Former senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon calls it a “coup.” Commentators at the Atlantic and the American Conservative are inclined to agree. Even journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” calls it an “administrative coup d’etat.”
But they’re wrong.
Yes, Americans were rightly startled last week by Woodward’s reporting here at The Washington Post and the anonymous “resistance” op-ed at the New York Times. Together these revealed that senior Trump administration officials are working to implement Republican policies while preventing President Trump from carrying out what they see as impulsive, poorly considered and contradictory decisions.
But even if all this is true, efforts by high-ranking administration officials to subvert the president’s wishes would not constitute a coup of any sort, even a soft or administrative one.
Not all undemocratic subversion of authority is a coup. Using the wrong term obscures a key point about this “two-track presidency”: It is intended to prop up the president’s administration rather than tear it down, which makes what we’re seeing the opposite of a coup.
How is this different from a coup?
As a scholar of coups, I have spent years poring over roughly 1,000 historical incidents, deciding which are coup attempts and which are not, which succeeded and which failed.
A successful military coup is one in which a group of conspirators — including the state security forces, usually the military — removes the government from power. This action usually, but not always, results in the head of state leaving government. None of that is happening now in the United States.
No matter what senior officials may be doing to subvert his wishes, Trump continues to be president, a fact with very important consequences.
The only time a successful coup leaves a head of state in place is in what is called an auto-golpe or “self-coup,” a coup that the head of state mounts against his own government. For example, President Alberto Fujimori of Peru arranged a successful auto-golpe in 1992, which turned Peru from a democracy into a dictatorship, with Fujimori in charge.
There is no standard definition of what a nonmilitary coup would look like, or even if one exists. But the way commentators are using this phrase, what’s being alleged about the Trump administration is still not a coup, military or otherwise.
A coup aims to replace one government with another. But what Anonymous describes is not designed to displace the president or the government. Anonymous writes that those working to subvert Trump had considered but rejected using the 25th Amendment, which would have removed Trump from office.
Instead, what they are doing is propping him up, protecting him from the consequences of his “bad decisions” by keeping those decisions “contained to the West Wing.” Anonymous and his compatriots “want the Administration to succeed.”
All the people mentioned by Woodward as engaging in similar activities are political appointees. They have an incentive to keep the administration running: If Trump goes down in a constitutional crisis, these appointees lose their access to power.
How can we best understand what may be going on now?
Yes, it’s shocking to hear that the president’s own staff may be actively working to frustrate his intentions. But the events we’re reading about can also be understood as an extreme form of a fairly common tug-of-war among members of an administration. And, yes, that includes even the president. Assuming reports are accurate, we are seeing a more extreme form of what political scientists call the “principal-agent problem” that inhabits each stage of the executive branch.
A principal-agent problem results when somebody delegates a task to somebody else, but the subordinate doesn’t fully agree with the supervisor about how the task should be performed — and the supervisor can only imperfectly see whether the subordinate is carrying out the instructions.
Just because the president is at the apex of the executive branch doesn’t mean he can simply issue orders and have them carried out without question. He’s simply not omniscient or omnipotent enough to ensure that everybody is moving in lockstep to support his aims.
Because leaders have limited information and time, they delegate. Delegation allows them to rely on others’ expert opinions without needing to acquire that expertise themselves. It enables them to have somebody else implement a policy, freeing them from doing it themselves.
However, delegating also allows subordinates to manage their bosses, as well as the other way around. It is not uncommon for subordinates to answer questions with the information they believe their boss needs to know, rather than the information that the boss had asked for. By framing choices to include some options and exclude others, they can shape the menu of options available to a leader.
Subordinates can also shape how a policy is implemented by exercising their own discretion. This is most classically done by “slow rolling” or delaying implementation, hoping that circumstances change. Former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus allegedly dealt with what he believed to be dangerous decisions by Trump by telling him to take certain actions — say, firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions — “next week.” Preibus believed that by then Trump would have forgotten what he had been asking for.
What we’ve been reading about recently is more of the same. According to Woodward, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis allegedly postponed severe military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians — and instead presented Trump with more limited airstrikes, which Trump ultimately approved. Former top economic adviser Gary Cohn allegedly removed a document from the president’s desk that would, if signed, have changed U.S. trade policy, hoping that the president would forget about it — which he did. These flimsy gambits relied upon Trump’s mercurial nature to be effective. But while definitely a form of subversion, none of this constitutes a coup. Rather, these are standard bureaucratic bargaining moves taken to an extreme.
Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The opinions expressed are his own, and not those of his employer. He is the author of “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups.”