A plot to kidnap a US governor and put her “on trial” was foiled by undercover agents and informants, according to the FBI.
Six men have been charged in federal court over the plan, concocted by what the authorities call a “militia” - to abduct Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Separately, seven others linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen were charged in state court for allegedly seeking to storm the Michigan Capitol and seek a “civil war.”
The plot to snatch the politician from her holiday home was months in the making, according to an FBI affidavit, which revealed the group rehearsed the assault in August and September.
Four of the accused planned to meet on Wednesday to “make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear,” the FBI said in the court filing.
The FBI quoted one of the suspects as saying Whitmer “has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now. All good things must come to an end."
The six men charged in federal court were arrested on Wednesday night and face up to life in prison if convicted.
Andrew Birge, the US attorney in western Michigan, called them “violent extremists.”
The plot was stopped with the work of undercover agents and informers, the government said.
Through electronic communications, two of the alleged conspirators “agreed to unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the US Constitution,” the FBI said.
The criminal complaint identified the six as Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, Brandon Caserta, all of Michigan, and Barry Croft of Delaware.
Rallying cry "for extremists"
Fox said he needed 200 men to storm the Capitol building in Lansing and take hostages, including the governor, according to the FBI.
He said he wanted to try Whitmer for “treason” and would execute the plan before the presidential election on November 3, the government said.
The group later shifted to targeting the governor’s vacation home, the FBI said.
At a press conference after the news of the criminal charges, Gretchen Whitmer thanked the authorities for pursuing charges against the “sick and depraved men” accused of being behind the plot.
“If you break the law, or conspire to commit heinous acts of violence against anyone, we will find you, we will hold you accountable, and we will bring you to justice,” she said.
“For the past seven months I’ve made tough choices to keep our state safe. These have been gut-wrenching decisions no governor has ever had to make.”
Whitmer argued that President Donald Trump's words had been a “rallying cry” for extremists.
She said the Republican president has spent the last seven months of the coronavirus pandemic “denying science, ignoring his own health experts, stoking distrust, fomenting anger and giving comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division."
She singled out Trump's debate comments, when he did not condemn white supremacist groups and told one far-right extremist group to “stand back and stand by."
“Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry," Whitmer said. “When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet, encourage or fraternise with domestic terrorists, they legitimise their actions and they are complicit. When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit."
There is no indication in the criminal complaint that the men arrested were inspired by Trump. Authorities also have not publicly said whether the men were angry about Whitmer’s coronavirus orders, which sharply curtailed businesses and individuals in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Democrat Joe Biden sought to tie Trump to the plot as well, pointing to the president's tweet earlier this year to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" Whitmer's coronavirus response has faced criticism from conservatives, and the GOP-led Michigan Legislature sued her in May to try to invalidate her stay-at-home order and other measures.
The arrests and Whitmer's comments come less than a month before the presidential election in a key battleground state, where recent polls show Biden has a lead.