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.