January 16, 2021

After a thwarted plot to kidnap the governor, Michigans attorney general tells Business Insider the far right is trying to disrupt Michigan ahead of the election

  • Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke to Business Insider about an alleged far-right plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and hold a mock trial for “treason.”
  • Nessel said it is no longer 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.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Far-right activists and paramilitary groups, emboldened by the rhetoric — and sometimes support — from state and federal leaders, are trying to sow chaos in the state of Michigan ahead of the 2020 election, state 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 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, whose members have assassinated cops as part of an effort to spur a civil war.

US Attorney Andrew Birge, a Trump appointee, also charged six individuals as part of a joint state-federal investigation into the plot. According to the federal complaint, the men — at least one of whom tweeted support for President Trump — planned to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home or official governor’s summer residence.

“Snatch and grab, man,” said one of the alleged conspirators, who reportedly engaged in firearms training and tactical drills in what the federal complaint describes as a “remote area of Michigan.”

Nessel 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. This went from what seemed to be hostile and angry rhetoric to planning,” she said. “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.”

“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 added.

Facebook, where the alleged conspirators were caught discussing retribution against Gov. 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 2020, President Trump, defying the advice of public health experts, egged on opponents of Gov. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” he tweeted.

Weeks later, after armed protesters entered Michigan’s state capitol building, Trump tweeted approvingly. “These are very good people, but they are angry,” he said. “See them, talk to them, make a deal.”

According to Nessel, several of the armed men who attended that protest were later involved in the plot to kidnap Whitmer. Indeed, they used that protest to recruit, she said.

“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.”

That appears to have been the case with two other far-right activists who were arraigned on Thursday: Jacob Wohl, a 22-year-old social media provocateur before he was banned from Twitter, and 54-year-old Jack Burkman. The two are accused of trying to intimidate Michigan voters, allegedly using robocalls to spread false information about mail-in ballots in order to depress turnout.

Nessel thinks the fact that such people have Michigan in their crosshairs has a lot to do with 2016 and “the fact that Trump won our state,” which until then was generally considered a reliable Democratic stronghold; he won by less 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. It would appear some supporter think it’s worth another shot, she said. “It worked last time.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com