Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer criticized President Donald Trump during a press conference on Thursday, linking the president's rhetoric to a recently foiled plot by Michigan militiamen to kidnap the governor.
The FBI has arrested six men in connection with the conspiracy. All of them had been extensively monitored since they first reportedly expressed interest in taking violent action against Whitmer early this year. An affidavit describing details of their plans was released to the public on Thursday.
"Our head of state has spent the past seven months stoking distrust, fomenting anger, and giving comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division," said the Democratic governor. "Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn hate groups like these two Michigan militia groups. Stand back and stand by, he told them."
Trump's comment was directed specifically at the Proud Boys, since that was the extremist group that debate moderator Chris Wallace had named. Those involved in the Whitmer conspiracy belong to a very different organization: the Wolverine Watchmen, a more traditional militia group that uses the language of freedom vs. tyranny, preserving the Constitution, etc. (The Proud Boys, by contrast, define themselves as "western chauvinists.")
Trump did famously tweet "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" at the height of the state's pandemic lockdowns. But if the affidavit is any indication, Trump had little to do with the development of the militiamen's plans. The president's name doesn't appear in the document at all. Moreover, Brandon Caserta, one of the six conspirators, can be seen on video referring to Trump as a tyrant. "Every single person that works for government is your enemy," he said. "Trump is not your friend."
Amy Cooter, a Vanderbilt sociologist who studies militias, believes Trump's call on people to stand up to their governors has factored into the actions of militia types in general, but she tells Reason she couldn't say for sure whether it had an impact on this particular group.
According to the affidavit, militiamen believed Whitmer and other state governors who had implemented strict lockdowns were violating the U.S. Bill of Rights and should be tried as traitors. This talk alarmed at least one member of the militia, who then contacted law enforcement to warn them. This is an interesting but unsurprising fact of the case, says Cooter.
"In usual times, about 90 percent of militia groups are what we call constitutionalists, meaning they are law abiding, they see themselves as working with law enforcement, while still being prepared and watching for signs of overreach," she says. "It is quite typical that groups in that category see it as their job to watch out for extremists."
From there on, the FBI monitored all aspects of the conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer. The group's efforts to procure gear and weapons were conducted with law enforcement's active involvement. There was never any chance that the conspirators could pull off their crime, and Whitmer was in no real danger.
Even so, the governor clearly sees the arrest of the six men as a good opportunity to excoriate Trump, whom she deemed "complicit" in their crimes. "Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry," she said. "When our leaders speak, their words matter."
This sounds suspiciously like the claim that Trump's rhetoric has fueled a surge in hate crimes, an assertion that grows much murkier when the actual data are considered.
On Thursday night, Trump responded angrily, calling Whitmer an ungrateful governor who has done a "terrible job."
"Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist—while Biden and Democrats refuse to condemn Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs that burn down Democrat run cities," the president tweeted.
It's a perfect example of the thesis: Trump's rhetoric is often wrong, but that does not make it the underlying cause of every cruel or criminal event that transpires while he is president.