Six people have been charged with a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, that involves links to a rightwing militia group, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced. Another seven people were charged with plotting to target law enforcement and attack the state capitol building. The state attorney general, Dana Nessel, announced additional charges
Six people have been charged with a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, that involves links to a rightwing militia group, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced.
Another seven people were charged with plotting to target law enforcement and attack the state capitol building. The state attorney general, Dana Nessel, announced additional charges under Michigan’s anti-terrorism law. Seven men, all in custody, are linked to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen.
They are suspected of attempting to identify the homes of law enforcement officers to “target them, made threats of violence intended to instigate a civil war”. They also planned and trained for an operation to attack the Michigan capitol building and to kidnap government officials, including the governor, Nessel said.
The news sent shockwaves through a country facing one the most contentious elections in its history and already marred by accusations of voter suppression, civil unrest linked to police brutality and sometimes violent incidents and protests by heavily armed rightwingers.
Whitmer, a Democrat, told reporters on Thursday that she knew the job would be hard when she took the oath of office nearly two years ago but she “never could have imagined anything like this”.
She thanked law enforcement, and said she hoped the criminal charges would “lead to convictions, bringing these sick and depraved men to justice”.
She said the pandemic ought to be a time for unity – saying “we are not one another’s enemy, the virus is our enemy” – but she accused Donald Trump of stoking division instead of bringing the American people together.
Referencing the first presidential debate last week, when Trump told the far-right group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”, she said the president was “rallying” groups such as the ones that plotted her kidnap.
“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action,” she said.
The FBI said in an affidavit that the plot to kidnap Whitmer had involved reaching out to members of a Michigan militia. The criminal complaint states that the alleged plot involved her second home in northern Michigan.
“Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor,” an FBI agent wrote in the document. “The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.”
The six men charged with plotting against Whitmer were arrested on Wednesday night and each faces up to life in prison. US attorney Andrew Birge called them “violent extremists”.
“All of us in Michigan can disagree about politics, but those disagreements should never, ever amount to violence. Violence has been prevented today,” the Detroit US attorney Matthew Schneider told reporters.
The affidavit was filed on Wednesday hours after FBI agents raided a home in Hartland Township, a community about an hour outside Detroit.
The criminal complaint identified the six as Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, Brandon Caserta, all of Michigan, and Barry Croft of Delaware.
Whitmer, a Democrat, has been the frequent target of protests by often heavily armed anti-lockdown groups who have launched numerous demonstrations against her efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. She put major restrictions on personal movement throughout the state and on the economy, although many of those limits have been lifted.
Whitmer’s moves once caused Trump to tweet “Liberate Michigan” as an exhortation to his supporters against her policy. As news of the foiled plot unfolded, many commentators fingered the president’s words as a contributing factor to the alleged conspiracy.
Former FBI agent and national security commentator Asha Rangappa asked pointedly: “Who knew that Trump and Fox News’ exhortations to “liberate Michigan” might lead to an attempt to harm the governor and lead a coup? Completely unforeseeable.”
The Detroit News reported that the investigation dated to early 2020 when the FBI learned via social media that individuals were discussing a violent overthrow of several state governments. A confidential paid informant then recorded a meeting between more than a dozen people from several states that took place in Dublin, Ohio.
“The group talked about creating a society that followed the US Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient,” the affidavit said. “They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions. At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the US constitution, including the government of Michigan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer.”
Through electronic communications, two of the alleged conspirators then “agreed to unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the US constitution”, the FBI said.
One of the alleged conspirators, Adam Fox, said he needed 200 men to storm the capitol building in Lansing and take hostages, including the governor, according to the FBI. He said he wanted to try Whitmer for “treason” and would execute the plan before the 3 November election, the government said.
Later, however, the group shifted to targeting the governor’s vacation home, the FBI said.
Speaking on CNN late Thursday, Whitmer said the White House’s attacks have stoked threats against her.
“We have to call it out for what it is – it is domestic terrorism,” she said of the plot.
Whitmer said White House had not checked up on her, while Joe Biden and Charlie Baker – the Republican governor of Massachusetts – had. “That’s what decent people do,” she said. Not long after news of the thwarted plot broke, Trump campaign official Jason Miller attacked Whitmer: “If we want to talk about hatred, then Gov Whitmer, go look in the mirror – the fact that she wakes up every day with such hatred in her heart towards President Trump.”
“Every time that this White House identifies me or takes a shot at me, we see an increase in rhetoric online – violent rhetoric,” the Michigan governor said. The foiled kidnapping plot “took it to a whole new level”.
In a statement, Biden said he had spoken to Whitmer and delivered a harsh rebuke of Trump’s rhetoric: “There is a throughline from President Trump’s dog whistles and tolerance of hate, vengeance and lawlessness to plots such as this one. He is giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country.”
In a tweet, Trump renewed his attacks on Whitmer, saying she had “done a terrible job”, before saying: “I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence. Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President! Governor Whitmer – open up your state, open up your schools and open up your churches!”
Maanvi Singh contributed reporting