Is Presidential Impeachment Like a Coup?

26 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2019

See all articles by Keith E. Whittington

Keith E. Whittington

Princeton University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: December 3, 2019


It is not uncommon for supporters of a president threatened with impeachment to denounce the proceedings as a kind of coup. There are obvious differences between an impeachment conducted in accord with the terms of a constitution and a lawless military coup, and yet such rhetoric might raise a real claim that the congressional impeachment power, at least relative to an elected president, has fallen into a kind of obsolescence and can no longer be legitimately used. Presidential impeachments might have fallen into the same status of formal availability but practical illegitimacy as other such constitutional features of indirect democracy as the power of presidential electors to choose a president. Moreover, there might well be some particular circumstances in which critics are justified in charging that Congress is attempting to overturn the election results through the abuse of the impeachment power. But consideration of the distinctive features of the constitutional impeachment power should reassure us that in most circumstances the use of the constitutional power to remove a president by congressional action would not be comparable to a coup.

Keywords: Donald Trump, impeachment, presidency, separation of powers

Suggested Citation

Whittington, Keith E., Is Presidential Impeachment Like a Coup? (December 3, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Keith E. Whittington (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Political Science ( email )

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Princeton, NJ 08544-1012
United States
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