Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
No, impeachment is not a coup.
Conservatives defending President Donald Trump have repeated this talking point in the weeks since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry. Fox News host Sean Hannity has said that he will only refer to the proceedings as an “attempted coup,” and several other commentators on the network have followed his lead. On October 1, President Trump himself tweeted, “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 …”
To be sure, this is a tactic some Democrats took in the 1990s when then-President Bill Clinton was under scrutiny. In 1998, Rep. Jerrold Nadler said, “This partisan coup d’état will go down in infamy in the history of this nation.”
But regardless of who is making the comparison, the suggestion that impeachment is the equivalent of a coup is ridiculous. According to the Cambridge online dictionary, a coup is a “sudden illegal, often violent, taking of government power, especially by part of an army.”
There is no way that impeachment fits into this definition.
Foremost, impeachment is written into our Constitution. The founding rules of our republic established a formal mechanism that could be used by the legislative branch. According to Article II, Section 4: “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The impeachment process is as legal as our federal elections. When the House considers whether to vote for articles of impeachment, they do so within the established framework of legislative oversight.
Nor is impeachment conducted by the army or any kind of unelected political force. Rather, the process is handled through elected officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution and represent the will of their constituents. Those representatives and senators will be held accountable for their decisions in future elections.
Impeachment is also a public process – even if there are parts of the investigation that take place behind closed doors (as occurred with Presidents Richard Nixon and Clinton). The final decision will come down to a vote on the floor of the House and then a trial and vote in the Senate. Each vote, along with all of the proceedings, will be part of the Congressional Record. There’s nothing secret here. Even the closed hearings that have taken place in the investigative phase have been carried out by bipartisan committees – with members of both parties in the room.
The party of the President has the power to stop this process and do so without resorting to violence. All they need are votes. If Republicans had been able to win over more Democratic support in the House, they could have defeated the resolution formalizing the rules of the procedure. If they can persuade enough Democrats, the House Republicans will have the capacity to defeat any articles of impeachment, should they come up for a vote. And should the entire matter reach the Senate, the GOP will easily be able to check the removal of the President. Democrats aren’t “seizing” power if the process can end through voting.
Last but not least, impeachment does not result in the party of the President losing power. If President Trump is impeached, Vice President Mike Pence becomes the new commander in chief. Republicans retain control of the Senate, and the size of the House Republican minority doesn’t change one bit. Regardless of what happens, both parties will then need to face voters come Election Day.
There are plenty of legitimate arguments to be made against impeachment – perhaps it’s better to wait for the next election. The bar for impeachment also needs to be extremely high so that this does not become a normalized tool of partisan combat.
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But to say that impeachment is a coup doesn’t pass the smell test. At a minimum, the pundits shouldn’t give air time to repeating this talking point without explaining to voters why the comparison is so wrong.