'Insurrection,' 'coup' and 'sedition.' Here's what each term means

Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) called the riots at the US Capitol "an insurrection incited by the President of the United States," while addressing his colleagues at a ceremonial counting of electoral votes that will confirm President-elect Biden's win.

Posted: Jan 7, 2021 12:41 PM
Updated: Jan 7, 2021 12:41 PM

In the wake of Wednesday's attack on the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob, US elected officials, world leaders and commentators have condemned the actions of the President and those who participated.

Many of their statements use various words to refer to what took place -- "insurrection," "sedition" and "coup."

Here's a breakdown of what those terms mean.

Insurrection

The words "insurrection" and "insurrectionists" are being widely used by news outlets and others to define the storming of the Capitol building and the rioters involved.

According to Merriam-Webster, "insurrection" is the "act of revolting against civil authority or an established government." Other definitions, like that of the Cambridge Dictionary, specify the act is usually a violent one. Synonyms include "revolt" or "uprising," according to Merriam-Webster.

"What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States," Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said in his remarks on the Senate floor late Wednesday night after the Capitol was secured.

Insurrection, or rebellion, is a crime under Title 18 of the US Code, punishable by a fine, a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, or both. Being found guilty of insurrection also makes someone ineligible to hold office in the United States.

Sedition

"Sedition" is the "incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority," according to Merriam-Webster.

Among those who used the word Wednesday was President-elect Joe Biden, who said the Capitol riot "borders on sedition, and it must end now."

Similar to insurrection, the act of sedition is also a crime under the US Code, which characterizes it as two or more people who conspire to overthrow the US government, or "prevent, hinder, or delay the execution" of US law by force. It's punishable by a fine and up to 20 years in prison.

Some elected officials have leveled the accusation of sedition squarely at President Trump, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, California, and a former federal prosecutor. In a statement, he said that the President "should be tried for sedition."

Coup

A "coup," shorthand for "coup d'état," is broadly characterized by Merriam-Webster as a "sudden decisive exercise of force in politics," but particularly the "violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group."

Some have described Wednesday's event as a "failed" or "attempted" coup, since apparent efforts to overturn the presidential election have been unsuccessful.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, wrote in a statement Wednesday evening: "We must call today's violence what it actually is: a failed attempt at a coup."

Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in the impeachment hearings against President Trump, told CNN's Anderson Cooper Thursday he thought the events at the Capitol could be categorized as a "failed coup."

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