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Michigan Attorney General On Alleged Militia Plot To Kidnap The Governor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The FBI announced today it was charging six people with conspiring to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer. Here she is speaking earlier this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GRETCHEN WHITMER: When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard. But I'll be honest - I never could have imagined anything like this.

KELLY: The complaint alleges a plan to violently overthrow the state government, abduct the governor before next month's election and put her on trial for treason. Well, Michigan's attorney general, Dana Nessel, is also bringing charges against seven other people related to the plot, ranging from providing material support for terrorist acts to gang membership, among others.

Attorney General Nessel, it's good to speak with you again. I'm sorry it's under such bizarre circumstances.

DANA NESSEL: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

KELLY: I know there's things you can't get into, ongoing investigation and all of that. But what can you tell us about how the state and the FBI came to learn of this plot?

NESSEL: Well, it's something that a joint task force had been following for quite some time. Unfortunately, this is not just a Michigan problem. This is an American problem right now. And we've heard the FBI director say in the past that white supremacy groups, militia groups, domestic terrorism posed one of the biggest threats that we have to the United States today. And I concur with that. I think he's right.

But these are groups in multiple states, multiple jurisdictions that have been operating and really taking advantage of the unrest in American society right now. I think they're taking advantage of the COVID epidemic, the Black Lives Matter unrest, and they're using it to recruit and to formulate plots. And we saw that, you know, in real time here in Michigan involving not just the plot to kidnap the governor, but the plot to overtake the Michigan Capitol and potentially kill a number of public officials there and even threats and efforts to execute those involved in law enforcement - so a number of different plots.

KELLY: And you said officials have been tracking this for quite some time. Did I catch that right? So do we know when this first started coming together? How far back does this go?

NESSEL: Well, I mean, I think it depends on what part of the activities you're talking about. You know, these are groups that have been around, but we've just seen them...

KELLY: This specific plot involving Gov. Whitmer - do we know roughly? Was that...

NESSEL: Well, I would say when the executive orders came down, which would have started in March, and things started to escalate from there - you may remember that we had quite an incident at our capitol occur not - you know, shortly after that. And things started to escalate from there, and that's when it turned just from a lot of rhetoric - a lot of angry rhetoric into actual overt acts and trainings - multistate trainings.

KELLY: You're talking about protests this summer, which I want to get to in a minute. But can you tell us how close this group was to succeeding in carrying out these plans?

NESSEL: Well, I mean, they were at the point where they were - they were in the process of training for it and had multiple exercises. So obviously, we felt as though they were close enough in time that there could be, you know, actual actions and actual efforts to execute these plots. And to me, what I always say is that I would rather have the weakest conspiracy case rather than the strongest homicide. Now, this is not a weak conspiracy case at all whatsoever; I think it's a very strong case. But obviously, we were concerned that the governor's life was actually in jeopardy. And that's why we had over 200 both state and federal agents take place in these multiple executions of search warrants and arrests that went down yesterday.

KELLY: One more detail I'm hoping you can shed some light on - I know - you said earlier today that the people your office is charging are linked to the Wolverine Watchmen; this is what you call a militia group. In her press conference today, Gov. Whitmer talked about two militia groups. Are there two different groups? What do we know about this?

NESSEL: There's actually multiple groups involved. The people that we charged are affiliated with this Wolverine Watchmen group. And you could probably tell by the name wolverine that they are a Michigan-based group. But there are multiple white supremacy groups and militia groups that have been acting in accordance with one another. And, you know, ultimately, their mission is what they call the boogaloo. Right? It's an uprising or a civil war. And these are a number of groups that are acting in concert based on, you know, a shared extreme ideology. And, you know, this effort to have a mass uprising nationally. And, you know, it's something that we should be very concerned about because, again, it's not just a Michigan problem. This is now an American problem.

KELLY: Although to fill in a little bit more of the context that is specific to Michigan, your capitpol, we mentioned, saw protests this summer. These were linked to coronavirus restrictions, people who weren't happy about coronavirus restrictions, protesters showing up with signs depicting violence against Gov. Whitmer, who became, you know, the face of those restrictions. Have you been able to track any specific connection between those protesters - those protests and this alleged plot?

NESSEL: Yes.

KELLY: Can you elaborate?

NESSEL: Well, I think that when there's a review of the individuals that were there at that protest, you will see that many of these individuals that were charged were at that protest. I think that those protests - those protests were used actually as recruiting stations to add more members and to find people that were angry with the governor, angry with the government and, frankly, I think encouraged by the words of our president.

KELLY: You're referring to remarks about white supremacists. Let me just - we've just got a few seconds left. But how is - how's Gov. Whitmer doing?

NESSEL: I think she's shaken. She gave a statement a little while ago. She's - you know, we've kept her updated. So this is not, you know, a surprise to her. She knew that there were activities, and she's been subject to threats for months and months now. But I guess the message that - you know, that I want to relay is that we are taking this...

KELLY: Just briefly.

NESSEL: ...Very seriously.

KELLY: Yeah. All right. We will leave it there. Thank you very much for your time on a very busy day. That's Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.