The testimony of U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland is being touted as a win by both political parties. Democrats appear to believe his statement proves the president’s guilt, while Republicans believe it demonstrates his innocence. And it all seems to hinge on the phrase, “Do the right thing.” What was the intent of the president when he uttered those words, and why does it matter?
Sondland, who represents the United States to the European Union, reported the following:
“I finally called the president; I believe it was on the ninth of September. I can’t find the records, and they won’t provide them to me. But I believe I just asked him an open-ended question. ‘What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories and this and that. What do you want?’ And it was a very short, abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood, and he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.’ Something to that effect.”
One might imagine that the confusing words here might be “quid pro quo.” After all, Democratic polling apparently revealed that Americans, by and large, were a bit perplexed by that phrase. It’s an expression taken from Latin that means “a favor for a favor,” or put not so eloquently – “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Tit for tat could be another way to interpret quid pro quo, but essentially, it’s an exchange of something for something. This is not the original meaning of the phrase, but it is the one most commonly used today.
However, the essence of the controversy does not center on this Latin idiom but rather around one that one might think is clear as a bell. “Do the right thing” is the expression that seems to be the sticking point. The question here is the interpretation and intent of the speaker.
If you believe the president is a decent man who says what he means and means what he says, you might take this phrase at face value. That is, you believe the “right thing” is the high and noble action to take. But if you understand the person who spoke that phrase to be a snake, a low-life who injects various implications in his statements, you take it to mean “Zelensky knows he has to play ball and do what I want by investigating former V.P. Joe Biden and son if he wants me to fork over the dough.”
It isn’t hard to recognize which party would choose the noble interpretation and which the sleazy one. It may seem like it all comes down to the meaning of “is” again – a famous Clinton saying – and in a way that’s true.
Psychologists maintain that people bring their paradigm into play when assessing the intent of another’s statement. In other words, everyone carries their biases, social norms, thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes with them when they evaluate someone else’s words. Their perceptions are formed by these internal cues. Therefore, interpreting what the president meant by “Do the right thing” ultimately tells you more about the listener than it does the speaker.
If Mr. Trump is nothing else, he is a plain-spoken man. This has often gotten him into hot water, and it could be said that his direct manner of speaking and tweeting is what has fueled such distaste for him as a person to those on the left. It would be a difficult case to make that you must read between the lines to understand Trump. He is out there, with verbal frontal assaults on those with whom he disagrees day in and day out.
The president rarely buries his meanings and feelings in verbal statements. Like them or not, they are nothing if not sharp, pointed, and clear. As such, you may believe Trump to be rude, lewd, and crude – but you cannot say he is someone whose statements are clouded and vagueness, dripping with inference and a need for interpretation.
Thus, those who believe the president was calling on Zelensky to come up higher and do the honorable thing have good reason for this confidence because it is perfectly in line with his past manner of speaking. On the other hand, those who deduce the president was suggesting that Zelensky play ball or else may be tunneling down a rabbit hole that reveals more about them than it does the president.
Read more from Leesa K. Donner.