Dark rumours of Trump coup plot grip USA

Dangerous game: Treason is a crime that can result in the death penalty.

Is Donald Trump staging a coup? Many believe the outgoing president is attempting an illegal power grab. Others, such as Joe Biden, think his refusal to admit defeat is just “embarrassing”.

The journalists at Tuesday’s White House press conference leant forward in anticipation as Mike Pompeo stepped up to the podium. Only the day before, the secretary of state had warned Myanmar’s military leaders to respect election results. So had he persuaded his boss to accept defeat? “There will be a smooth transition,” he declared with a grin: “to a second Trump administration”.

None of those present could quite believe their ears. Here was the second most important person in government supporting Donald Trump’s nonsensical claim to have won the presidential election. Where on earth would it end?

Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is unprecedented. Some believe that he will do anything he can to hang onto power – including staging a coup.

They are particularly alarmed by his decision this week to fire his defence secretary, Mark Esper. It is simply extraordinary for a president to make such a drastic change when his term of office is almost over.

Three other senior Pentagon figures have since been dismissed or resigned, and there is speculation that Trump may replace the heads of the CIA and the FBI with people loyal to him personally. “This is scary, it's very unsettling”, one Pentagon official told CNN. "These are dictator moves.”

Esper publicly clashed with Trump in June, when he refused the president’s suggestion that the army should be used to suppress Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Asked about a possible successor, he replied: “Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes’ man. And then God help us.”

One apparent “yes” man already in place is the attorney general, Bill Barr, who has authorised prosecutors to investigate “substantial allegations” of voter fraud, even though no credible evidence for this has emerged. “This is equal parts pathetic and frightening”, said one legal expert, Susan Hennessey. “The next 72 days may be some of the most perilous this nation has faced.”

One possible scenario involves the electoral college, which meets next month to confirm the new president. Votes are supposed to be cast by the states’ representatives in alignment with the results of the election. But if Trump’s legal challenges are not over by then, it is conceivable that he could get members of the college to vote for him even if their states were won by Biden.

Others find Trump’s behaviour less sinister. Esper’s firing could just be to do with his opposition to releasing documents about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which Trump thinks will exonerate him.

Equally, Trump’s legal challenges may simply be a way of raising money. His supporters are being asked to help cover his court costs, but there is nothing to stop their donations being used to clear his campaign debts instead.

Biden has simply said that Trump’s behaviour is an embarrassment, while one senior Republican pointed out that if Trump were really plotting a coup, he would be spending less time on the golf course.

Is Donald Trump staging a coup?

Reasons for treason

Some say, yes. He is a completely self-centred, immoral politician who has shown no respect for democracy and will do anything to hold on to power. He says he wants the courts to overturn the election result, but no one believes that is a serious possibility. So, he must either accept defeat or stage a coup – and he is not a man to accept defeat.

Others argue that Trump is simply a bad loser who wants to make life as difficult for his opponent as possible, creating distractions so that Biden cannot focus on building a new administration. He may also calculate that his refusal to accept defeat will make him even more popular with his supporters, and improve his chances of running again for the presidency in 2024.

You Decide

  1. Has the US forfeited the right to tell countries like Myanmar how to conduct their elections?
  2. Would democracy in the US be healthier if there were three main parties rather than just two?


  1. Paint a portrait of Donald Trump as a historical king or emperor at his coronation.
  2. Imagine that you are a US senator. Write a speech either condemning or supporting Trump’s refusal to concede the election. Deliver it to your class.

Some People Say...

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th President of the United States

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that no President-elect has had to contend with as many obstructions as Biden. When Trump won in 2016, Barack Obama immediately offered to do all he could to ensure a problem-free transition. But the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, who is responsible for the smooth running of the government, has refused to give Biden access to any resources. This will not stop him setting up his own administration, but it will cause him unnecessary problems.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how far the Republican party will continue to support Trump. So far, only four of its senators have spoken out against him. The others may be reluctant to alienate his hard-core supporters because they want their votes in future elections. In particular, the party is desperate to win the re-run of two senatorial elections in Georgia in January. But they also risk losing support from moderates who are appalled by Trump’s behaviour.

Word Watch

Mike Pompeo
Secretary of state since 2018, he was previously head of the CIA.
Secretary of state
The government official in charge of foreign affairs. Previous holders of the post include Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice.
A country in south-east Asia. In 2015 it held its first democratic election in 25 years, but the army has continued to play a prominent role in the government.
Mark Esper
A former soldier who fought in the Gulf War. He has been more cautious than Trump about withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan.
Short for Cable News Network, an American TV channel. In the past it has been accused of bias towards Trump, but it has sharply criticised his refusal to concede defeat.
Releasing documents
Esper and the head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, argued that this would be a security risk because it would reveal where the information on Russian interference came from.
Clear of blame. It derives from the Latin “onus”, meaning a burden.
Running again
Under US law a president can serve for two terms. However, it would be very unusual for one to stand again after being voted out.


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