Yesterday, the world watched as a group of domestic terrorists overtook the U.S. Capitol Building as Congress met to certify the votes cast by the Electoral College. Typically, certification is a mundane election formality. But nothing about the Trump administration—nor, especially, this transition of power—has been typical.
When it became clear that Donald Trump had lost his bid for reelection in November, he turned to his favorite coping mechanism: blaming everyone else for his failure and playing the victim. Except this time, it involved inventing (or coopting) and subsequently spreading lies about Biden’s election victory being fraudulent—something even his own (now former) Attorney General disputed—and in the process, undermining the basis of American democracy (that whole “free and fair elections” thing).
What happened yesterday?
Trump often seemed uninterested in conducting the business of the presidency, but he has a history of devoting his attention to the things he considers important—which are usually the ones that will help him get his way. (As an example: After U.S. intelligence revealed foreign hackers had seriously infiltrated government agencies and infrastructure, Trump said nothing for days, during which he found plenty of time to tweet about the election.)
On December 20, 2020, Trump tweeted that it was “statistically impossible” for him to have lost the 2020 election (nope), then told his followers there would be a “big protest in DC on January 6th,” instructing them to “be there” because it “will be wild!”
They were, and it was.
As everything unfolded on live TV, reporters and those on social media used a variety of terms for what was happening, ranging from being euphemistic-bordering-on-complimentary (a “protest”), to accurate (a “coup”). Soon, words like “sedition,” “insurrection,” and “treason” were floating around as well.
And for those who are vaguely familiar with these terms from high school government class or half-listening to international news, they raised some questions, including “What exactly does that mean again?” and “Can the president be charged with that?”
For now, we can only answer the first of those: Here’s what to know about the definitions and differences between sedition, an insurrection, a coup, and treason—just normal things to wonder about, with regard to the president of the United States.
What is sedition?
In a televised address yesterday afternoon, President Elect Joe Biden said that the lawlessness in the nation’s capital “borders on sedition”—but what exactly is that? Under U.S. law, the crime is referred to as “seditious conspiracy,” and it involves two or more people conspiring to do one or more of the following:
- Overthrow, put down or to destroy the government by force.
- Levy war against the U.S.
- Oppose governmental authority using force.
- Prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any U.S. laws.
- Seize, take, or possess any property of the United States.
There’s a lot to work with there, but as Devin Schindler, a law professor at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School points out, the “delay the execution of the law” part is key when it comes to yesterday’s domestic terrorist attacks. Here’s how Schindler explained it to the Detroit Free Press:
“For at least some of these protesters, particularly the ones that broke into the Capitol, I think there’s an extraordinarily strong case that they used force to delay, to hinder, the execution of our laws governing the election and how electoral votes are counted. It seems fairly clear to me, based on what we’re seeing, that folks are in fact, almost textbook violating this seditious conspiracy statute by using force to interfere with lawful government activity.” [bold ours]
Seditious conspiracy is a felony, punishable by fines and up to 20 years in prison.
What is a coup?
We have an entire explainer on coups (which you should definitely check out), but the short version is this:
A coup is short for coup d’état—which, by its formal definition, is often used to refer to a sudden, illegal seizure of power from a government. There’s only ever been one coup in American history—the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, when a group of white supremacists overthrew the local government and killed dozens of black residents.
What is insurrection?
Biden didn’t leave it at sedition, later clarifying that yesterday’s siege of the Capitol was “not protest—it’s insurrection.” By definition, insurrection refers to “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” Under U.S. law, the crime includes inciting, setting on foot, assisting, or engaging in any rebellion or insurrection. That conviction comes with a fine, or a prison sentence of 10 years or fewer—and a lifetime ban from holding office in the United States.
What is treason?
You’re probably already familiar with the concept of treason, but what about its meaning under U.S. law? For starters, it’s the only crime expressly defined by the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates that it can involve only two types of conduct: (1) “levying war” against the United States; or (2) “adhering to [the] enemies [of the United States], giving them aid and comfort.”
The scope of what constitutes treason has narrowed over the years via case law (read more about that here), and there has been a shift away from charging individuals with treason since World War II. According to Schindler, it’s unlikely that the charge will be applied to yesterday’s events because it requires the involvement of enemies of the United States. Punishments for treason range from the death penalty to being to imprisoned for at least five years and fined at least $10,000 and being barred from holding public office—though, again, such charges have rarely been brought outside of wartime (or in general).