After announcing foiled plot to kidnap governor, Michigan's attorney general says the far right is trying to 'disrupt' the state ahead of the election
- Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke with Business Insider on Thursday after announcing that a group of men were being charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and hold a mock trial for "treason."
- Nessel said it was not safe to dismiss far-right paramilitary groups as a laughing matter.
- "Once you've moved from just a bunch of guys blowing off steam to training exercises across multiple jurisdictions, and really heavily investing time, energy and effort ... now we have to take it very seriously," she said.
Far-right activists and paramilitary groups, emboldened by the rhetoric — and sometimes support — from state and federal leaders, are trying to sow chaos in Michigan ahead of the 2020 election, the state's attorney general, Dana Nessel, said in an interview with Business Insider.
"They see Michigan as a place where, if they cause enough disruptions, they can win again," Nessel, a Democrat, said Thursday, referring to US President Donald Trump's razor-thin victory in the state in 2016.
Nessel's remarks came hours after she announced anti-terrorism charges against seven men accused of participating in a conspiracy to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a frequent target of the president's ire, and hold a mock trial for "treason" over her state's COVID-19 lockdown. The men are accused of participating in or being associates of a paramilitary organization, the Wolverine Watchmen, that is associated with the far-right Boogaloo movement, which seeks a new civil war and has been linked to violence.
US Attorney Andrew Birge, a Trump appointee, also charged six people as part of a joint state-federal investigation into the alleged plot. A federal complaint accuses the men — at least one of whom tweeted support for Trump — of planning to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home or official governor's summer residence. The complaint said the group would meet in "remotes area of Michigan" to participate in firearms training and tactical drills.
"Snatch and grab, man," one of the suspects said during a recorded meeting with an FBI informant, according to the federal complaint.
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
Nessel said she was once inclined to dismiss such rhetoric as the overheated musings of cosplay soldiers. "But you know, this is much scarier than that," she said.
"These are individuals who seemingly are very committed to the cause," she said. "This went from what seemed to be hostile and angry rhetoric to planning. Plans to be disruptive to government, to kill law-enforcement officials, to potentially blow up the Capitol building, and, of course, to kidnap and put on trial and execute the governor."
She added: "Once you've moved from just a bunch of guys blowing off steam to training exercises across multiple jurisdictions, and really heavily investing time, energy, and effort ... now we have to take it very seriously."
Facebook, where the suspects were caught discussing retribution against Whitmer, has taken steps in recent months to prohibit paramilitary groups from organizing on its platform. But it is still widely used by far-right activists to organize.
"I definitely think it's increasing their numbers," Nessel said, "and it's never good when you have a social-media platform used that way."
Still, Facebook is far from the only, or even the most important, factor.
In April, Trump, defying the advice of public-health experts, egged on opponents of Whitmer's stay-at-home order, designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" he tweeted.
Weeks later, after armed protesters entered the Michigan State Capitol, Trump tweeted approvingly. "These are very good people, but they are angry," he said. "See them, talk to them, make a deal."
Nessel said several of the armed men who attended that protest would later become suspects in the plot to kidnap Whitmer. In fact, she said they used that protest to recruit.
"These guys think that he's talking to them," Nessel said. "He actually said, you recall, that the governor ought to sit down and negotiate with these armed gunmen. That provides that cover, you know — that legitimacy. That's all they need sometimes to escalate their operations, because they feel like they have the support of the president himself."
Two other far-right activists were arraigned Thursday in Michigan: Jacob Wohl, a 22-year-old social-media provocateur before he was banned from Twitter, and the 54-year-old Jack Burkman. The two are charged with trying to intimidate Michigan voters through robocalls meant to spread false information about mail-in ballots to depress turnout.
Nessel suggested Michigan had become a target largely because of 2016 and "the fact that Trump won our state," which until then was generally considered a reliable Democratic stronghold — he won by fewer than 11,000 votes.
"In 2016, a large part of the reason why Trump won here is because of these voter-suppression tactics, in large part that stemmed from misinformation being disseminated," Nessel said, arguing that some supporters perhaps thought it's worth another shot. "It worked last time."
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