I continue to see media stories describing the document released by the White House that purported to be a “transcript” of the conversation in which the president of the United States tried to pressure a foreign leader into investigating a domestic political rival (Joe Biden). The same stories often use the term “quid pro quo” which translates roughly to “something for something” or “this for that.” I remain mystified and angry that experienced people whose job it is to communicate continue to misuse terms that are essential to understanding the stories they are reporting.
While I doubt any media people will read this blog post or care much what I have to say, but that has not stopped me before and it will not do so now. You might say I am writing this without the expectation of a quid pro quo. But it would be far better not to say that. Here’s why.
First, what is a “transcript?” This is not particularly mysterious, though there are different meanings for different situations. For example, in education, a transcript is “an inventory of the courses taken and grades earned of a student throughout a course of study.” https://bit.ly/2O04dD4 Anyone who has an education will likely recognize this one.
In the world of law, however, “transcript” refers to something quite specific. In fact, the proper relevant term is “transcript of record” which is a “typed or written copy of the court reporter’s notes that have been taken down during a trial.” Black’s Law Dictionary at https://bit.ly/2CrYqR7
This is a precise record of what is actually said, word for word, during the proceeding for which a transcript is being made. It is typically recorded as the events occur by a trained “court reporter” who either types into a special machine that produces tapes from which the “transcript” is printed or in more modern environments the reporter speaks into a device that records the reporter’s words. To assure precision and accuracy, the parties to the proceeding may review and propose corrections to the “transcript” before it is considered “final” and no longer subject to dispute.
Transcripts in the above sense are routinely created in “courts of record” and in depositions and formal arbitrations. A “court of record” is usually a trial court or higher but does not typically include small claims court and traffic courts where no verbatim record is created.
Note that I referred to “parties” in the plural in referring to the review/correction process. Regardless of the positions of the parties or who asked that the deposition be taken, both sides get to review the record and disputes are settled by the court. The result is that a “transcript of record” is as accurate as humans can make it: taken down and produced by disinterested professionals, evaluated by partisans and ultimately determined by a neutral authority.
You get the idea, I’m sure. A “transcript” as regards an event is a precise, accurate record of exactly what was said by the participants. Anything less formal is not actually a “transcript” and lacks the credibility of an official transcript.
For example, if I sit in on a telephone call and make personal notes of what I heard, then have someone type up my notes, no “transcript” results. Instead, there is just a typed version of my notes and there is no process by which the accuracy and precision of my note-taking is assessed and corrections made by independent parties with an interest in accuracy and precision. In this situation there is no “transcript” of the call. Even if a disinterested professional is involved in taking notes, the absence of independent review of the resulting document deprives the document of the credibility to be given to a “transcript.” In the case of Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine, there is an additional problem that a “translation” was required, adding an additional layer of uncertainty to the end product.
It follows, therefore, that the document released by the White House of Trump’s “perfect call” with Ukraine President Zelensky is not a “transcript” and should not be referred to as one by the media or anyone else. There is no basis for the conclusion that the document has the precision and accuracy of an authentic “transcript.”
At the same time, since the White House obviously believed the president’s claim of perfection for the call, the document that was released may reasonably be presumed to be the best version, from Trump’s point of view, of what occurred. As has been reported everywhere but Fox News and Breitbart, the document is clearly damning and proves that Trump is once again lying about what transpired. Numerous parties who listened in on the call have testified under oath that Trump unquestionably demanded an investigation, and public disclosure thereof, of a domestic political rival.
This brings us to the question of “quid pro quo.” The media and Republican defenders of Trump have obsessed over whether the call involved a “quid pro quo.” Here, again, we must refer to the environment of law, where this term is often used and has a well-understood meaning. As stated in Black’s Law Dictionary (https://bit.ly/36LZOMu),
What for what; something for something. Used in law for the giving one valuable thing for another. It is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding. [emphasis added]
In simple English, as applied to the Trump-Zelensky call, Trump was demanding a public declaration of an investigation of his chief political rival in exchange for the release of aid funds that Congress had previously appropriated. Still in simple English, Trump said, “if you want the money released, you must announce the investigation I want.” What for what; something for something. You do this for me and I’ll do that for you. Clear as a bright sunny day.
Reading the document released by the White House, the “best version of the call per Trump himself,” it is plain that Trump demanded something in exchange for something else. A “favor,” his word, for a favor.
The media would do well to stop calling the White House document a transcript. It is not a transcript. At best it is a summary of notes about the call. It has not been vetted by independent authorities or any outside party with an interest separate or independent from Trump.
As for the quid pro quo, why use a Latin term when simple English will do? While quid pro quo is easy to understand, the use of Latin here will only obscure the issue for many readers. Some short-hands are useful but this one, in this setting at least, is not. It is helping the Trump administration muddy the public understanding of the illicit bargain Trump sought to achieve.
Finally, there is this question, as yet unanswered by the White House: why were the records of the Trump-Zelensky call secreted in a top secret computer? If they are exculpatory, why haven’t they been released? The answer, I suggest, is that the original records would be even worse for Trump than the doctored notes falsely presented as “transcript” to the world.