President-elect Joe Biden’s projected victory was called by most American outlets on Saturday. In the week that followed, President Donald Trump has sued to stop the certification of results in Pennsylvania and Michigan (Biden won both states). The administration official tasked with signing a letter that would begin the transition is refusing to do so. Trump also fired top officials at the Department of Defence, including the secretary of defence. And the secretary of state Mike Pompeo said with a smirk that there would be a smooth transition to a second Trump term.
While a handful of Republican senators have referred to Biden as president-elect, the majority have said Trump has every right to pursue his legal strategy. The sitting president, with tacit approval from his party, is refusing to acknowledge the results of a free and fair election; is claiming fraud without evidence; has used the powers of the presidency to stop a transition going ahead; has fired and replaced the civilian leadership of the country’s defence department.
The best case for the country at present is that the courts throw out Trump’s legal challenges as baseless, he concedes, and Biden is inaugurated in January despite millions of people believing him to be an illegitimate leader. Trump’s words and deeds are morally indefensible. But do they constitute a coup?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a coup d’état is when a small group illegally takes power from a government. There are a few ways this could be parsed to conclude that Trump is not, in fact, staging a coup.
The first is that Trump is the president, allowing some to argue that this is an autogolpe, or self-coup, in which a president comes to power by legal means, but then unlawfully assumes powers that would not otherwise be granted. But that isn’t quite right: Trump isn’t dissolving the Senate and declaring himself legislator as well as executor, but preventing a lawfully elected successor from transitioning to office.
The second is that Trump, at present, hasn’t done anything technically illegal. But a defence along the lines of “there’s nothing in the rulebook that says I can’t try to prevent states from certifying the results of a lawful election while also preventing the transition of power and replacing the civilian leadership of the department that oversees the military” is not exactly full-throated backing by the spirit of the law.
The third reason, which cannot be found in the Cambridge definition of a “coup”, is the suggestion that Trump doesn’t intend to hold on to power, but rather protect himself from future prosecution by covering his tracks in military and intelligence agencies or, alternatively, to enrich himself through his anti-Biden fundraising grift.
The likelihood of Trump staying in the White House for a second term, because his challenges are so far baseless, and because Biden won enough states by enough of a margin that Trump would have great difficulty swinging lawsuits and recounts in his direction, is slim. Some argue that when the lawsuits are thrown out, the allegations of fraud remain unproven and the electoral college confirms Biden as the next president, those who worried about this having been an attempted coup might feel silly.
But we don’t know that yet. The president and his party are performing a high-wire act. What if the courts don’t throw out the lawsuits? What if some state does decide to send in electors to vote for Trump even though its residents picked Biden? What happens then?
Anyone who says they know with certainty how the next two months will pan out is lying. In all likelihood, Biden will be inaugurated in January. But we won’t know if he will be until he is. We won’t know for sure that the president wasn’t able to pull off a coup until he doesn’t.