- Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke to Business Insider about an alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
- Nessel argued that the accused, who opposed Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order, were egged on by President Trump, who earlier praised armed protesters as “very good people” and encouraged supporters to “liberate Michigan.”
- “These guys think that he’s talking to them,” Nessel said.
- “That provides that cover, that legitimacy, that’s all they need sometimes to escalate their operations. Because they feel like they have the support of the president himself,” she said.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Weeks before the 2020 election, and months after President Donald Trump urged supporters to “liberate Michigan,” state Attorney General Dana Nessel and US prosecutors unveiled charges against members of a paramilitary group who allegedly plotted to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and try her for “treason.”
In an interview with Business Insider on Thursday, Nessel spoke about the charges, the rise in militia activity across Michigan and the country, and who or what is to blame for the increasing threat posed by far-right radicalization.
Sometimes these militia groups are dismissed as a bunch of losers playing soldier — drunk guys at a bar boasting about what they could do, but not actually what they’re going to be able to do. Obviously, these are very serious charges, and so I’m guessing that you have a different take.
I think that originally I had the same mindset, frankly: These are just some guys that like to go out and show off their AR-15s, and trash government officials that they don’t like. But this is much scarier than that, I can say now, after obviously several months of this lengthy investigation, and now prosecution. These are individuals who seemingly are very committed to the cause, and who, from just what seemed to be a hostile and angry rhetoric, to planning —to full out planning, and with the intent to execute a number of different plans: to be disruptive to government; to kill law enforcement officials; to potentially blow up the Capitol building; and, of course, to kidnap, put on trial, and then execute the governor. So 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, effort in these types of activities, now we have to take it very seriously. And we have taken it very seriously.
This plot was discovered, in part, from boasting online. Did it escalate from boasting on Facebook to actual training, or were these pretty much radicalized people by the time they were on Facebook?
I mean, it’s a combination of those things. I think that some of these protests actually served as recruiting tools for additional members. So you had people who were already invested, and then they would go to these events, go online, become radicalized. I would call it the perfect storm, right?
You have these individuals who already might be disillusioned with the government. You have COVID, which of course causes all kinds of other issues and disruptions in people’s lives. Then you have the Black Lives Matter protest, which causes further civil unrest. And you have leaders in office, at the federal level and at the state level, that I think, egg these folks on. I mean, they legitimize them.
I think it’s going to be pretty interesting as the days go on. Firstly, the very famous picture now, that my state Senator Dayna Polehanki actually took on the floor of the Senate, where you look up and there are these armed gunmen that are shouting at the senators and walking around the gallery with their assault weapons.
Some of these defendants were those guys. And these protests were sometimes where people met each other. And then they got further involved. And then not only do you have our majority leader, Mike Shirkey, I mean he, I know has attended a number of their events. You have county sheriffs that are at their events. And so their gripes, their complaints with the government seemed to be further legitimized by the fact that you have elected leaders [supporting them] — and in one case, of course, the commander-in-chief of our nation, putting things on his social media feed saying “liberate Michigan.” And these guys think that he’s talking to them. I mean, he actually said, if you recall, that the governor ought to sit down and negotiate with these armed gunmen.
That provides that cover, that legitimacy, that’s all they need sometimes to escalate their operations. Because they feel like they have the support of the president himself.
—Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
The president also said, in the same tweet you mentioned there, that these are “very good people.” Do you think the men you charged today thought they were doing something that the president would support?
I have to speculate that they probably did, but I don’t know… what’s going on in their heads in terms of their motivations. That’s something that I’m not certain that we’ll ever know. I only know what their actions were, obviously, which led to the charges today.
You’re saying the President’s rhetoric, certainly, at least emboldens people.
Let me just point out something that happened today. So our majority leader, Mike Shirkey, right? He attends rallies that these individuals are at. We know that for a fact. Well, today he attends another protest outside the Capitol. Today, following the issuance of these charges. And not only does he say that we cannot pass a law, we will not put forward a law banning firearms at the capitol, as most capitols actually do. Even after this event. But then, and if I can quote this, because I think it’s so important. He says to them, as they’re all without masks standing on the steps of the Capitol, as he’s speaking to them. He says, “This is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom. We need to be strong and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”
This is what our majority leader said after those charges came down. You’d think that he would just be repulsed by it, and horrified. And he goes out and he talks to this crowd of folks, and that’s what he has to say. So I guess what I’m telling you is, if you are a member of one of these groups and you heard that, even in light of the fact that we know that these people have been charged with [planning to blow] up the building on which the steps of which he standing, while he’s making this speech. What is one to make of that? And doesn’t it appear as though it is these individuals that are in these high elected offices that are instigating much of this? It feels that way to me.
What would you say if President Trump, for instance, saw the charges today and called you up and asked, “What could I do to help the situation?” What would you tell him?
Well, the first thing he should do is condemn white supremacy, and condemn militia organizations like this. And say that he outright, in an unmitigated fashion, condemns these types of organizations and extremist ideology. And that these are not people that he can support, and he doesn’t want their support. That’s what I would say.
If you are to draw a line between this kind of activity and political rhetoric, I guess I would have to ask for evidence that this kind of activity is becoming more common. Is that your experience?
Absolutely. We’ve had militia groups in Michigan for a long time. That’s no secret. And the roots trace back to the Oklahoma City bombing. And we know of course that there was a connection between Michigan militia organizations in that very tragic event. But have things gotten much worse? Yes, absolutely they have. We have seen an exponential rise in the number of these organizations and the number of members of these organizations.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the organization that the men you charged today are accused of being in, the Wolverine Watchmen, and then also what their relation is to the so-called Boogaloo movement?
Well, it seems that these groups, to me, all seem very intertwined with each other. And I have a hard time distinguishing, frankly, between the white supremacy groups and the militia groups, because sometimes their ideologies are so similar to one another. I will say that they work in connection with each other very much. And that in terms of the Boogaloo groups, I mean their goal, their mission is a civil war, and they want to create national unrest and overthrow the government.
And I don’t know that the mission of these smaller militia groups is really any different from that. It’s very hard for me at this point to distinguish one group from the next, except that some groups are better financed. Some groups have more members, and then sometimes by just even the clothing that they wear is different. But from an ideological standpoint, most are similar. I would say that some seem to be more right-wing and supporters of President Trump, and others are just outright anti-government no matter who’s in government. So it’s not that they’re Trump supporters, they just hate all government.
And what were these men? Were they more like the mainstream MAGA Trump supporters or kind of original “patriot movement” militia types?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t know how I would characterize them exactly. But they were certainly anti-government. I mean, they wanted to kill government officials, and other than the governor and other than myself, they didn’t seem to distinguish Democrats and Republicans.
I know that several of the men that you’ve charged are being charged with gang membership. Is it your view that these militias are fundamentally criminal organizations?
Yeah. I don’t distinguish these militia organizations from what we traditionally, in the 80s and 90s when these laws came about, the Crips and the Bloods, or any of these other groups. It’s a criminal enterprise, criminal organization. The purpose behind the organization is to commit crimes.
To play devil’s advocate: Some of these men would argue that they’re exercising their Second Amendment rights. They have a right to gather with their guns. They even have a right under Michigan law to go to the Capitol, to this day. So when do they cross the line into becoming criminal organizations, versus just exercising their rights?
When they plan to commit crimes against others. Either property-related offenses or assault-related offenses. When you plan to commit crimes and you conspire together to commit crimes, that in and of itself makes you a criminal organization. If that’s your purpose in coming together.
Yeah, I guess you’re right. If your whole purpose is just to enjoy your firearms and go out in the woods in a legal fashion, target shoot, there’s nothing illegal about that. But if there’s much more to it, as there was with this organization, and then several others out there, and your purpose is to threaten or to commit assaults or property-related damage, then you’ve crossed the line.
Just jumping back to Facebook, where it seems like some of the red flags were first spotted. Obviously, the fact that they were talking on Facebook allowed law enforcement to catch on to them, but it also speaks to the fact that these groups are now organizing on social media.
So what role are social media companies playing in radicalization? Are they helping? Is it more of a good thing because it’s out in the open and we’re seeing them and they’re practicing bad OPSEC [operations security], so they easier to get caught? Or do you think it’s actually increasing their numbers?
Well, I definitely think it’s increasing their numbers. And it’s never good when you have a social media platform used that way. And we’ve been in discussions multiple times with Facebook over the past several weeks, mostly in regard to the election, but also in regard to militia groups. And they have committed, in our conversations with Facebook, they have committed to us that whenever they see this, that they will alert us to it. And that there’s a porthole that we can use to communicate with Facebook, that when we see something like this, that they can remove it. Especially if it involves anything about voter suppression, or threats to voters, threats to those going to the polls, anything of that nature.
But we have been having discussions about militia-related activities with Facebook. And frankly, I’ve seen them do a few things in recent days and weeks that encourages me. I’m very hopeful that they will be more helpful than they have been in the past and they won’t allow their platform to be used by these kinds of groups as a method to increase their numbers, to radicalize others, and to serve as ways to meet up with other members of criminal organizations.
Speaking to the fact that Michigan seems to be in a lot of the crosshairs of the far-right: Jacob Wohl and his associate, Jack Burkman, were arraigned today for their alleged robocalls scheme. Why do you think Michigan is in the focus of not just militia movements within Michigan, but far-right activists across the country?
Well, I think the far-right activist part comes from the fact that Trump won our state, after many years of a Republican not having won the presidency here, by such a thin margin. And so of course they see Michigan as a place where if they cause enough disruptions, they can win again. And I truly believe, listen, whatever happens in the election happens. I’m not here to make determinations as to how people ought to vote. But I will say that I think 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. It worked. It worked last time. So for the Wohls and Burkmans of the world, about 10,000 votes is all that separated Michigan from being in the Trump column to the Clinton column last time.
And it seems like that would be a good starting place for them to target again this time. And the difference is, quite honestly, in part, you have an attorney general that is not going to overlook voter suppression. And we have many laws that allow us to prosecute those that engage in those kinds of tactics. And I’m willing to use any tool I have in my arsenal in order to combat voter suppression and voter misinformation in our state.
Your comment there about Attorney General Barr, it made me wonder: Were you surprised at the cooperation with the federal government on the charges that were outlined today?
I will just say this, I’m very grateful for the cooperation that we received. I think you saw, just yesterday I believe it was, you had a number of individuals in different federal agencies that wanted to assure the nation that our elections would be safe, and that we could count on election integrity, and that we would not have widespread fraud in the system. And I really appreciated that, because I think the public needs to know that. And the same as that, I have great appreciation and admiration for the FBI that, of course, works so hard on this. Many of whom risked their lives and worked in concert with the Michigan State Police.
And I appreciate the work of the US attorneys that worked on this as well. So I think that was a great example of federal and state authorities working together. And Trump appointees, in this case, working together with a state Democrat. And that’s what law enforcement should be. That’s what it should be. It should not be politicized. It should be merely enforcing the laws. And I’ve worked in task forces for years and years and years that involved the feds, the state, and municipal or local actors, and that’s how law enforcement is supposed to work. And I’m glad that it worked that way in this instance.
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