Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer linked a plot to kidnap her to President Donald Trump, arguing Thursday in a speech hours after arrests were announced that Trump's words had been a "rallying cry" for extremists.
Whitmer, a Democrat, said the Republican president has spent the last seven months of the coronavirus pandemic "denying science, ignoring his own health experts, stoking distrust, fomenting anger and giving comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division."
She singled out Trump's debate comments, when he didn't condemn white supremacist groups and told one far-right extremist group to "stand up and stand by."
"Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry," Whitmer said. "When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet, 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."
There’s no indication in the criminal complaint that the men arrested were inspired by Trump. Authorities also have not publicly said whether the men were angry about Whitmer’s coronavirus orders, which sharply curtailed businesses and individuals in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Democrat Joe Biden sought to tie Trump to the plot as well, pointing to the president's tweet earlier this year to "LIBERATE MICHIGAN." Whitmer's coronavirus response has faced criticism from conservatives, and the GOP-led Michigan Legislature sued her in May to try to invalidate her stay-at-home order and other measures.
The arrests and Whitmer's comments come less than a month before the presidential election in a key battleground state, where recent polls show Biden has a lead.
Six men were charged in federal court with conspiring to kidnap the governor in reaction to what they viewed as her "uncontrolled power," according to a federal complaint. Separately, seven others were charged in state court under Michigan’s anti-terrorism laws for allegedly targeting police and seeking a "civil war."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized Whitmer's remarks.
"President Trump has continually condemned white supremacists and all forms of hate," she said. "Governor Whitmer is sowing division by making these outlandish allegations. America stands united against hate and in support of our federal law enforcement who stopped this plot."
Whitmer also called for kindness and empathy during the pandemic and issued a warning to those who threaten violence.
"Hatred, bigotry and violence have no place in the great state of Michigan," she said. "If you break the law or conspire to commit heinous acts of violence against anyone, we will find you, we will hold you accountable, and we will bring you to justice."
Agents foiled the tunning plot to kidnap Whitmer in an alleged scheme that involved months of planning and even rehearsals to snatch her from her vacation home, authorities said.
The two groups trained together and planned "various acts of violence," according to the state police.
Rehearsals for the kidnapping plot took place in August and September, according to an FBI affidavit, and four of the men had planned to meet Wednesday to "make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear."
The FBI quoted one of the men as saying Whitmer "has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now. All good things must come to an end."
Authorities said the plots were stopped with the work of undercover agents and informants. The men were arrested Wednesday night. The six charged in federal court face up to life in prison if convicted. The state terrorism charges the other seven men face carry a possible 20-year sentence.
Andrew Birge, the U.S. attorney in western Michigan, called the men "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," Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider told reporters.
Whitmer, who was considered as Biden's running mate, has been widely praised for her response to the coronavirus but also sharply criticized by Republican lawmakers and people in conservative areas of the state. The Capitol has been the site of many rallies, including ones with gun-toting protesters calling for her ouster.
Whitmer put major restrictions on personal movement and the economy, although many of those limits have been lifted since spring. The governor has exchanged barbs with Trump on social media.
The criminal complaint identified the six accused in the plot against Whitmer as Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, Brandon Caserta, all of Michigan, and Barry Croft of Delaware. All but Croft appeared Thursday in federal court in Grand Rapids. They asked for court-appointed lawyers and were returned to jail to await detention hearings Tuesday.
Fox, who was described as one of the leaders, was living in the basement of a vacuum shop in Grand Rapids. The owner said Fox was opposed to wearing a mask during the pandemic and kept firearms and ammunition at the store.
"He was anti-police, anti-government," Brian Titus told WOOD-TV. "He was afraid if he didn’t stand up for the Second Amendment and his rights that the country is going to go communism and socialism."
The government said the plot against Whitmer appeared to have roots in a June gathering in Dublin, Ohio, attended by more than a dozen people from several states, including Croft and Fox.
"The group talked about creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient," the FBI affidavit said. "They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions. ... Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or 'taking' a sitting governor."
The seven men charged in state court are accused of identifying the homes of law enforcement officers and making violent threats "intended to instigate a civil war," Attorney General Dana Nessel said.
They were identified as Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford; Shawn Fix, 38, of Belleville; Eric Molitor, 36, of Cadillac; Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell; William Null, 38, of Shelbyville; Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 42, who live together in Munith. According to the affidavit, Musico and Morrison are founding members of the Wolverine Watchmen, which authorities described as "an anti-government, anti-law enforcement militia group."
The Watchmen have met periodically for firearms and tactical training in remote areas "to prepare for the ‘boogaloo,’ a term referencing a violent uprising against the government or impending politically motivated civil war," state police Det. Sgt. Michael Fink wrote in an affidavit.
Some boogaloo promoters insist they aren’t genuinely advocating for violence. But the boogaloo has been linked to a recent string of domestic terrorism plots, including the arrests of three Nevada men accused of conspiring to incite violence during protests in Las Vegas.
Boogaloo supporters have shown up at protests against COVID-19 lockdown orders and racial injustice, carrying rifles and wearing tactical gear over Hawaiian shirts.
Michigan became known for anti-government paramilitary activity in the mid-1990s, when a number of loosely affiliated groups began organizing and training in rural areas. They used shortwave radio, newsletters and early internet connections to spread a message of resistance to what they contended was a conspiracy to impose world government and seize guns.
They gained notoriety after reports surfaced that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, had met with group members, although their connections were murky.