Ever since Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer enforced a strict stay-at-home order earlier this year, she’s been a frequent right-wing target. While her leadership successfully lowered one of the country’s highest COVID-19 rates, placing the first-term official in the national spotlight, many conservatives found the order unnecessarily restrictive and an infringement on their rights. In late April, aggrieved protesters, some wielding rifles, attempted to force their way into the state capitol. Ahead of an armed demonstration the following month, irate citizens rallied on Facebook, calling for Whitmer to be beaten, killed, and even beheaded.
And now, we have learned that she was the subject of a foiled kidnapping scheme. On October 8, the Justice Department announced that it had thwarted an elaborate plot to snatch Whitmer from her vacation home and forcibly overthrow the Michigan government. In total, 14 men, characterized as “violent extremists,” have been arrested. And now, six of them have been indicted on a federal kidnapping conspiracy charge.
Here’s everything we know so far.
Kidnapping? A right-wing coup? What exactly is going on?
The news came to light on the morning of October 8, when the FBI filed a federal affidavit regarding the plot, which the Detroit News first reported. According to the affidavit, the alleged conspirators met at a Second Amendment rally in June, which they followed up with a meeting; there, “several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor.” However, they soon realized “they needed to increase their numbers” to pull off their plans, impelling one individual to reach out to the Michigan militia group Wolverine Watchmen, requesting backup.
The next month, per the affidavit, the alleged plotters participated in combat drills and additionally attempted to make an explosive device, which they later detonated “to test its anti-personnel effectiveness.” According to the Feds, they also discussed kidnapping Whitmer at her vacation home in northern Michigan and then taking her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin where they would put her on “trial” for treason. “[Whitmer] has no checks and balances at all,” one conspirator allegedly said. “She has uncontrolled power right now. All good things must come to an end.”
Another potential tactic, disclosed in a hearing on October 13, reportedly involved stranding Whitmer in the middle of Lake Michigan on a boat with its engine disabled.
Authorities say the conspirators also considered a couple of alternate plans. According to court documents, first reported on November 19, Adam Fox — the militia’s ringleader, according to authorities — devised a Plan A and a Plan B. The former allegedly entailed recruiting 200 men, then staging an armed takeover of the Michigan Capitol Building during the legislative session. “They were to take hostages, execute tyrants and have it televised,” the court documents say. “It would take about one week and [they said] that no one is coming out alive.”
The latter scheme apparently had fewer steps: lock the doors during a legislative session, and set the building on fire. Per the court documents, another of the alleged conspirators — Pete Musico — took issue with the “tactical difficulties” of these plans, and proposed kidnapping politicians at their homes instead, because “everyone has addresses.” Musico reportedly began discussing Whitmer’s “citizen’s arrest” in late March.
On at least two occasions, per the original affidavit, the alleged conspirators drove by Whitmer’s home to surveil her, on August 29 and the weekend of September 12. Although it’s unclear when the group planned to kidnap her, they allegedly raised money to buy explosives, an 800,000-volt taser, and other supplies.
How did they get caught?
The FBI has actually been investigating since early 2020, when the agency “became aware through social media that a group of individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components,” according to court records. Then, unbeknownst to the alleged conspirators, an FBI informant was present at their first meeting in June.
On October 7, the agency executed search and arrest warrants, and on October 8, filed their affidavit.
An indictment handed down on December 16, however, offers a bit more insight into how investigators caught the conspirators. According to the Hill, the men allegedly ordered “$4,000 worth of explosives” from an FBI agent embedded in their midst, offering him “group cash” as a “good-faith payment” for the haul.
Who has been arrested and charged?
In total, 14 people have been arrested and charged in connection with the alleged terror plot. Federal prosecutors are charging at least six men with conspiracy to kidnap; they are identified as Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta. They were indicted on December 16, accused of scheming to “unlawfully seize, kidnap, abduct and carry away, and hold for ransom and reward” Whitmer. They each face a federal charge of conspiracy to kidnap, which reportedly comes with a maximum sentence of life in prison, and pleaded not guilty to the indictment on December 17.
In addition, state attorney general Dana Nessel previously announced in a press conference that her office is charging seven other individuals, all of whom are linked to the local militia group Wolverine Watchmen, under Michigan’s anti-terrorism act. Those men are identified as Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, Pete Musico, Joseph Morrison. Brian Higgins, of Wisconsin, was arrested in mid-October, and charged with material support of an act of terrorism, according to the Detroit News. He allegedly helped surveil Whitmer’s home, and contributed gear to the effort.
Among other forms of social-media fueled extremism, the Wolverine Watchmen reportedly subscribed to the 4chan-rooted boogaloo movement, a subsection of libertarianism and the far right. Although the boogaloo ideology is diffuse, it is unified by anti-government beliefs and the perceived need for a second civil war. So-called Boogaloo Boys have shown up at protests for racial justice all summer, heavily armed in Hawaiian shirts, and have occasionally incited violence — sometimes even deadly violence. Caserta, for example, can be seen in his TikTok and YouTube videos, wearing and displaying the flowered shirts that have become the boogaloo calling card. The Washington Post reports that Morrison went by “Boogaloo Bunyan” online.
How has Whitmer responded?
After the FBI had filed its affidavit and Nessel had given her press conference, Whitmer held her own. “When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard,” she began her address. “But I’ll be honest, I never could’ve imagined anything like this.”
She then laid into Trump, who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” in mid-April, and whom she sees as complicit in the alleged plot. “When our leaders speak, their words matter,” she said. “They carry weight. When our leaders meet with, encourage, or fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimize their actions and they were complicit. When they contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.”
In response, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany fired back, saying, “President Trump has continually condemned white supremacists and all forms of hate. Governor Whitmer is sowing division by making these outlandish allegations.”
Trump, of course, has repeatedly and conspicuously failed to condemn white supremacists, even when handed the wording. The most recent example came at the first presidential debate, when Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, to “stand back and stand by,” rather than disavowing them as requested. Trump has consistently met opportunities to denounce the white-power movement with non-indictments, infamously shrugging that there were “very fine people on both sides” after a neo-Nazi ran down a protester at 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally. He has appointed white nationalists to the highest ranks of his administration. According to Kathleen Belew, an assistant history professor at the University of Chicago and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, his words and his actions send a clear message to those eagerly listening for a dog whistle.
“These groups don’t need a big signal to get emboldened to commit violence,” Belew explained in an interview with the Cut, nodding to the Proud Boys comment. “Even if Trump misspoke or didn’t intend it the way it’s been interpreted, there will be people who heard it that way. The net result is that there’s been a call to arms.”
The FBI says Whitmer wasn’t the only governor targeted.
During an October 13 court hearing, FBI Special Agent Richard J. Trask II said Whitmer’s was not the only name that came up in the alleged plotting. According to Trask, the suspects in the Michigan scheme also talked about “taking” Virginia governor Ralph Northam, whose coronavirus lockdown order also earned a “liberate Virginia” tweet from Trump. The FBI reportedly told Northam’s office that “at no time was the governor or his family in imminent danger.” Still, in a statement, Northam’s press secretary noted that “the president regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him,” a habit with “serious and potentially deadly consequences.” For those reasons, the statement continued, “it must stop.”
This article has been updated.