Trump’s domestic-terror policies, rhetoric gave flight to Michigan militiamen’s murderous plot

Second Amendment

By day’s end, the list of total arrests had grown to 13 participants. The original six, five of whom are from Michigan, were named in the FBI’s federal indictment: Adam Fox, 37, of Potterville; Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland; Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, Brandon Caserta; and Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware. Seven more were arrested by Michigan authorities, including the founders of the Wolverine Watchmen, Pete Muscio, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 26, both of Munith; twin brothers Michael and William Null, 38, of Plainwell and Shelbyville, respectively; Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford; Shawn Fix, 38, of Belleville; and Eric Molitor, 36, of Cadillac.

The militiamen gave themselves a name straight out of fantasy action films: the “Wolverine Watchmen.” And their operations had all the earmarks of cosplaying a military operation, according to the FBI affidavit in their arrest, including such security measures as meeting in an underground room accessible by a hidden wire, and collecting people’s cell phones beforehand to prevent tracking—even as an informant wearing a body wire joined them.

By many measures, they constituted a kind of perverse joke, a caricature of domestic terrorism conducted by hapless amateurs. But a careful review of both the federal and state court papers in the case reveals both how dangerous they really were, and how close they came to real, bone-chilling violence: Despite the cartoonish appearance, particularly the men’s eagerness to participate in the “Boogaloo” civil war movement, they had both the capability and the predisposition to wreak tremendous violence on state officials and law-enforcement officers, and underwent multiple training and planning sessions to do so.

  • The cadre of “Patriots” originally planned a full-scale attack on the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, with the intent of abducting Whitmer and taking her to a remote location for a televised “trial,” probably to be followed by her execution. However, when they realized they needed a larger-scale operation to pull it off, they changed gears and instead began targeting Whitmer at her rural summer home.
  • The preparations for the summer-home abduction plan included multiple reconnaissance missions (one of the members offered to paint his boat black in order to conduct water-based intelligence-gathering). Ultimately they were able to map out a detailed plan of attack.
  • Other preparations by the Wolverine Watchmen included periodic “field training exercises,” which involved mostly firearms training and tactical drills to prepare for the “boogaloo,” usually on private properties in remote areas.
  • They identified closely with the “Boogaloo” movement, which has been associated with a number of other incidents of lethal violence. The Wolverine Watchmen’s “Commander,” Joseph Morrison, goes by the online moniker “Boogaloo Bunyan.”

Consistent with the “Boogaloo” ideology, law-enforcement officers were among the foremost of their targets. The Wolverine Watchmen, according to the Michigan affidavit, “have called on members to identify law enforcement officers home addresses in order to target the officers, have made threats of violence to instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse, and have engaged in planning and training for an operation to attack the Capitol of Michigan, and kidnap Government officials including the Governor of Michigan.”

Facebook was the social-media-platform of choice for the conspirators, though the men participated in a range of social media, including Twitter and Instagram, also using encrypted platforms such as Telegram to exchange plans. However, Facebook was the platform—particularly Facebook Live—where they called for possible ideas, exchanged incendiary comments, and shared videos and photos of their weapons and bomb tests.

“I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something,” Adam Fox told co-conspirators during a Facebook Live steam. “You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.”

“We about to be busy ladies and gentlemen,” Fox told his cohorts on a private Facebook page. “This is where the Patriot shows up. Sacrifices his time, money, blood sweat and tears … it starts now so get fucking prepared!!”

Reporters for The Daily Beast managed to obtain copies of the social-media pages of the accused domestic terrorists before they were removed shortly after their arrests were announced. They found:

  • A Facebook page for a Ty Garbin residing in Hartland, Michigan, shows he is originally from Douglas, Georgia, and moved to the Wolverine State in 2019. Among his “Liked” pages are a libertarian blog called Gentlemen, For Liberty and firearms activist groups such as the Gun Owners of American and The American Arms Association. His sparse page otherwise shows an affection for weaponry and outdoor activities.
  • Instagram and Facebook pages for Michigan-based Kaleb Franks, the only person of that name who appears to live in the state, showcase a love of motorcycles and muscle-building—as well as for the National Rifle Association and pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA. Like the 24-year-old Garbin, the 26-year-old Franks appears to be relatively young, in contrast to stereotypically middle-aged militia members.
  • So too is a 23-year-old Daniel Harris residing in Lake Orion, Michigan. A LinkedIn page corresponding to a Daniel Harris in that small Detroit-area town lists his current occupation as “security guard,” but indicates he served as a rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps until last year. An individual of that name was quoted complaining about excessive use of force by police and alluding to his background at an anti-racist protest in Lake Orion in June.
  • A since-removed Facebook page for Brandon Caserta featured recent posts bragging about owning an AR-15 assault rifle and railing against efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, which Caserta dubbed “Con-vid 19.” In a January post, he warned that undercover law enforcement agents would try to infiltrate a Second Amendment demonstration in Richmond in January. In a post on Wednesday, the day before he was arrested, Caserta asked, “Is it morally legitimate to initiate violence and theft against non violent people?”

Caserta also posted a meme featuring a photograph of Kyle Rittenhouse—the teenage militiaman who shot three people during a Black Lives Matter protester on August 25 in Kenosha, Wisconsin—with his face replaced by a smiley-face cartoon, and the text: “when you’ve smoked 3 commies before you can smoke cigarettes.” Caserta added one word of approval: “Savage.”

The vitriol against Whitmer had been whipped into a frenzy in late April, when a crowd of armed “Patriot” militiamen had descended on the Capitol in Lansing to protest her shutdown orders to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Men with weapons attempted to force their way onto the floor of the state House, which then voted not to extend the stay-at-home orders.

Their rhetoric became even more violent two weeks later for a follow-up protest. “We need a good old fashioned lynch mob to storm the Capitol, drag her tyrannical ass out onto the street and string her up as our forefathers would have,” one of them wrote on an anti-lockdown Facebook page—a sentiment that was repeated on that page and others.

Similar comments raged on similar “Patriot” Facebook pages:

“Drag that tyrant governor out to the front lawn. Fit her for a noose.”

“Either President Trump sends in the troops or there is going to be a midnight lynching in Lansing soon.”

“Plain and simple she needs to eat lead and send a statement to the rest of the democrats that they are next.”

“She needs her ass beat. Most of these politicians need a good ass whooping. Just. Punch there lights out.”

[Responding to a suggestion to bring guillotines] “Good ol’ fashioned bullets work better, but I like the enthusiasm.”

“Wonder how long till she’s hit with a shotgun blast.”

“Can we please just take up a collection for an assassin to put that woman from Michigan down.”

When the day of the rally came—amid a soggy downpour—only a smattering in fact turned out, though the violent rhetoric was intact. One protester carried a doll dangling from a noose in a clear reference to Whitmer.

At least two of the men arrested Thursday, in fact—one of the Null brothers and another arrestee, yet unnamed—were identified by the Detroit Free Press as participants in that first protest.

Trump himself had helped stoke the vitriol. First he urged Whitmer to negotiate with the gun-toting militiamen at the Capitol: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump tweeted. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them.”

Later in April, after the second protest, he had encouraged the hysterical rhetoric with a two-word tweet in all caps: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

Michigan’s attorney general, Democrat Dana Nessel, remarked on Trump’s role in generating the kind of venom that would produce this kind of domestic terrorism in an interview with MSNBC’s Katie Tur:

Things have escalated exponentially recently and first of all having a president that seems to condone these types of actions, certainly I would say more than dog whistles out there. I mean, “very good people on both sides.” And as you indicated before, tweets to ‘liberate Michigan.’ What does that mean exactly? And, you know, calls to ‘stand back and stand by’ talking about the Proud Boys. So, this is a president that traffics in extremism.”

That was also the larger observation of Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi when reviewing the DHS’s intelligence report on domestic terrorism. “This threat assessment confirms two things: that white supremacist extremists are the top domestic threat to the homeland, and they are often inspired by President Trump’s rhetoric,” Thompson said.

This remains the indelible lesson from these arrests: Trump’s profoundly irresponsible rhetoric has concocted a cauldron of hatred that the nation will be dealing with long after he has departed the scene, resulting in an army of authoritarian followers eager to mete out terroristic violence against any politician or person who opposes them—a sociopolitical plague that could come to rival the COVID-19 virus in lethality. It certainly seems unlikely to subside anytime soon, thanks to the election.

As Nessel explained to Tur in her interview:

I will tell you this: this may very well be the tip of the iceberg. I don’t feel as though our work or the work of the federal authorities is complete. And I think there are still dangerous individuals that are out there. And it is a point of great concern and that’s why I think it’s so important that the elected leaders tone down the rhetoric and make it clear once and for all and to be unequivocal of the fact they don’t condone and condemn these individuals and this type of conduct and these type of organizations.

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