President Trump has recently claimed, on Twitter and in political campaign ads, that with the House impeachment inquiry, Democrats in Congress are attempting a coup and undertaking an unconstitutional assault on the presidency. Numerous Fox News personalities have supported Trump’s coup claims. Nor is this the first time Trump has claimed to be a target of a coup attempt. He made similar claims about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and about reports that, in May 2017, Andrew McCabe and other Justice Department officials discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump.
Four presidents have been targeted in a coup attempt in 2019, but Trump isn’t one of them
As the authors of a new global cross-national coup data set (the Colpus data set) and a forthcoming “Historical Dictionary of Modern Coups D’état”, we can reject the Trump coup claims. During the past five years, we examined the historical records of more than 1,100 alleged coup attempts in nearly 100 countries since 1946 to determine which were bona fide coup attempts. In contrast to coup plots, which never go beyond the planning stage, we define an attempted coup d’etat as involving regime elites or members of the armed forces taking concrete and unconstitutional actions to seize power.
By this definition, we find four bona fide coup attempts worldwide in 2019. Two failed. On Jan. 7, armed forces attempted to unseat Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, and failed. On April 30, Venezuela’s opposition attempted to topple its president, Nicolás Maduro. Two others succeeded. On April 2, the Algerian military ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after weeks of public protests. On April 11, Sudan’s military pushed aside President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, again after weeks of public protests.
In all four of these, the military attempted to unseat the nation’s leader. In fact, 97 percent of all coup attempts since 1946 involve security forces; only three percent involved only regime elites, without military forces. The history of coups d'état is largely the history of troops rebelling against governments. We find none of these classic coup hallmarks in the United States. The capital has seen no troop movements; no arrests of alleged plotters were made; no junta has claimed power.
No modern U.S. president has been the victim of a coup attempt
While U.S. presidents may have faced coup plots before, no one has attempted an actual coup. If Cabinet members did indeed discuss invoking the 25th Amendment against Trump, the closest analog might be the November 1987 “medical coup” in Tunisia, when Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sent troops to occupy the presidential palace in the middle of the night and had a team of doctors examine sleeping President Habib Bourguiba, certifying him medically incapacitated.
Yes, U.S. presidents have been assassinated — including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy — but assassinations do not involve a larger plot to seize power. Although most coups involve the threat or use of force, only rarely do coup-makers try to assassinate the leader. In fact, leaders have been killed in only four percent of coup attempts since 1946.
And yes, U.S. presidents have faced impeachment. Bill Clinton was impeached, but he was not convicted and served out his full term. Richard Nixon resigned to preempt impeachment and expected conviction in the Senate. Impeachment is a constitutional legislative action in the United States.
Coup attempts are more probable when regimes lack institutionalized procedures like impeachment to replace undemocratic or corrupt leaders before their terms end.
Consider the 2009 constitutional crisis in Honduras. President Manuel Zelaya tried to hold a “nonbinding poll” on constitutional overhauls that would extend his tenure in office. Congress opposed the referendum but lacked formal impeachment powers. The Honduran military stepped in and exiled Zelaya, resulting in the last bona fide coup in the Western hemisphere.
In Russia in 1993, an executive-legislative standoff escalated after President Boris Yeltsin illegally dismissed the legislature, called the Duma. The Duma impeached Yeltsin, but Yeltsin refused to step down. The Duma then recruited military support for a coup attempt that failed after Yeltsin ordered a bloody assault on the White House, Russia’s parliament building, in Moscow. The Duma’s inability to impeach Yeltsin led to the breakdown of Russian democracy.
The Trump administration backed a bona fide coup attempt in Venezuela in 2019
In late April, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó appeared outside a military base in Caracas and, flanked by troops, called for an uprising to oust Nicolás Maduro’s government. Before this failed, The Washington Post published an editorial titled, “Don’t call it a coup. Venezuelans have a right to replace an oppressive, toxic regime”. National security adviser John Bolton declared, “We recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela and just as it’s not a coup when the president of the United States gives an order to the Department of Defense, it is not a coup for Juan Guaidó to try and take command of the Venezuelan military”.
But U.S. recognition of Guaidó did not mean Guaidó controlled the government. If he had, Guaidó would not need to launch an uprising. Although Guaidó might have restored democratic elections to Venezuela had his coup succeeded, Guaidó did indeed attempt to stage a coup. As early as September 2018, The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had met with coup plotters in Venezuela’s military.
Naming (or not naming) coups is often political and partisan
Coups, by definition, are illegal seizures of power. Denying or claiming an action is a coup is often an attempt to either legitimize or delegitimize it. Trump allies are calling the impeachment inquiry a “coup” inaccurately — although strategically — in Trump’s defense. Leftist presidents who have been impeached in recent years, including Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012 and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in 2016, similarly claimed to be coup victims.
But in impeachment inquiries, constitutionally authorized bodies are using constitutionally granted powers, however politically and potentially partisan their effort. By contrast, coup attempts occur when political actors take extra-constitutional actions — most often using guns — to oust a chief executive.
John Chin is a postdoctoral fellow in the institute for politics and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.
David Carter is an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
Joseph Wright is a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University.