Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot
On October 8, 2020, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced the arrests of 13 men suspected of orchestrating a domestic terror plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, and otherwise violently overthrow the state government. The suspects were tied to a paramilitary militia group that called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, which was founded by two of the suspects. Six of the suspects were charged in federal court, while the other seven were charged with state crimes. A week later, a fourteenth suspect was arrested and charged in state court.
Prior concerns about militia and far-right groupsEdit
Preceding the 2020 United States elections, law enforcement officials, members of Congress, and groups tracking extremism in the country have warned about the increasing threat potential from militia and far-right groups. The Anti-Defamation League identified Michigan as a state where the modern militia movement found its roots and where a number of militia groups remain active. However, Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said the Wolverine Watchmen group, which the suspects were members of, "flew under the radar", adding, "This is simply not a big group that we'd ever heard of."
The alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer developed from June through September. Within the week preceding the Wolverine Watchmen arrests, there were at least three other state and federal arrest operations linked to the boogaloo movement, a loosely organized American far-right extremist movement whose participants say they are preparing for, or seek to incite, a second civil war, of which the Wolverine Watchmen group's ideology adhered to.
COVID-19 pandemic and mitigation measures in MichiganEdit
Whitmer, the main target of the plot, had seen her political profile elevated over the preceding months due to her early response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Michigan, in which she enacted strict mitigation measures such as a lockdown of the state, which she was widely praised for. However, she also became a target of criticism from far-right groups, and her measures triggered protests in April and May, including one in which armed protesters stormed the Michigan State Capitol. President Donald Trump had offered his support for the protests, derisively calling Whitmer "that woman from Michigan" and tweeting on April 17: "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"[a]
Ultimately, on October 2, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court made two rulings in response to the measures: a 4–3 ruling that declared a 1945 law allowing Whitmer to enact the measures was unconstitutional, and a unanimous ruling that declared a 1976 act did not give Whitmer the power to enact the measures without legislative approval. This put uncertainty over enforcement of the measures and forced the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services – and later, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration – to circumvent it by ordering similar measures, even after the alleged plot was made public.
The suspects were tied to a paramilitary militia group that called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen. The group was co-founded by suspects Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison; the latter is considered the group's "commander". An NBC News investigation into the suspects' social media profiles found links between their ideologies and those of the broader boogaloo movement. The Wolverine Watchmen group had been recruiting members on Facebook from November 2019 until June 2020, when Facebook began purging all boogaloo-related material.
The suspects named in the federal indictment, charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, were Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Barry Croft, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta. Five of the men were Michigan residents, while the sixth, Croft, was from Delaware. Adam Fox and Barry Croft were accused of being the ringleaders of the plot. The suspects charged with state crimes, including providing material support for terrorist acts, firearm crimes, and gang membership, were Wolverine Watchmen founders Musico and Morrison, along with Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, and Paul Bellar. At least four of the 13 suspects had attended prior rallies at the Michigan State Capitol. On October 15, a fourteenth suspect, Brian Higgins of Wisconsin, was charged at the state level with material support of an act of terrorism.
Biographical sketches and motivesEdit
- Joseph M. Morrison is considered the leader of the Wolverine Watchmen. His home in Munith, which he shared with Musico, was allegedly used as a training site, according to Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gregory Townsend. Photographs of the home show a Confederate battle flag and a variation of the U.S. flag with alternating, vertical red and white stripes and a circle of stars surrounding the words "Liberty or Death". Morrison's neighbors told The Daily Beast that the home's residents were "disrespectful" and said large groups regularly gathered there on weekends, whereupon gunfire would be heard. His online alias was "Boogaloo Bunyan". Morrison had served in the U.S. Marine Corps since 2015, most recently with the 4th Marine Logistics Group in Battle Creek, Michigan, with the rank of lance corporal; he was discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve on October 8, the same day as his arrest, for reasons unrelated to the criminal charges.
- Adam Fox, the alleged mastermind of the plot, was born Adam Waggoner but changed his last name to his mother's maiden name in 2014. He had been living in the basement of his former employer, a vacuum repair shop in Grand Rapids. Fox received permission for that living arrangement from the shop's owner who felt empathy towards Fox, as Fox was homeless and had dogs. The basement was allegedly used to hold one of the group's meetings. Fox posted a YouTube video in June, mentioning Whitmer's handling of the pandemic as one of his motives for the plot. According to his employer, Fox espoused anti-police and anti-government views, along with support for the boogaloo movement, and had recently become worried about the U.S. becoming a communist country and Democratic politicians taking away his guns. Fox had previously been a member of another militia group called the Michigan Home Guard, but he was kicked out due to "rage issues" and threatening other members on social media.
- Ty Garbin was raised in Wyandotte but had been living in a manufactured home park in eastern Livingston County at the time of his arrest. His father is an Army veteran. Garbin was a licensed aircraft mechanic and had previously worked for SkyWest Airlines. He met Fox at a Second Amendment rally in Lansing. Garbin allegedly cased the governor's vacation home at night, texted about blowing up a bridge to slow police down, offered to paint his boat for "night fishing" as part of the kidnapping mission on the lake, and had the ability to manufacture guns. His lawyer mentioned he had no criminal record.
- Barry Croft regularly posted violent messages on his social media accounts. These accounts depicted him wearing a tricorne and a sweatshirt with an insignia associated with the Three Percenters militia group; he was later identified as the second-in-command of its Wisconsin branch. He expressed support for the Russia investigation origins counter-narrative and opposition to the country's current immigration policy, and he believed the investigations into President Trump constituted an "uprising". However, he also included Trump's name in a grievance-filled hit-list of politicians that he wanted to hang, which he posted on Facebook in late June. He was living in Bear, Delaware, at the time of his arrest. Croft was arrested multiple times from 1994 to 1996 for assault and burglary. He was convicted in 1997 for possessing a gun in the commission of a felony and spent three years in prison. In April 2019, Croft was pardoned for the conviction, as well as the prior assault and burglary charges, by Delaware Governor John Carney. According to recordings of the alleged plotters, Croft claimed he had been granted permission from God to commit murder.
- Kaleb Franks had allegedly spent $4,000 on equipment during the planning, including a helmet and night-vision goggles. He also allegedly brought a rifle with a silencer to one of the training exercises. According to his LinkedIn profile, he studied clinical psychology at Washtenaw Community College and was employed as a peer recovery coach at an addiction treatment center in Waterford. He had previously battled an addiction to heroin but has been sober since 2013, according to his lawyer. He was convicted in 2011 for cocaine possession and in 2013 for second-degree home invasion. He served nine months in jail and two years under the jurisdiction of drug courts.
- Daniel Harris served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a rifleman from 2014 to June 2019, most recently at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Harris had been deployed to Japan and had reached the rank of corporal. He was awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. He worked as a security guard at two different companies after being discharged. In June, he attended a Black Lives Matter rally in his hometown of Lake Orion and was interviewed by a local newspaper, where he said he was "upset about the killing of George Floyd and police violence." The group allegedly met at his home on August 23 to discuss the plot.
- Brandon Caserta was depicted wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt associated with the boogaloo movement in a TikTok video; and on Facebook, he praised Kyle Rittenhouse, a civilian who shot three protesters, killing two, during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. Caserta was also a COVID-19 denier and supported the QAnon conspiracy theory; however, in one video, he criticized President Trump and called him a tyrant. His belief system apparently became more extreme following Whitmer's implementation of the statewide lockdown. His social media activity originally consisted of posts about comedy shows and podcasts, motivational quotes, and selfies; but following the lockdown, he began "liking" posts about conspiracy theories regarding Bill Gates, as well as memes about hogtying police officers.
- Pete Musico was active on YouTube, where he posted video blogs against taxes, gun control, and the so-called deep state. A video posted in 2019, entitled "Gretchen Whitmer Interview", depicted him railing against her policies around automobile ownership and promised he would interview Whitmer in person in a later video. Musico was also active on Gab, where he promoted the unfounded claim that there is an ongoing campaign to kill white people in South Africa. He also followed the accounts of Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs and InfoWars personality Owen Shroyer. On Twitter, he expressed support for Trump and conspiracy theories regarding Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the high presence of mercury in vaccines. Musico's attorney said he was eventually kicked out of the Wolverine Watchmen because he was too "soft" and wouldn't commit to violence.
- Shawn Fix had allegedly hosted Wolverine Watchmen meetings at his home in Belleville to discuss the plot. The house's yard had Donald Trump presidential campaign signs and a Gadsden flag. He was working as a truck driver and had more than a dozen driving infractions from 2007 to 2018. Fix had been charged with assault and battery and aggravated assault in 2012, but the victim dropped the charges in 2013.
- Eric Molitor had posted support of the boogaloo movement on his Facebook profile. He also spoke positively about Kyle Rittenhouse and the St. Louis gun-toting controversy, along with anti-government sentiment. He had worked for a company that provides respiratory and ballistic protection to the military and first responders. In January 2020, he gave the Wexford County Commission a proposal to make it a Second Amendment sanctuary county, which passed unanimously the next month.
- Michael and William Null, twin brothers, allegedly helped conduct surveillance on Whitmer's vacation home. They were also former members of another militia group called Michigan Liberty Militia. They were photographed at a protest held by Michigan United for Liberty, a right-wing group protesting against Whitmer's COVID-19 lockdown orders, at the Michigan State Capitol on April 30. William also attended another anti-lockdown rally in May, as well as Black Lives Matter rallies in Grand Rapids and Flint, according to Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, though Leaf also said William vented about the movement. William was also photographed at a February 2017 protest against President Trump's Executive Order 13769, held by the Equality Caucus of Genesee County in Flint. He and members of the Michigan Liberty Militia were counter-protesting while wearing military fatigues, carrying firearms, and waving a Gadsden flag. William also allegedly made threats against the protesters on Facebook.
- Paul Bellar, who was arrested in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had moved from Milford over the summer after an eviction, was allegedly responsible for designing the tactical training exercises used by the Wolverine Watchmen, which included the use of firearms, medical treatment, and other tasks. Bellar's former neighbor in Milford said the pandemic caused Bellar to lose his job and called him a "very angry person" and said he threatened her with a gun after a run-in with him. According to Bellar's father, he trained for the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson for a year before being discharged in 2019 with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Timeline of eventsEdit
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that they became aware of group chats on social media in early 2020 threatening to conduct the violent overthrow of state governments and law enforcement. During the initial investigation of social media chats, the FBI said that they encountered Barry Croft and Adam Fox. In March 2020, local officers from an unidentified police department in Michigan reported to the FBI that the militia was seeking addresses of officers. The FBI then interviewed a militia member, who agreed to become a confidential source after they raised concerns that there were plans to kill police officers. On May 8, the FBI obtained a federal search warrant to review Croft's Facebook account. Agents found messages "plotting potential acts of violence", including a May 3 post referencing a male individual who "may be first" and was wanted "in custody"; the FBI claims this individual was South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster.
The FBI subsequently began infiltrating the group online and in person with informants in June, according to a criminal complaint. Starting at that point, the FBI began compiling photographs, video footage, telephone calls, and encrypted messages made by the suspects and storing them as evidence on a USB flash drive. The content, said to consist of "hundreds of hours of undercover audio recordings and more than 13,000 pages of encrypted text messages", was released by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan on October 16. On March 30, Pete Musico, a co-founder of the Wolverine Watchmen, allegedly made a comment about placing Whitmer under citizen's arrest and numerous other statements on tape that prosecutors later said had indicated "a violent intent".
Intentions by the group to obtain Whitmer's address reportedly went as far back as April 19, according to court records. On April 30, all members of the group attended an armed protest at the Michigan State Capitol, which prosecutors said was the beginning of opportunities to conduct surveillance. The plot was reportedly hatched in an official capacity on June 6, among a group of about a dozen individuals meeting in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb located northwest of Columbus. A confidential source at the meeting reported that the group primarily sought to establish a new, self-reliant society that adhered to the U.S. Bill of Rights. Participants reportedly discussed peaceful and violent actions of achieving this goal, with talks shifting to how state governments were allegedly violating the U.S. Constitution, how "tyrants" should be killed, and that those present should return home to recruit neighbors.
After the Ohio meeting, Fox allegedly contacted the militia – already being investigated by the FBI – seeking assistance for the plot. On June 14, the militia held a field training exercise. That day, Fox contacted one confidential source in a recorded phone call, detailing the Ohio meeting, and he requested "200 men" to attack the State Capitol in order to take Whitmer and others as hostages and to hold a "trial" for the governor, accusing her of treason. During the call, Fox reportedly said to the source that the operation had to occur prior to the 2020 United States presidential election.
During a Second Amendment event at the State Capitol on June 18, Fox was recorded by a confidential source attempting to recruit militia group leaders to unite in an effort to attack the State Capitol. Two days later on June 20, Fox invited individuals, including one confidential source, to where he was employed in Grand Rapids. According to the source, Fox collected cellphones to prevent recordings and led participants through a trapdoor from the main floor, though the source wore a concealed recording device unknown to those gathered. Audio from the meeting provided to the FBI contained discussions of an assault on the Capitol, how to counterattack first responders, and the use of Molotov cocktails to destroy law enforcement vehicles. It was concluded that the group would meet on the first weekend of July, where they would discuss plans and perform training exercises.
In a June 25 Facebook video captured by the FBI, Fox held a livestream criticizing the justice system, the Government of Michigan and the state's order closing gyms, calling Whitmer a "tyrant bitch" and stating to viewers, "I don't know, boys, we gotta do something. You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do".
Training and planningEdit
Initial assault planEdit
The FBI alleges that training first occurred on June 28 in Munith, Michigan at a militia member's property, with Fox, his girlfriend, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Caserta, and a confidential source participating in the exercises. Participants were reportedly told to leave if they felt uncomfortable with attacking the government and participating in kidnapping. According to Musico's defense attorney, Fox started making comments about storming the State Capitol during this training session, but there was no agreement from the other members, and Musico expressed concern about the plan's tactical viability, saying, "It's a fishbowl." Court documents released on November 13 alleged that in addition to storming the State Capitol, there were plans of executing hostages and televising them over the course of a week, or locking people inside the building, while the Legislature was in session, and setting it on fire with the intention of leaving no survivors.
According to Musico's attorney, from that day to October 1, there was no activity from the Wolverine Watchmen due to a fight between Fox and Musico and Musico's eventual departure from the group. However, the FBI's confidential source for the investigation said that participants met for weapons exercises in Cambria, Wisconsin, between July 10 and 12, with Croft, Garbin, and a militia member attempting to make an improvised explosive device (IED) on July 11, though the device was defective. Franks also brought a rifle equipped with a silencer, firing it at the time.
At a second meeting in Ohio held on July 18, audio collected by a confidential source revealed discussions of attacking a Michigan State Police station, though Garbin rejected plans of an assault on the Capitol building, instead suggesting to attack Whitmer's family vacation home on Birch Lake in Elk Rapids. In a July 14 call recorded by a source, Fox said he researched the governor's office, concluding that Whitmer would not be present there and was heard saying, "In all honesty right now ... I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I'm not even fuckin' kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don't fuckin' care anymore, I'm just so sick of it. That's what it's gonna take for us to take it back, we're just gonna have to everything's gonna have to be annihilated, man. We're gonna topple it all, dude. It's what great frickin' conquerors, man, we're just gonna conquer every fuckin' thing man." In a July 26 call with a confidential source, Fox said "Maybe we should just make a bunch of cupcakes and send them out", with the source interpreting this as Fox seeking to initiate a "widespread bombing campaign", according to the FBI.
Whitmer vacation home plansEdit
Fox invited participants to his Grand Rapids location on July 27, where a confidential source provided recordings of discussions that shifted to kidnapping Whitmer when she was arriving at, or leaving, either her personal vacation home or the Michigan Governor's Summer Residence on Mackinac Island. According to the FBI, in sourced audio, Fox could be heard saying, "Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin' Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude -- it's over." Fox was also heard in the recording suggesting that the group hire a realtor to find Whitmer's exact residence, collecting information on the surrounding area and recruiting individuals skilled with information technology and demolitions.
Participants met in Munith a second time for training on August 9, and afterwards, they communicated via group calls and chats monitored by a confidential source. In these communications, Fox suggested researching the governor's residence in Lansing and destroying Whitmer's boat. Harris said in a chat, "Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her ... at this point. Fuck it. ... I mean ... fuck, catch her walking into the building and act like a passers-by and fixing [sic] dome her then yourself." During further chats on August 18, participants concentrated on finding the Whitmer family's vacation home and planned on how to escape the area by boat.
On August 23, participants met at Harris' home in Lake Orion, where a secret recording was captured of the group discussing surveillance of the vacation home and Franks shared that he spent nearly $4,000 on night vision goggles and a helmet. A source captured audio of an August 29 surveillance operation, where Fox drove by the Whitmer family's vacation home, took photographs, and discussed response times of police in the area, with Fox allegedly heard saying, "We ain't gonna let 'em burn our fuckin' state down. I don't give a fuck if there's only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we'll go out there and use deadly force." The next day on August 30, the FBI said screen captures of the group chat showed Garbin suggesting the demolition of a bridge near the vacation home to slow and distract police.
Due to recommendation of the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, the construction of a $1.1 million barrier and electric fence at the Michigan Governor's Mansion in Lansing was announced on September 4 after weeks of construction, with spokeswoman Tiffany Brown saying "perimeter security and other safety upgrades" were being performed. Regarding the security upgrades, The Detroit News wrote "Whitmer, a Democrat who was first elected in 2018, has been the subject of menacing messages at Capitol demonstrations against her past COVID-19 stay-at-home orders", with the newspaper also citing other threats against Whitmer.
While driving in three vehicles–with an undercover FBI agent and confidential source present–from a group camp in Luther towards the vacation home on September 12 and early September 13, Croft allegedly suggested that the group attempt to kidnap Whitmer that night, though the idea was dismissed. According to the FBI, Croft and Fox, who were in the first vehicle, planned on detonating a bomb on a bridge of U.S. Route 31 in Elk Rapids, photographing the underside of the bridge, and deciding where to place explosives. The group in the first vehicle then drove to a boat launch across the lake from the vacation home, waiting for a second vehicle to conduct surveillance on the location. The third vehicle, which was also occupied by an undercover agent, was tasked with monitoring for any followers or suspicious activity in the area. On the way back to Garbin's property, the group discussed abandoning the kidnapping plan and instead destroying the vacation home entirely.
At a discussion recorded at Garbin's property on September 13, Fox said the plan would strictly be a kidnapping. An undercover agent told Fox that explosives for destroying the bridge leading to the lake would cost about $4,000. The group decided that a final training exercise would be conducted later in October, though Fox pushed for an earlier date the following day. On October 2, Fox told a confidential source that he purchased an 800,000-volt taser to be used for the kidnapping. That same month, he reportedly contacted Musico, who advocated for a nonviolent approach. Fox, Garbin, Harris, and Franks planned to meet with an undercover FBI agent to purchase explosives on October 7, though Caserta did not attend due to work obligations, while Croft returned to Delaware prior to the meeting.
All of the members involved were arrested on the night of October 7, and charges were filed against them the next day. Search warrants and arrests were executed all across Michigan. The arrests were reportedly part of a planned effort between federal and state authorities, launched after evidence was discovered indicating the suspects wanted to kidnap Whitmer before the 2020 election. At least seven FBI field offices, along with the operational divisions at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., were reportedly involved in coordinating the arrests. A week later, a fourteenth suspect was arrested and charged in state court.
Six people (Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Barry Croft, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta) were charged in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan for conspiring to commit kidnapping. The federal charges carry an automatic sentence of life imprisonment if convictions are obtained. A federal judge said the federal government had probable cause in the cases against five of the defendants and declared they could move forward to trial, while also denying bond to four of them.
During a court hearing on October 13, an FBI agent testified that the conspirators had considered leaving Whitmer in a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan and disabling its motor. He also testified that the group had discussed, during early stages of the planning, kidnapping Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who had also imposed strict lockdown orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted the FBI to notify members of Northam's security staff about the potential threat.
On October 26, federal prosecutors announced the FBI had found "explosive device components" and ghost guns and are considering adding federal terrorism charges after they are analyzed by experts. On October 28, an unsealed search warrant revealed that some of the defendants had discussed South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster as another possible target during the early stages of planning in March. The warrant also revealed that, in late June, Croft had posted on Facebook a hit-list of politicians that he said he wanted to hang. The list included the names of McMaster, President Trump, former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, former U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, other Democratic and Republican elected officials, liberals, Muslims, and "all anti-Americans".
On January 1, 2021, Croft, who remains jailed in a Philadelphia federal prison, asked to be released while he awaited his court hearings, due to the constant delays in a prisoner transfer and the subsequently slow progress of the case against him. Federal prosecutors argued against releasing him, describing Croft as a "violent extremist" and saying such a decision would be "unreasonable".
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged seven other men (Pete Musico, Joseph Morrison, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, and Paul Bellar) with state crimes, including providing material support for terrorist acts, firearm crimes, and gang membership. Two of the defendants were each set a bond of $10 million, with preliminary examinations scheduled for October 21. Musico's bond was later reduced to $100,000 after his attorney convinced the judge his role in the plot was overstated.
On October 20, Bellar was charged with state crimes and was extradited from his home state of South Carolina for a formal trial.
On October 15, Brian Higgins from Wisconsin was charged by Nessel with material support of an act of terrorism, which carries a 20-year sentence. On October 19, Higgins was released on bail, with one of the imposed restrictions being that he not try to make contact with the other 13 defendants. On November 18, his attorney announced his client's plans to challenge his extradition from Wisconsin to Michigan. The basis of the challenge was that the extradition paperwork was signed by Whitmer, the target of the alleged plot, thus creating a conflict of interest. On December 15, a judge in Columbia County, Wisconsin ruled there was enough probable cause for the transfer to occur. His extradition was delayed after his attorney filed an appeal on the ruling.
On December 4, twin brothers Michael and William Null were released on bond.
On January 14, 2021, Molitor was released on bond.
Whitmer spoke out during a livestream held after the thwarted plot was revealed by the FBI. She thanked the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation, called the plotters "sick and depraved men", and cast blame on President Trump for refusing to explicitly condemn far-right groups and for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whitmer later urged in a tweet that the suspects be called domestic terrorists and not members of any militia organization. In an October 11 interview with Face the Nation, she said security threats against her still existed and that extremists like the Wolverine Watchmen are "finding comfort and support in the rhetoric coming out of Republican leadership from the White House to our state House." Whitmer wrote about the plot in an opinion piece in The Atlantic on October 27, where she continued to blame Trump's rhetoric for causing divisiveness in the country.
Other political responsesEdit
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel called the plot "one of the largest cases in recent history" and labeled the case as "rather unprecedented" in nature. State Senator Mike Shirkey, Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine also condemned the plot. Chatfield later criticized Whitmer for not warning state lawmakers in advance about the plotters' original intent to storm the Michigan State Capitol building. Delaware Governor John Carney, who pardoned one of the suspects in 2019, called the federal charges "disturbing" and said, "This is also another warning sign about the growing threat of violence and radicalization in our politics." Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who had also been discussed by the alleged plotters as a potential target, declined to comment about the details of the plot but said he and his family felt safe with the protection of the Virginia State Police.
President Trump's responsesEdit
In an October 8 interview, President Trump criticized Whitmer for her rebuke of him in response to the kidnapping plot, saying he condemned all forms of "extreme violence" and calling for her to reopen her state. During that interview, Trump falsely claimed that Michigan's schools and churches were closed under Whitmer's orders. In response to Trump's remarks, Whitmer said it "tells you everything you need to know" about the difference between him and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden also reacted to Trump's remarks on October 16, saying the "failure to condemn these folks is stunning."
Trump continued to attack Whitmer for her COVID-19 mitigation measures at a rally in Muskegon on October 17, which was matched with chants of "Lock her up!", to which he replied, "Lock 'em all up." Trump's daughter-in-law Lara, a campaign surrogate, later insisted he was merely "having fun" at the rally. In a subsequent interview with NBC's Meet the Press, Whitmer called Trump's rhetoric "incredibly disturbing" and said it is "inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism". She also countered Trump's claims at the rally that she should relax the statewide COVID-19 restrictions, saying Michigan hasn't had a stay-at-home order since spring. At an October 27 rally in Lansing, Trump downplayed the alleged plot and continued the verbal attacks on Whitmer, which were also met with chants of "Lock her up!".
Law enforcement responsesEdit
Since the kidnapping plot at one point involved an intended attack on police, state law enforcement agencies were put on high alert in response.
Statements by Barry County SheriffEdit
Dar Leaf, the elected sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, appeared to defend two of the suspects in an October 8 interview, saying that "a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested. So are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt? Because you can still in Michigan if it's a felony, make a felony arrest." Citing the state's citizen's arrest statute, he continued, "It doesn't say if you are an elected office that you're exempt from that arrest. I have to look at it from that angle and I'm hoping that's more what it is, in fact, these guys are innocent till proven guilty so I'm not even sure if they had any part of it."
The interview went viral on the internet, along with the revelation that Leaf had shared the stage with one of the suspects at a May 18 anti-lockdown protest. Attorney General Nessel condemned the remarks as "dangerous", while a number of other Michigan sheriffs expressed their outrage as well. Law experts disagreed with the notion that the Wolverine Watchmen were simply planning to conduct a legal citizen's arrest on Whitmer, saying it was far-fetched. Leaf later clarified his comments, claiming he simply wanted a fair trial for the accused and did not agree with their alleged actions, which he called "horrible". His earlier comments and his ties with one of the suspects during the anti-lockdown protest have spurred calls for him to resign. On October 13, Leaf acknowledged the criticism but said he will not resign.
Michigan State Capitol security concernsEdit
Democrats in the Michigan Legislature renewed calls for a ban on guns in the State Capitol building in response to news of the plot, following an unsuccessful September proposal drafted in response to armed anti-lockdown protesters storming the building in April.
On December 14, the day that Michigan's electors to the Electoral College were set to meet at the capital, authorities closed the Michigan State Capitol to the public and shuttered state legislators' offices in the wake of the alleged plot, following "credible threats of violence". The building was left open only to those needed for the Electoral College. Earlier that day, State Representative Gary Eisen claimed there would be a "Hail Mary" effort regarding a plan to prevent electors from casting a vote. When asked if he can assure the public that it will be a safe day in Lansing, and that nobody would get hurt, Eisen replied, "No. I don't know. Because what we're doing today is uncharted." Shortly after the interview, Chatfield and Speaker-Elect Jason Wentworth released a statement disavowing any threat of violence or intimidation and announcing Eisen would be removed from his committee assignments for the rest of the term.
On January 11, 2021, Michigan banned the open carry of firearms on the State Capitol, citing the alleged plot and the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol building. The ban was supported by both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers. On January 15, 2021, the Michigan National Guard was requested, and heavy fencing was put up around the State Capitol, in preparation for an armed protest two days later, on January 17.
A spokesperson for Facebook, which had been used by the suspects in plotting Whitmer's kidnapping, said the company would be cooperating with the FBI's investigation.
A scheduled October 13 campaign stop by Eric Trump at a Lyon Township gun store was moved to a banquet center in Novi after it was discovered one of the suspects had worked there for three weeks before being fired.
The Wolverine Watchmen group was reportedly an offshoot of the Michigan Militia. The day after the suspects were arrested, the Michigan Militia issued a statement disavowing the group. Other Michigan-based militia groups also distanced themselves from the plotters' actions and intentions. The Michigan Home Guard, a militia that one of the suspects had once been a member of before being kicked out earlier this year, released a statement condemning the Wolverine Watchmen's actions.
Conspiracy theories about the alleged plot emerged on social media, wrongly claiming the Wolverine Watchmen were anarchists affiliated with the antifa and Black Lives Matter movements. Some social media posts promoting the theories were flagged by Facebook as part of its anti-misinformation campaign, while PolitiFact rated the posts as "Mostly False".
In a series regarding extremist behavior during the 2020 elections, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expressed concern about the political environment in the wake of the alleged plot, saying the suspects' anger and violent threats towards Whitmer is also shared by people of non-extremist backgrounds. According to the ADL, these non-extremists have continued to "urge and incite violence against Whitmer", using language reminiscent of extremist rhetoric.
- The FBI later said the plot was hatched before that tweet was posted.
- Egan, Paul; Baldas, Tresa (October 8, 2020). "'Deeply disturbing': Feds charge six militia members in domestic terror plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved October 8, 2020.
- Leone, Jared (October 8, 2020). "FBI thwarts militia plot to kidnap Michigan governor". WSOC-TV. Retrieved October 8, 2020.
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