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Whitmer, Biden blame Trump for not condemning hate groups

Lansing — Democratic presidential candidate President Joe Biden joined Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday in laying some blame for the plot to kidnap her on President Donald Trump, who they both said didn't do enough to condemn white supremacists. 

Biden told reporters in Phoenix on Thursday that he and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris both spoke to the governor after they heard state and federal law enforcement officials had filed criminal charges against 13 individuals from Michigan and Delaware in the alleged conspiracy that is tied to militia members.

The former vice president reiterated the threat that white supremacists pose and cast some blame on the Republican president’s rhetoric, according to pool reports.

“The words he utters matters,” Biden said. Asked if he thought Trump’s LIBERATE MICHIGAN tweet encouraged militias like this, he said “yes I do.”

“Why won’t the president just say ‘stop. Stop, stop, stop.’ And if we will pursue you if you don’t.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives remarks addressing after Michigan's attorney general, Michigan State Police, U.S. Department of Justice, and FBI announced state and federal charges against 13 members of two militia groups who were preparing to kidnap the governor.

Trump slammed Whitmer on social media late Thursday night, saying Whitmer had called him a white supremacist instead of thanking him for federal authorities who filed the kidnapping plot against her. 

"I do not tolerate any extreme violence," Trump tweeted. "Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President!"

Earlier, Trump administration and campaign officials fired back, arguing it is Whitmer who is trying to create divisions by saying the Republican president inspired the plot.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump "has continually condemned white supremacists and all forms of hate."

"Gov. Whitmer is sowing division by making these outlandish allegations," McEnany said in a Thursday statement. "America stands united against hate and in support of our federal law enforcement who stopped this plot."

The reactions came shortly after Whitmer held a Thursday mid-afternoon press conference where she criticized Trump for failing to condemn in strong enough terms hate groups as she addressed the recent arrests of six people accused of plotting to kidnap her. 

Whitmer: 'A rallying cry'

Whitmer referenced Trump's comments at the first presidential debate on Sept. 29 when he told the Proud Boys group to "stand back and stand by." She argued it was an example of Trump's refusal to condemn white supremacists and hate groups, "like these two militia groups."

"Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry, a call to action," said the Democratic governor, who is also a co-chair of Biden's presidential campaign. "When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight.”

Whitmer continued that politicians who meet with fringe groups or "stoke and contribute to hate speech" are complicit with those groups. 

The governor also warned those who threatened violence that "we will find you, we will hold you accountable and we will bring you to justice.”

"We’re Michiganders," she said. "We have grit, we have heart and we are tough as hell.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told CNN's Don Lemon on Thursday night that the suspects in the kidnapping plot were "emboldened" by Trump and the "complicity and the encouragement of the Michigan Republican Party, who created the rhetorical space for them to plan these deadly actions."

Gilchrist noted that some of those arrested had participated in protests at which GOP lawmakers also were present and had stood in the Senate gallery during session.

"For Republicans to be so flippant as to fraternize with these people while they were armed in the Capitol shows you where their priorities are at," Gilchrist said. 

Whitmer said she was thankful for the actions of state and federal law enforcement in investigating and arresting the suspects in the case. 

“As a mom with two teenage daughters and three stepsons, my husband and I are eternally grateful to everyone who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our family safe," Whitmer said.

Trump issued a thread of three tweets after 9 p.m. Thursday night before an appearance on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News.

"Governor Whitmer of Michigan has done a terrible job," Trump tweeted. "She locked down her state for everyone, except her husband’s boating activities.

"The Federal Government provided tremendous help to the Great People of Michigan. My Justice Department and Federal Law Enforcement announced today that they foiled a dangerous plot against the governor of Michigan.

"Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist ....," he tweeted.

The governor's remarks came hours after the arrest of the individuals by federal and state agents for an alleged plot to violently overthrow the government and kidnap Whitmer. 

The court filing alleges the conspirators conducted surveillance at the governor's vacation home and discussed kidnapping her to a "secure location" in Wisconsin to stand "trial" for treason prior to the Nov. 3 election.The filing also said planning for the attempted kidnapping began as early as June — three months before the presidential debate, but weeks after Trump had sent tweets criticizing Whitmer's response to the pandemic, including an April 17 tweet that said "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!!"

In August 2019, Trump condemned bigotry and white supremacy after two weekend mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. He noted the El Paso shooter’s online manifesto was “consumed by racist hate.”

“In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” he said. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”

In the address, Trump told the FBI to identify the resources they would need to combat hate crimes and domestic terrorism. 

According to the FBI affidavit on the investigation, "several members talked about murdering 'tyrants' or 'taking' a sitting governor.

At least two of the men, Adam Fox and Ty Garbin, were present at a June 18 rally at the state Capitol in Lansing, a federal affidavit said. The militia-focused event by the organizing group called the American Patriot Rally resulted in verbal clashes when a group of police brutality protesters, calling themselves The People of Lansing, walked to the front of the Capitol during the rally.

Like Whitmer and Biden, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, laid blame with the president. In a tweet that contained a screenshot of Trump's "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" message, Tlaib said, "I wonder where they got their motivation from."

'Wish she hadn't gone there'

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Howell, said he was hoping Whitmer wouldn’t tie the events to Trump because it’s not about him but people with extremist ideology taking advantage of unrest in the country.  

“I think the weight of the circumstances of the event were significant enough. That just throws a little gas on the flame of this division, and I wish she hadn’t gone there,” said Rogers, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent. 

“I don’t think any political person should go through this, so don’t get me wrong. I just wish she had left that part out,” added Rogers, who is now a fellow at a national security think tank that does research on extremist groups and cybersecurity. 

“I do believe that the president needs to take an aggressive stand against these extremist ideologies," he said. "He has to say something. He must say something. But trying to have one team against another team on this type of thing is not helpful at all.”

Rogers noted some extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys, took Trump’s remarks at last week’s debate as a signal that he’s “with us.”

“The president needs to nip that in the bud. No, we are not with them. The president is not with them, the country isn’t with them, both political parties aren’t with you. You need to stop,” Rogers said.

“That’s an important message to send. Don’t give them an ounce of freedom to say, because they didn’t condemn us directly, therefore, they’re for us.”

The federal affidavit outlining the alleged plot against Whitmer was filed hours after a team of FBI agents on Wednesday night raided a Hartland Township home. 

Nessel separately announced on Thursday 19 state charges against seven other individuals who she said were linked to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen. 

The seven individuals, Nessel's office said, are alleged to have called on group members to identify the home addresses of law enforcement in order to target them, made threats of violence to instigate a civil war and engaged in planning and training to attack the state Capitol and kidnap government official, including Whitmer. 

The six individuals who were arrested by federal investigators include Fox, Garbin, Barry Croft, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta.

The seven individuals who were arrested and charged by Nessel's office include Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null and Pete Musico. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Rob Snell contributed.