(Reuters) - Thirteen men, seven of them associated with an anti-government militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen, have been arrested on charges of conspiring to kidnap the Michigan governor, attack the state legislature and threaten law enforcement, prosecutors said on Thursday.
The suspects had plotted to abduct Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has clashed publicly with Republican President Donald Trump over state coronavirus restrictions, ahead of next month’s presidential election, according to state and federal criminal complaints.
Prosecutors said the conspirators discussed recruiting a force of 200 supporters to storm the state capitol building in Lansing and take hostages, but later switched to a plan to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home.
At a news conference, Whitmer accused Trump of fomenting political extremism, citing his comments during last week’s U.S. presidential debate against Joe Biden in which Trump declined to condemn white supremacists and instead called for members of the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
“When our leaders meet with, encourage and fraternize with domestic terrorists they legitimize their actions, and they are complicit,” Whitmer said.
Trump lashed back at Whitmer on Twitter late on Thursday, saying the governor “has done a terrible job” and casting her as being ungrateful to his administration.
“My Justice Department and Federal Law Enforcement announced ... today that they foiled a dangerous plot against the Governor of Michigan. Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist,” Trump wrote.
Biden weighed in with his own statement, accusing Trump of “giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country.”
Internal U.S. security memos in recent months have warned that violent domestic extremists could pose a threat to election-related targets, a concern heightened by political tensions, civil unrest and foreign disinformation campaigns.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in September that his agency was conducting investigations into domestic extremists, including white supremacists and anti-fascist groups.
The FBI became aware through social media in early 2020 of groups discussing the “violent overthrow” of multiple state governments and used confidential sources to track their movements, according to court records.
The six men named in the federal complaint - Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta - could face life in prison if convicted on charges of attempting to kidnap Whitmer.
Fox and Croft, in particular, discussed detonating bombs as a diversionary tactic, “and Fox even inspected the underside of a Michigan highway bridge for places to seat an explosive,” Andrew Birge, U.S. attorney for the western district of Michigan, told a briefing.
ACTION TIMED BEFORE ELECTION
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel unveiled state charges against seven other men affiliated with the Wolverine Watchmen and accused of violating the state’s anti-terrorism act by conspiring to kidnap the governor and propagate violence.
The Wolverine Watchmen group has used Facebook since November 2019 to recruit members, and trained with firearms to prepare for the “boogaloo,” a term used in the militia movement for an uprising against the government or impending civil war, according to affidavits in support of the state charges.
Nessel said the group sought to identify the home addresses of law enforcement officers to threaten them with violence. She said a total of 19 felony charges were filed against seven individuals - Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison - including allegations of providing support for terrorist acts.
According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Fox indicated that he wanted to kidnap Whitmer before the national election on Nov. 3 and he would put her on trial for “treason.”
Michigan, a key swing state in the 2020 presidential race, became a focus of agitation by Trump and his supporters against stay-at-home orders Whitmer imposed this year to curb coronavirus transmissions.
Thousands of protesters, including armed militia members, converged on Lansing in April to protest Whitmer’s social-distancing restrictions, some chanting “Lock her up.” Trump encouraged the demonstrators, tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
Whitmer, a co-chair of Biden’s presidential campaign, was at the time under consideration as his potential running mate.
Musico, along with Michael and William Null, were among the hundreds of protesters who entered the capitol building on April 30 as state lawmakers debated Whitmer’s request to extend her emergency powers to battle the coronavirus, according to Reuters photos from that day, which show all three men armed.
In one June video livestreamed to a private Facebook group, Fox called Whitmer a “tyrant bitch” as he complained about restrictions on gym openings.
“I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something. You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do,” Fox said on the video, according to the complaint.
Facebook said it first alerted law enforcement about content related to the Wolverine Watchmen more than six months ago and removed the group from its platform in June, after identifying some of the people running it as members of a boogaloo network.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League, said militia movements generally support Trump and have shifted their “anti-government anger” away from Washington, where it has been traditionally aimed, toward state leaders.
“In that sense, it’s not necessarily surprising that a militia cell might decide to target a high-profile Democratic governor,” he said.
Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Gabriella Borter in New York, Ted Hesson and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Katie Paul in Palo Alto and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle
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