When President Trump said late Tuesday that the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats was “a coup,” some scholars and many Democrats recoiled at the jarring term being used to describe a constitutionally enshrined mechanism to hold American presidents to account.
“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 wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s cavalier use of the term to discredit domestic opponents stands in stark contrast to a decades-old American government tradition of sometimes strategically avoiding the term in foreign policy.
A coup, commonly defined as explicit action involving the military with the intent to overthrow the government, was not what was happening when Democrats launched an investigation into whether Trump was fit for office after allegedly asking a foreign leader for assistance in investigating the son of a political opponent, experts said.
The president was instead using the word to call into question the legitimacy of the proceedings, these experts said.
“He’s calling it a coup because he wants to say that what his opponents are doing is inherently illegitimate,” said Naunihal Singh, author of the book, “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups.”
The word coup, which by definition carries the connotation of illegitimacy, has a long history of being politicized, not only in the United States.
This week, after Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra dissolved Peru’s Congress because the body would not take up a no-confidence vote against him, the president of Congress, Pedro Olaechea, accused Vizcarra of launching a coup. Marisa Glave, a lawmaker backing Vizcarra, countered by saying that the president had acted to avoid a coup.
Earlier this year, the United States backed an opposition-led bid to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó had the support of some Venezuelan soldiers as well as thousands of Venezuelan citizens exasperated with Maduro’s corrupt rule, which has plunged the country into a dire state of inflation.
Maduro’s government claimed it was fighting off a “coup,” while Guaidó's camp said the opposite.
“The coup is being led by Maduro,” Guaidó said in April.
The disagreement over what to label the uprising at the time went beyond Venezuela’s borders.
The Russian government, which backs Maduro, called the effort an “attempted coup.” In Washington then-White House national security adviser John Bolton disagreed.
“This is clearly not a coup. We recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela,” Bolton told reporters.
“Just as it’s not a coup when the president of the United States gives an order to the Department of Defense, it’s not a coup for Juan Guaidó to try to take command of the Venezuelan military,” he said.
The United States has previously steered clear of calling an ouster it supports a coup — a practice that has made Washington the target of international backlash at times.
In July 2013, the Egyptian military deposed the country’s freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then carried out a bloody crackdown on Morsi’s supporters. The Obama administration, however, refused to call the violent ouster a coup.
Almost one month after Morsi was out of office, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry went a step further, saying the military had been “restoring democracy” in executing the overthrow.
The United States had a clear motivation to not label the upheaval a coup. A U.S. law requires the government to suspend foreign aid to a country in the event of a coup. And Egypt is one of the largest recipients of American aid.
Kerry’s comments nevertheless have not aged well. The ouster was led by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. He became the country’s de facto head of state before holding presidential elections that were marred by the jailing and intimidation of his opponents. He has overseen a campaign that imprisons journalists and tens of thousands of critics.
Sissi still has a friend in the United States. On Thursday while meeting with his Egyptian counterpart at the U.N. General Assembly, Trump praised Sissi, calling him “a great leader” who “brought order” to the country.