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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

One Word: Bribery

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin

At the start of the impeachment hearings it looked like Democrats had settled on the charge of bribery as best to encompass Trump’s impeachable offense, but the word “bribery” was not a major focus of the November hearings and the just released House Intelligence Committee’s Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report does not make the charge. This represents a distressing missed opportunity. Neither Democrats, nor voters, seem to have a simple answer to the question, what did the President do to deserve impeachment, and the poll results for impeachment and removal have plateaued. Democrats need to make a linguistic choice on the word or phrase that answers this question and “bribery” is still the best available option.   

The day before the start of the House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, we heard Chairman Adam Schiff on NPR explaining how the Founding Fathers’ understanding of the word “bribery” differed from our current laws, but by either standard, Trump would have a problem. He used the word “bribery” several times, and for a moment, we had hope that the Democrats had found the one word answer to the question, “why does Donald Trump deserve to be impeached and removed from office?” If the Congress moves forward on impeachment, it will be impeaching the President for bribery.

The word “bribery” was used several times in the hearings that followed, but it did not get the starring role we were hoping for. Certainly the word “bribery” was not repeated as frequently as it would be if it was being used by the linguistic programmers on the other side. Schiff’s’ closing statement at the end of the final hearing was widely praised. In it he detailed the case that Trump had traded “an official act [the White House invitation] for something of clear value [a public announcement of an investigation]” and then he described a second “quid pro quo.” He did not use the word “bribery” in his closing statement.

All of Schiff’s closing statements were passionate and powerful but we doubt you were able to quote a sentence from any one of them to change your uncle’s mind over the Thanksgiving table. The sentence we wish we heard repeated a couple of dozen times over the seven hearings would have been, “if the Congress moves forward on impeachment, it will be impeaching the President for bribery.” 

Quid pro quo is Latin for “bribery.”

Interestingly, the word “bribery” was used consistently throughout the hearings by Republicans who repeatedly formulated the charge that the Democrats were changing their assertion of Trump’s wrongdoing “from quid pro quo, to extortion, to bribery, to obstruction of justice, and back to quid pro quo” as Ranking Member Devin Nunes said in his opening remarks to the final hearing. He was followed by at least a half dozen other Republican members repeating variants of the same talking points, and using all the same words, “quid pro quo,” “extortion,” “bribery,” and “obstruction of justice.” Republicans want to muddy the waters on Trump’s wrongdoing by throwing up a lot of words (even if they all describe the same actions). Democrats must counter with greater clarity by placing the focus on just one word. ”If the Congress moves forward on impeachment, it will be impeaching the President for bribery.” 

The effectiveness of the Republican linguistic strategies should not be underestimated. America’s views changed very little in opinion surveys taken after the hearings concluded. Democrats must explain that quid pro quo is Latin for bribery. When Donald Trump insists there was “no quid pro quo,” voters should understand he is saying there was no bribery. But of course he would say that -- after he learned that his bribery scheme had become discovered.  

Bribery is the word Democrats want and need. Whatever it meant in 1789, in common usage today few would deny it is a serious crime. Whether you consult online dictionaries or Black’s Law Dictionary the definitions agree that bribery includes both sides of the proposed or executed exchange of value. Bribery includes both “offering or receiving,” “giving or taking” something of value in exchange for an official act. The witness testimony, evidence, and President Trump’s own words make clear he did exactly that. Democrats have the proof that Donald Trump committed bribery.

Some people would say everyone knows this and they would point to the large number of articles and blog posts (all referencing the same Schiff, NPR interview). Heck, Rush Limbaugh covered the topic way back on November 6th. But if focusing the national conversation squarely on the charge of bribery ever was the agreed upon strategy, it has faded by now.  

Now the Committee has issued its report and it does not, at least in so many words, state that President Trump committed bribery. Instead it asserts that “the President’s meeting with the Ukrainian President was conditioned on an announcement of investigations.” The words “bribe” or “bribery” appear five times in the Committee Report, but are never applied to President Trump. (Three times the word is applied to former Vice President Biden relating Rudy Guliani’s false charges, once in rebutting the White House lawyer Pat Cipollone’s arguments to limit the investigation, and once listing impeachable offenses in the Constitution. By contrast the word “pressure” is used 43 times as in, “President Trump and his senior officials may see nothing wrong with using the power of the Office of the President to pressure a foreign country to help the President’s reelection campaign.” Is what is “conditioned” impeachable? Is “pressure” a high crime or a misdemeanor?   

And that is the best thing about bribery; there can be no debate about whether it is impeachable. It is. And it does not matter if it rises to the vague standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” because it has its own place on the list of impeachable actions. Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution is where the Founding Fathers tell us the impeachable offenses are, "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Democrats have the proof that Donald Trump committed bribery and that is why he should be impeached and removed from office.


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