Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project, was originally published here.

Lexicon of Impeachment: The Words That Will Determine Trump’s Fate

The inquiry into the president’s Ukraine dealings have thrown up a range of terms and phrases. We break them down for you.

The televised impeachment hearings into the Trump-Ukraine scandal are introducing a handful of words and phrases – some legal, some political – to the American public.

Though they have been integral to this investigation since its inception, including during weeks of closed-door congressional testimony, they will now be used in front of a TV audience of millions across the US and the world.

Here is what those key words and phrases mean.


Under US federal law, bribery is when a public official “directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity” in exchange for being “influenced” to carry out an official act or fraud.


This is the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden, former vice-president Joe Biden’s son, served. Trump wanted his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate an untrue allegation that Joe Biden pressured the previous Ukrainian administration to axe a prosecutor investigating Burisma, in order to help his son.


A technical way of saying “sworn out-of-court testimony”. Witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have given closed-door depositions for the past several weeks where they are grilled by politicians on events they have witnessed. They are used to collect information and occasionally, information gathered via deposition can be used during a trial.


In its most simple form, extortion is using threats, force, or violence to get something of value from someone – such as mobsters demanding “protection money” from hapless businesses. US laws prohibiting extortion apply both to private citizens and government officials. Extorting foreign officials is also illegal.

High crimes and misdemeanors

The US constitution says that presidents, vice-presidents, and “all Civil Officers” can be booted from office if they are found to have committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. Experts have said reaching a more concrete definition is tricky, leaving the term open to fairly wide interpretations.


This happens when Congress determines a president, vice-president or other “civil officer” should not serve in their role any more. As outlined in the US , under the process, the House of Representatives would vote to impeach someone and then the Senate would hold a trial of that person to see if they are guilty.

Quid pro quo

This Latin phrase means “something for something”. It means swapping valuable acts or things for other valuable acts or things. In this case it refers to Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate his rivals in return for aid or a meeting at the White House.

Shadow foreign policy

With a shadow foreign policy, people use unofficial channels to effect changes, which can conflict with a government’s official, public position. President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is accused of carrying out a “shadow foreign policy” by allegedly encouraging politically motivated investigations in Ukraine to benefit Trump.


This is a written demand ordering that a person provide testimony on a specific topic, and can also be used to demand documents. In addition to courts, subpoenas can be used by the US Congress.


This word refers to an employee who reveals information they think is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, mismanagement, abuse of power, general wrongdoing, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety, according to Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group. Government whistleblowers have some degree of legal protection, including on keeping their anonymity.