Absent from the transcript of the now infamous, now historic telephone conversation held between Presidents Donald J. Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky is the explicit annunciation of a quid pro quo. The only Latin term with which we Americans—a people inveterately ill-disposed toward a meaningful study of the classics—are universally familiar, we really ought to be able to identify a quid pro quo where and whenever it exists. Expert in so little, we must commit ourselves to its discovery—be it in speech or in text. After all, it’s a term well-situated within the bounds of our narrow lexicon and, as the alea iacta est, we’d better be sure of ourselves when we think we’ve found it.
We perhaps know a quid pro quo best from the exports of our culture. Upon hearing uttered the daunting phrase, our collective mind rushes to the menacingly erudite performance of Sir Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Confessedly, it’s a performance on which I still blame many a sleepless and anxious night. He is, so far as the film’s ending implies, still at-large and lurking somewhere in the world. Perhaps he’s even been re-patriated to the warm southeastern climes of the part of the U.S. in which I live. Forgetting for the moment my dread, in the film, in the presence of the brilliant Jodie Foster no less, the “thing-for-thing”, the quid pro quo is explicit, however psychologically devilishly it may be revealed. “I tell you things, you tell me things”, says to Foster the Hannibal Hopkins—still immured behind the police’s pliable bars.
That film, however macabre, engrossing, and exuberant though it might be, is a world of fiction. It’s one from which we turn and walk away after an hour’s time. Ours is a world slightly more prosaic and encompassing. It’s more inescapable and quite definitively more real. As such, we mustn’t be swept away by the sinister originality of an Academy Award-winning script. Our expectations will be misplaced, for the Trump-Zelensky script is not that. It’s rather politic than cinematic, circuitous than nefarious.
In this dialogue between the two leaders of states, unlike that between those two Hollywood stars, we search for the presence of an explicit quid pro quo in vain; the quid pro quo exists not as we might prefer it to, palpable and obvious to even the dullest of senses. If it were so clear, the task before which the House’s nascent impeachment committee stands would be mercifully easy. It would be straightforward and it would be fast. It might even be, as the old war-time saying goes, over by Christmas.
This, I think, will be rather long-lived. A fair bit of acuity, perhaps even a tinge of dishonesty will be needed to find the quid pro quo amongst this garble of words. Excavations of conversations take time and motives aren’t easily revealed. Salivating, we read the “quid pro quo” part into the text and somehow extrapolate its malignant consequences out of it, if only to satisfy our impeachment hunger pangs.
If it were expressed somewhere in the confusion of those unctuous and ambiguous lines, in that dialogue out of which the English language appears, of all the parties involved, the most severely damaged, it would be the shining and incriminating pearl in a pile of dross through which we’ve been digging for almost a week. For the impeachment enthusiasts among us, however excitable and vocal we may be, the problem is that so overt an expression of threats and of the scratching of backs hasn’t yet been found. This is a major problem—one to whose consequences one simply can’t remain deaf. Indeed, thus far, no amount of legal nor literary extraction has been able to pull from its pages this result. Every exegetic approach, every cauterized syllabic excision has been frustrated. They’ve all failed to show a clear, convincing, blatant, and, by being blatant, illicit quid pro quo to which Trump and Zelensky might’ve agreed.
That, importantly, is the main piece that’s missing from the contents of this transcribed conversation. There is, however, a second omission of which we shouldn’t fail to take note. That would be of the Russian state. To say that Russia was entirely omitted from the conversation wouldn’t quite be correct. It was a topic to which only one of the interlocutors alluded, and he did so but quickly and only once. Not surprisingly, Zelensky was the first and, as we now know, the only one in the conversation to vocalize the name of this insidious and wretched state. But his mention of it was fugacious and, being that there are occupational constraints on the time of a statesman and the attention of a distractible man, neither he nor Trump (so far as I know, the more distractible of the two) lingered on it.
Yet it is a topic on which they, and if not they, we should linger. It’s one to which we ought to devote our sympathies and our time.
Not very long ago, indeed within the recollection of the past five years, Russia invaded Ukraine. This, of course, was a fact about which President Trump in the year 2016 was unforgivably innocent. It might here be well said that so militant and avaricious a move on the part of Russia is not without historical precedence. Seldom has a century passed during which Russia—be she governed by an Ivan, Peter, Catherine, or Putin—hasn’t attempted an annexation of this highly-vulnerable state. From a geographic and strategic standpoint, a disinterested observer of that tumultuous Eurasian landmass couldn’t blame them for wanting a piece of that tasty territorial pie.
Ukraine is advantageously situated on the Black Sea—a passageway to lucrative Mediterranean shipping lanes and bustling trading entrepôt to which Russia lacks an alternative point of access. Though endlessly endowed with such commodities as wheat, timber, coal, and the like within its vast interior, Russia has always been in want of accessible and profitable ports on the sea. That of St. Petersburg is inhospitably cold, that of Vladivostok, discouragingly Asiatic, while that of Novoross (though on the Black Sea) simply hasn’t proven itself sufficiently well-equipped for the Kremlin’s desired quantity of trade.
Crimea, though, would do the trick. It would satisfy the grasping of the Kremlin’s reach, ease the access of commerce, vitalize the sprouting of growth, consolidate a heterogeneous culture, and re-introduce to that capacious empire a small appendage of invaluable worth.
And so, in 2014, Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists in the eastern part of the country began violently to demonstrate their unrest. With the resuscitation of an old imperial term, these dissidents began agitating for what they called Novorossiya—literally, “New Russia”. The very term is oxymoronic; throughout its history, excepting a long-awaited Bolshevik revolution or two, very little about this continent-spanning empire can be said to have been novel. The Enlightenment, industrialization, literature, philosophy, capitalism, humanitarianism—all these jewels of novelty and progress of which we in the West are so rightly proud arrived late at Russia’s door. This is a delay of which Europe should consider itself guiltless. It wasn’t due to a lack of the West’s willingness to share that Russia was forsook. Russia simply proved impregnable to the West’s charms. Largely, this is because these great ornaments of European thought were considered too heavy an intellectual burden for so servile a population to bear. The yoke under which the feudal serf labored was quite enough; he needn’t weigh down with knowledge the weary corners of his head.
Education and progress, as our poor benighted serf was to learn, weren’t to be his at that time. They were European exports unconducive to the Russian state and inapplicable to his commitment to the Czar and to the plow.
Speciously “new”, the Russia for which these separatists clamored was, in reality, Ukraine. Disdainful of borders and the inviolable limits of their reach, this Novorossiya of which they were so flagrantly desirous comprised multiple important Ukrainian cities, among which we number Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Donetsk, and that ancient, vibrant seaside town of Odessa. Joining the swelling chorus of their defiance, President Putin of Russia openly declared these cities a new part of his realm. By what right was he to do so? By what arrant contempt for the availing rules of international law was he motivated? To these questions, a thug and a bully answers not. Putin remains silent. His reasons express themselves in the menace of a grin. His rules are his own and his scruples are nonexistent.
He, with all his wonted intimidation, swagger, and disregard for common decency, was stepping in to consummate the separatists’ dreams. Not long after inspiring a Ukrainian revolt, he sent to the Crimea a detachment of his own troops. Seemingly within hours, the coup was complete. The Crimea was to become the newest appendage of Eastern Europe (after previously sovereign parts of the oft-neglected country of Georgia were taken by Putin in 2008—a fact of which most westerner observers are disconcertingly minimally aware, or perhaps, through the passage of an eventful decade, it’s become a historical note to which we’re inured and one by which we’re no longer dismayed) of which he was now in autocratic possession.
From that time until this, the interminable conflict into which the region has plunged hasn’t abated. Most of the fighting is internecine and horribly destructive. Brothers are killing brothers, fathers are disowning sons, mothers are mourning losses, and families are tearing apart. Religion, culture, domestic tranquility, and economic vivacity are languishing under the shadow of an endless civil war. Loyalties, feverishly devout, are riven along two lines: one fetters them to Russia, the other implores them to the west. One is the tradition of a misbegotten cultural tie, the other is freedom.
So far as the latest body-count is concerned, approximately thirteen-thousand people have died in this Russian-abetted Ukrainian civil war (not to mention nearly three-hundred people killed aboard the Malaysian airlines flight). The fighting and the dying continue still. The horizon hints at no cessation to the tumult.
Yet, mention of this—of any of this—proved too elusive for Trump’s and Zelensky’s conversation. This years-long struggle, this threat to a nation’s sovereignty to which America could lend her overwhelming assistance, was not discussed. And while the vaunted quid pro quo about which we’ve heard so much wasn’t, by any stretch of legal legerdemain, explicitly made, the concern over Russia’s Ukrainian presence was entirely absent. It was a point about which the two leaders were absolutely silent. This second of the two omissions from the conversation is the one that’s most resonant to me. Perhaps now is the time to re-open our dialogue about Russia.