Virginia governor also a possible target of anti-government plot: FBI

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia was discussed as a possible target by members of an anti-government group charged last week with plotting to kidnap the Michigan governor, the FBI said on Tuesday (Oct 13).

During a hearing in US District Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Special Agent Richard J. Trask II of the FBI said that Northam and other officials were targeted because of their aggressive lockdown orders to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.

Last week, 13 men accused of involvement in the alleged plot against Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan were charged with a variety of state and federal crimes including terrorism, conspiracy and weapons possession. They also talked of planning to storm the Michigan state Capitol and start a civil war, authorities said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, authorities said the suspects also spoke about “taking” the Virginia governor because of coronavirus lockdown orders that restricted businesses.

Trask said that some of the suspects held a meeting in Dublin, Ohio, several months ago where they “discussed possible targets” for “taking a sitting governor”.

The FBI alerted members of Northam’s security team throughout their investigation, Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s press secretary, said in a statement. The governor was not informed, “per security protocols,” Yarmosky said, but added that “at no time was the governor or his family in imminent danger.”

Last spring, critics lambasted Whitmer, a Democrat, for her March 24 lockdown, particularly since the stay-at-home orders for rural Michigan, with relatively few cases of Covid-19, were the same as those for Detroit and other cities. Conservative and anti-government groups in Michigan were among the first in the country to organise protests against the coronavirus restrictions.

In Virginia, Northam, also a Democrat, issued a similar order on March 30, instructing residents to leave their homes only for work, medical attention, family care, shopping for essentials and “outdoor activity with strict social distancing requirements.”

Northam started reopening much of Virginia on May 15, but as cases rose again over the summer, he implemented restrictions on bars, restaurants and public gatherings.

President Donald Trump had openly encouraged right-wing protests of social distancing restrictions in Virginia, Michigan and other states with stay-at-home orders, right after his administration had announced guidelines for governors to set their own timetables for reopening their communities. Among his tweets were calls to both “Liberate Michigan!” and “Liberate Virginia.”

Yarmosky referenced the president’s tweets in the statement from Northam’s office and said that the “rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences.” She added: “It must stop.”

Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a 1945 state law Whitmer had been using to issue her emergency orders was unconstitutional and invalidated them. Most of the orders had been lifted on June 1, but after the ruling, emergency orders were issued through the health department, which kept in place mask requirements as well as limits on gathering sizes and business capacities.

On Tuesday, Trask also provided additional details about the alleged plans to kidnap Whitmer. One of the suspects, Adam Fox – identified by Trask as one of the leaders of the plot – spoke about a plan to take Whitmer out on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, and leave her stranded with the engine disabled so that someone would have to “come rescue” her, Trask said.

The other alternative had been to take Whitmer to Wisconsin or another unspecified state and to put her on trial. The accused had referred to her as “a tyrant.” Last week, authorities said the men were affiliated with an extremist group called the Wolverine Watchmen, which court documents called “an anti-government, anti-law enforcement militia group.” The group met many times for tactical and firearms training and practiced building explosives, the FBI said, and spoke about attacking law enforcement officers.

Trask and the prosecutor mentioned several other men who they said were involved in the surveillance and the discussion of the plot, including one from Wisconsin, but who were not among those arrested.

The testimony also indicated that the participants were suspicious that government informants were monitoring or had infiltrated their group, changing encrypted messaging platforms and giving each other code names in hopes of escaping such surveillance.

At one point after a planning trip to case the governor’s vacation home and the surrounding area, Fox asked that all the participants be scanned with a device that is supposed to identify if anyone was wearing a transmission wire or a recording device.

The effort apparently failed, Trask said, with the group eventually infiltrated by four informants or undercover agents who continued to document what the group was planning.

The FBI has more than 100 hours of secretly recorded audio acquired throughout the investigation, Trask said.

Sally Berens, a US magistrate judge, denied bail for three of the defendants after their lawyers argued that the alleged plots were more “inflammatory rhetoric” than substance.

Although their weapons and training were not illegal, the men sought to overthrow the government by force, and interrupting one plot did not eliminate future efforts, Berens said. “It is the plot along the way that is clearly very dangerous,” she said, stressing that the men remained a danger to the community.

The detention hearing for Fox and Ty Garbin, two of the six men facing federal charges, is scheduled for Friday. A federal court in Delaware on Tuesday ordered Barry Croft, a Delaware resident who was arrested there, extradited to Michigan to face charges.

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