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FBI Foils Right-Wing Plot to Kidnap Michigan Gov. Months After Trump Urged “Liberation” of State

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Just months after President Trump tweeted for his supporters to ”LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” the FBI has foiled an alleged plot to kidnap and take hostage Democratic Governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer. Authorities arrested six men Thursday involved in the kidnapping plot, and seven others who were said to be planning to storm the state Capitol in Lansing with the intent of starting a civil war. “It came as a surprise to many, but not necessarily here in Michigan, because the state has a long history of militia and white nationalist ties,” says Russ McNamara, a reporter at WDET, Detroit’s NPR affiliate. We also speak with Michigan state Representative Kyra Harris Bolden, who says local Democrats have been warning for months about the threat posed by far-right extremists. “It’s very important to note that this could have been prevented,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Authorities in Michigan have arrested 13 men with ties to illegal right-wing militias, including six men who allegedly plotted to kidnap and take hostage the governor of Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer. U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge announced the charges on Thursday.

ANDREW BIRGE: The FBI and Michigan State Police arrested six individuals charged in a federal complaint with conspiring to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. According to the complaint unsealed this morning, Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta conspired to kidnap the governor from her vacation home in the Western District of Michigan before the November election.

AMY GOODMAN: The men are accused of planning to take Governor Whitmer hostage, then bring her to Wisconsin, where they planned to put her on what has been described as a “trial” prior to Election Day. Seven other men linked to a group called the Wolverine Watchmen face state terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges for plotting to storm the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, with the intent of starting a civil war.

Governor Whitmer has been the target of numerous protests during the COVID-19 pandemic for using her executive power to issue new public health rules to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Governor Whitmer blamed President Trump for instigating the violent plots. In April, Trump sent a tweet reading ”LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER: Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups, like these two Michigan militia groups. “Stand back and stand by,” he told them. “Stand back and stand by.” Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry, as a call to action. When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet with, encourage or fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimize their actions, and they are complicit. When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump responded by attacking Governor Whitmer yesterday and today on Twitter.

We’re joined right now by two guests: Michigan state Representative Kyra Harris Bolden and Russ McNamara, a reporter at WDET, Detroit’s NPR affiliate.

Russ, let’s begin with you. Can you just lay out this, what to many across this country was a shocking announcement yesterday?

RUSS McNAMARA: Yeah, it came as a surprise to many, but not necessarily here in Michigan, because the state has a long history of militia and white nationalist ties. Part of the Oklahoma City bombing plot was started here in Michigan. And so, we go back to the mid-’90s, and it kind of started there. It faded away during the Obama era. And then, after President Obama was elected, we see the rise again of these white nationalists and militia groups.

So, the guys that were arrested the other night, they got together online in various groups, Facebook groups, and that caught the attention of the FBI. Plus, when some of the plotting started to involve the attack on law enforcement, somebody got cold feet and became an informant to the FBI, and that gave them a better idea of what was going on.

These guys are amateurs, essentially, but some had explosive training and knew how to make a bomb with shrapnel, that actually tested it out. And they had tested out and figured out which bridge they wanted to blow up to help in the kidnap of Governor Whitmer. So, it was fairly along in the planning stages, and they were set to go and take — go through with their plot right before the election and kidnap Governor Whitmer.

AMY GOODMAN: So, when you talk about blowing up a bridge, explain what we’re talking about here, to prevent authorities to come to the aid of Governor Whitmer, who they also had talked about lynching.

RUSS McNAMARA: Yes, they had — you know, the misogynistic undertones have been there all along. That includes in the protests back in April and May, lots of nooses, lots of Nazi imagery, when it comes to Governor Whitmer. So that was always there. They wanted to draw law enforcement away from the governor in one plot. They wanted a direct assault on the Capitol building itself in another of the two plots.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the weapons that they were charged with using — for example, an IED.

RUSS McNAMARA: Yeah, they did have explosives. They wanted to cause as much havoc as possible, in part to draw away attention from their overall goal of kidnapping the governor, but also in causing death and destruction. You don’t, you know, set up a bomb to blow up and make it anti-personnel, and not try to take out and kill people.

AMY GOODMAN: Kyra Harris Bolden, you’re a Democratic Michigan state representative. A number of these men who were charged yesterday with terrorism were actually at your workplace — right? — earlier, months ago, as they were taking over the Michigan Legislature. Where were you? And can you describe the scene that ultimately President Trump would endorse?

REP. KYRA HARRIS BOLDEN: Yes. So, thank you for having me this morning to talk about this very important topic.

It’s very important to note that this could have been prevented. The Michigan House Democrats have been sounding the alarm since Operation Gridlock, that happened in mid-April. And there was actually an Operation Judgment Day, of which they actually canceled session because they — I don’t know — perhaps didn’t know what was going to happen.

The actual day that we were there, where the Capitol was stormed by domestic terrorists, we know now, it was surreal. Our offices are actually across the street from the Capitol, and from my office I could see Confederate flags. I could see Nazi swastika paraphernalia. There were signs that say, “Tyrant, get the noose,” in reference to our governor, Gretchen Whitmer. There was actually a truck with a noose hanging off of the back, a life-size noose.

And so, it didn’t take much to know that these threats had nothing to do with the governor’s so-called lockdown or “stay home, stay safe” orders. This was a very dangerous situation that we were entering. And I will also share with you something that many people probably don’t know: They were actually not allowed in the Capitol until minutes before we were called to vote. So, there —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain when this was.

REP. KYRA HARRIS BOLDEN: Yeah, so, this was mid-April, and so kind of the height of the “stay home, stay safe” orders. And obviously there was a lot of angst. There were a lot of businesses closed. But, you know, I think it was just also kind of used as an excuse to rally. We also saw a lot of Trump flags, which seemed out of place for a rally against “stay home, stay safe” orders. But this happened in mid-April at the height of COVID.

So, we were not — or, visitors were not allowed in the Capitol building until minutes before we were called in to vote. And so it was a purposeful action that we would have to be confronted with the same people that were armed, that had Nazi paraphernalia, that had nooses, that had Confederate flags. And fortunately, our gallery was closed, but the Senate’s wasn’t. And you may have seen a picture going around the internet where it was actually confirmed that two of the men arrested had previously been standing armed above the Senate chamber. And that picture was taken by Senator Polehanki.

Some of the senators actually have bulletproof vests because of this situation. It was not safe. And I will also note, it was during the height of COVID, and many of these people were not wearing masks. And they were crowded in our state House. And so, that added an extra layer of kind of terror for us. We’re dealing with a global pandemic, and we’re dealing with what we know now to be domestic terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in April, that’s when President Trump, the time you’re describing now, tweeted, ”LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”


AMY GOODMAN: And then, in May, he wrote, “These are very good people.” I want to go to Washington Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, who was questioning Attorney General William Barr during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in July about the threats to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. It was a contentious exchange. Jayapal noted the discrepancy between Barr’s militarized response to Black Lives Matter protesters and armed white militia members who displayed white nationalist symbols and threatened Michigan’s governor.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: On two separate occasions, after President Trump tweeted ”LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” to subvert stay-home orders to protect the public health of people in Michigan, protesters swarmed the Michigan Capitol carrying guns, some with swastikas, Confederate flags, and one even with a dark-haired doll with a noose around its neck. Are you aware that these protesters called for the governor to be lynched, shot and beheaded?


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: You’re not aware of that?


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Major protests in Michigan. You’re the attorney general, and you didn’t know that the protesters called for the governor to be lynched, shot and beheaded.


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: So, obviously, you couldn’t be concerned about that. You didn’t —

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: Well, there are a lot of protests around the United States. And on June 1st, I was worried about the District of Columbia, which is federal.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Attorney General Barr, you seem to be engaging in protests in certain parts of the country. You’re very aware of those. But when protesters with guns and swastikas —

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: I’m very — I am aware of protesters in the federal government.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: — and Confederate flags — excuse me, Mr. Barr, this is my time, and I control it. You are aware of certain kinds of protesters, but in Michigan, when protesters carry guns and Confederate flags and swastikas and call for the governor of Michigan to be beheaded and shot and lynched, somehow you’re not aware of that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Congressmember Pramila Jayapal questioning Attorney General William Barr. Remember, the attorney general is in charge of the Justice Department. It’s the FBI, the U.S. attorney and state officials who have now charged 13 men with various domestic terrorism charges. I want to go back to Russ McNamara and talk about the groups that are involved. This is not just a disparate group of individuals. We’re talking about “boogaloo,” and we’re talking about — well, tell us about this group called the Wolverines, the —

RUSS McNAMARA: Yeah, the Wolverine Watchmen.

AMY GOODMAN: The Wolverine Watchmen.

RUSS McNAMARA: Yeah, and they’re just part of one of the many groups that have popped up over the last decade or so. Even over the weekend, a man involved in the anti-government “boogaloo” movement, Eric Allport, was shot and killed by federal agents in a parking lot of a suburban Detroit restaurant following a shootout. Robert Snell, the great Detroit news reporter here, figured out that he played a small role in the disastrous Ruby Ridge standoff. But he was still active within the militia and anti-government movement.

So, we’ve seen all of these individual groups pop up over the last decade, partially fueled because it’s easier to get together via social media. So, whether or not it’s a private Facebook group or an online forum, these guys are getting together. But if you look at these guys and their trail in social media, they are a collective, but they’re fairly well fractured, and they have their own ideals and ideology. And they’ve got piecemeal equipment. Their tactical gear is not anything that you would consider professional, but their firearms, for the most part, are.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they may be a sort of unusual, amateurish group, who’s training heavily and apparently were going to take these guys to Wisconsin — meaning the governor, to Wisconsin, to stand trial. But the attorney general of Michigan talked about this just being the tip of the iceberg. And, Democratic Michigan state Representative Kyra Harris Bolden, that’s where I want to ask you about Trump’s lack of response here, William Barr’s lack of response here. And what is the response of the Republican state legislators now for the arrest of these groups? Because the attorney general of Michigan said this might just be the tip of the iceberg, with more heavily armed, organized men, part of these gangs, who might be preparing for Election Day.

REP. KYRA HARRIS BOLDEN: Well, I will share with you that just yesterday there was a rally on the steps of the Capitol, where you could see Trump flags. There wasn’t the same kind of Nazi paraphernalia and Confederate flags, but this is on the heels of the news breaking about the kidnap and murder plot against the governor. And there is a kind of similar rally.

And I will say that the Senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, said to — spoke at this rally and said that this is no time to be weak in commitment to freedom. That was his words to this group that had gathered. Nothing about the kidnap and murder plot about the governor.

Now, we did see a couple of Republicans speak out and, you know, say that they are glad that the governor is safe, and there’s no place for this in the state.

But again, this could have been prevented. We can simply not allow guns in the Capitol. That has been — we’ve been sounding the alarm as Michigan House Democrats since way before this situation has happened, and to no avail. I’ve read reports that some of my Republican colleagues have said, “If there is a law that would have prevented this from happening, let me know.” We can simply limit or not allow guns in our Capitol, and that would make a huge difference. But to suggest that there’s nothing that can be done, I think, is incorrect.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you have President Trump not endorsing these indictments yesterday, but calling for the jailing of his political opponent, Joe Biden, as well as the former president of the United States, Barack Obama. He was doing this yesterday, speaking on Fox. And I’m wondering, as an African American representative in Michigan, Kyra Harris Bolden, are you getting more security right now? How much security is now surrounding the Michigan governor?

REP. KYRA HARRIS BOLDEN: So, the Michigan governor has always had her detail. And I want to take the time to thank the FBI and the police that thwarted this plan.

Individual legislators do not get protection. And as I stated before, our offices are actually across the street from the Capitol. There’s no secret entrance. And so, we typically have to walk through whatever rally, protest, demonstration is on the Capitol lawn. And I will say that as a Black woman, walking past that event that day where there were heavily armed — and now that we know — domestic terrorists, and going in the back door of my place of work was incredibly demeaning.

To see Confederate flags and nooses, as the great-granddaughter of a man that was lynched, it honestly brought me to tears. To see the point that we have gotten to is truly heartbreaking. And I hope that instead of just words, we actually take action to make sure that something like this doesn’t actually happen and that we don’t carry and stoke the flames of hate in Michigan.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Democratic Michigan state Representative Kyra Harris Bolden and Russ McNamara, a reporter at WDET in Detroit. Of course, we’ll continue to follow these issues. And again, President Trump, even as these indictments came down, continued to attack Governor Whitmer repeatedly yesterday and continues that attack today.

Shortly before we broadcast this morning, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced. We’re going to go to that in a moment.

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