.

        • Posted October 9, 2019 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          So you are thinking that there’s some possibility we’ll look back in, say, 20 years and agree that Trump was just fighting corruption in Ukraine and that the Bidens were the real villains? You have to be joking.

          • max blancke
            Posted October 9, 2019 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

            It is hard to say how Trump will be seen in retrospect.

            But Biden? If some small percentage of the allegations against him are accurate, he will probably be seen as another in the long list of politicians who got rich selling access and influence. Or maybe he is only guilty of not keeping his son from selling that influence. Ukraine has in the recent past been sort of an irresistible cookie jar for corrupt politicians.
            This is not the first such issue Biden has had. He has been referred to as “Sen. Joe Biden (D-MBNA)” for decades.

            And today in Ukrainian news:

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted October 9, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          The first 50% is pretty easy.

          It’s easy because of all the evidence that’s recently come out. Just a few weeks ago support for impeachment was around 35%, then the phone call notes came out and it jumped up to around 45%, then the Volker testimony/texts came out and it jumped up more. As more evidence is revealed, support for impeachment grows.

          This is actually a good sign that Americans are paying attention and responding to evidence.

          • max blancke
            Posted October 9, 2019 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

            Sure. Although I live in a very red area, most people do not have ant particular affection for Trump. If evidence is uncovered that shows Trump to be guilty of something that any reasonable person would see as an impeachable offense, then they would likely go along.

          • Murali
            Posted October 9, 2019 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

            ‘The first 50% is pretty easy.’

            However, you need a two-thirds majority in the senate to remove him from office, don’t you? So the people clamouring for his removal should not make a difference. If the senators vote to remove him just because it is popular, that would not be a good thing.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted October 9, 2019 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              Senators will likely vote to keep their jobs, that is they will vote whichever way most of their constituents prefer. Good or bad, that is our system.

  17. Robert Van Orden
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    The law everyone is referring to is here:


    Trump, a candidate in the 2020 election, can not solicit ‘anything of value’ from a foreign national. Full stop.

    A quid quo pro makes it worse and I agree with Pinker that the word ‘though’ was very damning.

    It’s also made worse that Trump was apparently holding up money that had been appropriated by congress. These weren’t discretionary funds. Absent an explanation, and Trump has offered no explanation for the delay, it appears to corroborate that the money was being used to extort the Ukrainian President. The timing is no coincidence.

    Also, there was some damaging E-mails/Text messages that came out Thursday in relation to the testimony of ambassador Volker.

    These things corroborate the original whistleblower’s report. Plus there is a second whistleblower regarding the same incident, we’ll have to see if it corroborates the story here.

    Today, the Trump Administration is refusing to release documents or make available witnesses. An impeachable offense, in and of itself (Obstruction of Congress). Also I infer from this that they are hiding something, particularly when weighed from the weakness of the legal argument they proffered. See here:


    Basically calling ‘impeachment’ unconstitutional. LOL.

    Anyway, it’s a freaking mess. I will not be surprised if this ends up in front of the Supreme Court. (The House can ask for SCOTUS to compel the White House to turn over documents).

  18. Roo
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Really interesting article. I had to dust off The Stuff Of Thought as a refresher for some of the ideas, like the language of communal relationships. Always worth a reread, it’s so interesting to see such things deconstructed.

  19. Andy
    Posted October 9, 2019 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Pinker is right. That’s how Trump operates when he’s doing something illegal or secretive. He speaks in a kind of code, implying what he wants without being explicit. The Cohen testimony makes a good read:

  20. Stephen Wilson
    Posted October 9, 2019 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    “I did not have quid pro quo relations with that man, Mr. Zelensky.” Ah, yes…Monica…Head of state.

    I remember Jay Leno commenting on the Clinton version of this, saying something akin to 50% of the population agreeing that receiving oral sex is not sexual relations…and that’s just the divorced guys.

  21. Posted October 9, 2019 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I’m writing this before I’ve read the article or any of the comments, so I don’t know if Pinker has concluded there was quiz pro quo or not.

    That, of course, is the crucial question, for a quid pro quo is illegal:

    It’s actually not the crucial question. At best, if there was a quid pro quo (or even just an attempt at it) it just makes things worse.

    The core of the case is whether Trump solicited a thing of value from a foreign power. Digging up dirt on one of his political opponents, one who currently has a 15% advantage over Trump in some swing states is certainly of value to Trump and the telephone call reconstruction and Trump’s own words on video prove that he did it.

    Now, I’m going to read Pinker’s article.

    • Posted October 9, 2019 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      I think the emphasis should be on “personal political gain” rather than “thing of value”. We need not allow the Trumpians to make the battle about whether or not what Trump did is “value” as defined in some campaign finance law. It is about putting his own personal goals over that of the country.

      IMHO, Dems should be painting a more explicit picture of how putting personal goals over US foreign policy hurts the country. Withholding money and weapons from Ukraine might allow Russia to invade it. Promising China that we won’t support the Hong Kong protest allows China to suppress the discord with less world scrutiny. The things Trump is risking can’t be swept away as just partisan squabbles.

      • Posted October 9, 2019 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        I used “thing of value” because that is what the relevant laws says. That’s what makes it illegal rather than just wrong.

        By the way, I’ve now read Pinker’s article and am fairly relieved he came to the same conclusion as I did. The Republicans will never accept it, which is why it is important to remember the quid pro quo is just an aggravating factor.

        • Posted October 9, 2019 at 11:04 am | Permalink

          Yes, I know. My point is that Trump’s impeachable behavior is not about the law beyond “high crimes” as laid out in the Constitution. As many have said, it is a political process. It is about what the voters consider the greatest transgression. Only when a large majority of voters think Trump needs to go will the GOP come out against Trump and get him out of office.

          • Posted October 10, 2019 at 6:07 am | Permalink

            Yes, it is a political process and it is about what voters consider to be the greatest transgression but the Republicans and Trump are currently in the process of persuading them that this isn’t a transgression at all.

            I think it is harder to do this for something that is explicitly illegal and can be shown to be.

            • Posted October 10, 2019 at 9:34 am | Permalink

              I agree with the principle but campaign finance violations won’t do it. As with obstruction, his supporters will dismiss it with “Yes, he fights dirty. We love that about him.” They are crimes that don’t hurt his base one bit, as they see it anyway.

              • Posted October 10, 2019 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                You understand it really doesn’t matter what they find on him as far as his supporters are concerned? All you can do is chip at the edges so that there aren’t enough of them to get him elected in 2020.

              • Posted October 10, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

                His core supporters will never budge while he still holds office. On that we agree. It is the rest that voted for him in 2016 that we must hope will listen to reason and that Dems must convince.

                My thesis is that various types of “crimes” are less convincing to this group: the various “process” crimes and crimes that are just Trump defending himself from the investigation. We know they are still crimes but they are viewed as crimes a prosecutor falls back to if they can’t prove the “real crime”. We couldn’t prove collusion with the Russians so we go after the obstruction. We might not prove the quid pro quo so, again, we go after the cover-up. We couldn’t pin the murders on Al Capone so we went after him for tax evasion.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 9, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Of course tRump can claim he was just doing his job as chief law enforcement officer and following up on a rather cold case (the Bidens) just in case someone got off without punishment for something illegal. Just doing his duty. I think a quid pro quo makes that even less believable.

  22. Posted October 9, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I like Joe Biden, but I’m concerned that too much hinges on the Biden-and-son conspiracy theory not being exposed as more conspiracy than theory. Because if that happens–and I’m not partisan enough to think it won’t–the whole impeachment thing goes sideways.

    • Posted October 9, 2019 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      I understand the fear but, as I see it, Trump will roll out a bunch of wild claims just prior to the election regardless of his opponent. I worry more about Biden having a Sanders-like health event that takes him out of the running too late to pick another candidate. If I recall, states don’t allow a party to substitute another candidate on the ballot. If Biden was incapacitated, we would just be stuck with Trump. We probably wouldn’t even be able to impeach him, assuming he had been given the expected pass by the Senate the first time around.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted October 10, 2019 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      I think the fact that people actually like Biden really makes a difference here. This isn’t Hillary or The Four that he’s smearing.

      A surprising number of Trump’s less committed voters like Biden quite a lot, and while they were fine with Trump smearing easy targets like ‘Killary’ I think they will feel less sanguine about him going after Biden(who’s basically Trump’s demographic: an old white guy who puts his foot in it every now and then.).

      I’m not saying they’re suddenly going to turn on Trump because of it – but I think it will have a quiet, unconscious and probably negative effect on their feelings about him.

      • Posted October 10, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        “This isn’t Hillary or The Four that he’s smearing.”

        Your use of “smearing” and Paul T’s use of “wild claims” perhaps miss my point, which is that the “smears” and “wild claims” about Biden may turn out to be substantiated as factual. This, seems to me, would diminish both Biden’s chance of being nominated and Trump’s chance of being impeached. That’s my worry.

        • Posted October 10, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          “That’s my worry.”

          Short of that, however, I agree with you: Trump going after Biden in his usual manner would backfire.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted October 10, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

          The smears against Biden have been well debunked. Of course that in no way suggests the Trumpkins will believe the evidence.

        • Posted October 10, 2019 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          But the kind of doubt Biden you express here is exactly what Trump is aiming for. Of course, if the Biden claims turn out to have any substance at all, you and Trump will be vindicated. However, if we allow such claims to enter our heads for free (ie, with no evidence at all) then Trump wins that little battle.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted October 10, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Sure, it’s a possibility, although not one with any substantiating evidence so far, in spite of the fact that most of Trumpworld seems to have spent the last few months running all over the world in an increasingly desperate attempt to dig up something, anything, on Hunter Biden.

          But my point is also that Biden and his family are a much trickier target than the subjects of Trumpworld’s previous smears – and that’s what they are: smears. You can’t claim that the word smears should be in inverted commas simply because at some point in the future evidence might turn up that accidentally proves Trump was right. He’s throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks, without any substantiating evidence whatsoever – it’s the definition of a smear.

  23. Posted October 9, 2019 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    “If I recall, states don’t allow a party to substitute another candidate on the ballot.”

    This from Vox: The party whose candidate dropped out “would use a system a little like the Democratic Party’s superdelegates, but on steroids. The members of the parties’ national committees would get together to vote for whomever they want. The candidate with the majority of votes from the national party committees — which consist of 350 people for the DNC and 150 people for the RNC — would then become the presidential nominee.”

    • Posted October 9, 2019 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

      Interesting and good to know. I wonder though if there’s a time limit on that. As a limit case, suppose a candidate dropped out a day before the election. It seems unlikely they would delay it. On the other hand, perhaps the winning VP becomes President.

  24. Posted October 10, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I’m pleased when people use their expertise for a public good; I’m also a fan of Pinker. But I think it might be a mistake tactically to call him as an expert witness (or the like) – Pinker is (originally?) Canadian. (From not too far from where I am from – a neighbourhood away, from what I recall.) This *should* be irrelevant, but I am not sure it is wise to give the irrational any things to distract with.

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