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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson October 25, 2019

Donald Trump says impeachment is a coup. That's Pants on Fire

If Your Time is short

  • The key element of a coup is that it is carried out beyond the bounds of legality.
  • Yet impeachment is explicitly described in the Constitution as the way to remove a president. 
  • Also, if the president is removed from office, his duly elected vice president would take over -- not the opposition party.

Amid the pressure of a House impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump has continued to stoke the idea that he’s the victim of a coup — shorthand for "coup d’etat," a French term that means the overthrow of the government.

"As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the........People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!", Trump tweeted on Oct. 1. 

The following day, Trump’s campaign unveiled a new ad that said, "It’s nothing short of a coup, and it must be stopped."

On several subsequent occasions he’s shared his allies’ uses of the word on Twitter. He retweeted "coup" comments by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, on Oct. 3; former House speaker Newt Gingrich on Oct. 10; conservative broadcaster Mark Levin on Oct. 14; Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch on Oct. 19; and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., on Oct. 24. Earlier in the year, Trump referred to the special counsel report headed by Robert Mueller as a coup.

However, his use of the word "coup" to describe impeachment, a constitutionally defined process, is not accurate, even as a figure of speech.

What is a coup?

Let’s start with a more literal definition. The key element of a coup is that it is carried out beyond the bounds of legality.

"We define a coup d'état as the sudden and irregular (i.e., illegal or extra-legal) removal, or displacement, of the executive authority of an independent government," wrote the Coup D’etat Project at the University of Illinois’ Cline Center for Democracy in 2013.

Violence is part of many coups, but being violent is not a necessary condition.

Of the 12 types of coups recognized by the Cline Center, nine do not seem to have anything to do with what Trump is talking about, including military coups, rebel coups, popular revolts, dissident actions, palace coups, foreign coups, internationally mediated transitions, forced resignations, and self-coups, in which the leader strong-arms other branches of government to entrench power.

Two other types are defined by how far they got — attempted coups (which try and fail) and coup conspiracies (which never get to the stage of being carried out). Any supposed coup against Trump would have been a coup attempt, since he’s still in office. But that doesn’t mean there actually was a coup attempt.

Is impeachment equivalent to a coup?

Impeachment is explicitly described in the Constitution as the way to remove a president who has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors." 

Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor, told us that you can’t get much more within the bounds of legality than an explicit power outlined in the Constitution.

"It’s obviously not a coup for the House to launch impeachment proceedings," Klarman told us in early October.

The lead author of the Cline Center report, University of Illinois political scientist Peter F. Nardulli, called Trump’s usage "ill-informed."

"What is going on today in the United States is a constitutionally sanctioned process that is an integral part of the checks and balances that have been vital to the longevity and success of the U.S. Constitution and the Republic it created," he told PolitiFact.

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He added that "there is nothing sudden or decisive about what is going on in the House of Representatives. It is conducting a deliberative, constitutionally sanctioned process. If an impeachment resolution is adopted, it will simply be forwarded to the Senate to conduct a trial."

Also, if Trump is removed from office, his duly elected vice president, Mike Pence, would take over -- not the opposition party.

The Trump camp’s defense

The Trump campaign defended the president’s comments by saying that dictionary definitions allow usages that are more informal than the ones used by academics such as the Cline Center. Merriam-Webster, for instance, says the word can mean "a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics."

The Trump campaign pointed to widespread examples of Democratic lawmakers using "coup" to describe the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and to media reports using the word to characterize a 2009 change in leadership in the New York state legislature.

Experts largely acknowledged that the word has more informal uses, and they retroactively admonished Democrats for using such language during Clinton’s impeachment.

However, they said Trump is wrong — and ill-advised — to regularly encourage the use of the word "coup" to describe impeachment.

While hyperbolic rhetoric is common in politics, said Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, "what is unusual with Trump’s use of the term ‘coup’ is that it is the president who is using the term."

"President Trump is taking the lead in intensifying the rhetorical battle, which is bound to make the divide between his supporters and other Americans even deeper than it would be if legislators and pundits were using the term," Smith said. Such an approach "will justify more radical strategies in the future."

Nardulli of the University of Illinois added that "there are good reasons that, like facts, people are not entitled to choose their own definitions of important things such as coups, especially when those definitions are self-serving."

In fact, Trump’s use of a word with such shock value is not an isolated incident, said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. It needs to be understood as part of a larger strategy, he said.

Trump has quoted pastor Robert Jeffress "as saying impeachment would lead to ‘civil war,’ he has asked whether Adam Schiff should be arrested for treason, and he has suggested that the whistleblower was engaged in espionage against the U.S. government," Pitney said. "This is all serious stuff for someone who gives orders to the military and the attorney general."

(We previously rated Trump’s use of "treason" Pants on Fire.)

In addition to weakening constitutional directives at home, the use of "coup" sends a signal to anti-democratic forces overseas, said Anthony Clark Arend, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University.

"At a time when the rule of law is under threat in both the United States and throughout the world, I think it is important to differentiate the legitimate impeachment process from illegal attempts to overthrow a government," Arend said. "People may differ on whether they believe there is sufficient evidence to merit impeachment or removal from office, but the use of the impeachment process as established in the Constitution does not constitute a ‘coup.’'

Our ruling

Trump has used the term "coup" to describe the impeachment process, and has approvingly retweeted allies who have used it.

Trump’s campaign said the word can be applied more informally than as an extra-legal ouster of a government. However, Trump’s repeated use of the term alongside such other inflammatory charges such as "treason" suggests that he is using it intentionally to call into question the legitimacy of a constitutionally prescribed process.

His statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim. We rate it Pants on Fire.

Our Sources

Donald Trump, tweet, Oct. 1, 2019

Donald Trump, tweets on Oct. 3, Oct. 10, Oct. 14Oct. 19, and Oct. 24, 2019

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump's Pants on Fire claim about 'treason,'" Feb. 6, 2018

PolitiFact, "Was Donald Trump the target of a coup? No," April 29, 2019

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump calls impeachment a coup. It's not," Oct. 3, 2019

New York Times, "False ‘Coup’ Claims by Trump Echo as Unifying Theme Against Impeachment," Oct. 2, 2019

Merriam-Webster, definition of "coup d’etat, accessed Oct. 2, 2019

Legal Information Institute, "Impeachment," accessed Oct. 2, 2019

USA Today, "Read Nancy Pelosi's full remarks as she called for an impeachment inquiry of President Trump," Sept. 24, 2019

CNSNews, "Trump Calls It a 'Coup'; In 1998, Democrats Called Impeachment of Clinton a 'Coup,'" Oct. 2, 2019

Donald Trump, interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, April 25, 2019

Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois, "The Coup D’etat Project," September 2013

Email interview with John Pike, director of, Oct. 24, 2019

Email interview with Peter F. Nardulli, University of Illinois political scientist and lead author of a report on coups for the Cline Center, Oct. 24, 2019

Email interview with Michael Klarman, Harvard Law School professor, Oct. 2, 2019

Email interview with Steven Smith, political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, Oct. 24, 2019

Email interview with Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, Oct. 24, 2019

Email interview with Anthony Clark Arend, professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, Oct. 24, 2019

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Donald Trump says impeachment is a coup. That's Pants on Fire

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