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Whitmer blames charged rhetoric for deadly Capitol riot

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Sunday suggested the armed protesters who crowded into Michigan's Capitol to intimidate elected officials last yearshould have been viewed as a warning ahead of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

"When the president tweets something like 'liberate Michigan' or an attack on our attorney general or our secretary of state or on me, it incites people. It legitimizes actions to hurt us," Whitmer said on MSNBC.

"Domestic terrorism is not acceptable. None of us should coddle it, incite it, encourage it or legitimize it."

MSNBC anchor Alicia Menendez, left, spoke with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Attorney General Dana Nessel on Sunday evening.

Whitmer spoke Sunday to MSNBC in a joint interview with the two other top elected women who run Michigan — Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. All are Democrats.

Whitmer discussed the day in April when protesters toting semi-automatic rifles pressed into the state Capitol and sought entry into the House chamber, chanting “Let us in," and watched menacingly from the Senate gallery as lawmakers worked below.

Two of the men in Lansing that day later were arrested in the alleged foiled plot to kidnap Whitmer and disrupt the state government.

"It is not just a demonstration. What we have seen is scary, very concerning elevation of actions taken to intimidate or to hurt people who are simply trying to do their jobs and keep people safe, and whether that's directed at me, or Dr. (Tony) Fauci, or Secretary Benson or the Secretary of State in Georgia, it is wrong," Whitmer said. 

"I'm grateful that people are coming to this conclusion after being directed at the United States Congress, but this has been going on for 10 months, and we've been asking people to take this seriously."

The governor noted that she had called Vice President Mike Pence and Republican leaders in Michigan last year and urged them to “bring down the heat," she said. "We are seeing death threats.”

"And no one did a darn thing. Now, maybe that it has been directed at them, they will," Whitmer said.

Whitmer also spoke about continuing threats to the Lansing area from far-right extremists after roughly a dozen protesters turned up at the state Capitol on Sunday under the watch of heavy police presence. The demonstration remained peaceful. 

"We've been living with a lot of this a lot longer than the rest of the nation has," Whitmer said. "A success looks like everyone going home safely, but we are prepared if there is any action towards violence, toward destruction."

A heightened police presence is planned in Lansing through at least mid-February.

Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died Jan. 6 in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, when Trump loyalists forced their way into the building in an effort to keep lawmakers from confirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory. 

Whitmer said it was "heartbreaking" to watch the insurrection unfold on TV with her teenage daughters, and was "just completely stunned."

"We need to make sure that people are held accountable, and I am grateful for law enforcement who are doing their jobs in terms of identifying people that were a part of that insurrection," she said. "And I believe that we will see accountability all the way to the top."

Nessel said anti-government groups of all kinds need to be taken more seriously and that she's spoken to federal officials about the need for more resources in the state to properly combat the "exponential rise" in these extremist groups and their activities. 

After the Jan. 6 attack, commissioners banned the open-carry of firearms in the state Capitol building in Lansing. But Nessel said that didn't go far enough. 

"What we really need to do is to implement the very same procedures that we have had in place for decades in every single courthouse in the state of Michigan," Nessel said, referring to metal detector screening for firearms and explosive devices. 

"We do that when we go see in the Detroit Lions play. I don't know why we can't have the same security measures in place for our lawmakers and those who wish to visit our state Capitol."

MSNBC anchor Alicia Menendez played a pre-taped interview with Michael Lackomar, a team leader with the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, who said he was in Lansing in April when protesters entered the Capitol. He said, while "obnoxious," those gathered committed no violence and no destruction of property.

"We wanted to remind our electors that they do answer to the people who put them in those offices," Lackomar said. "There's still questions circulating about the way our elections were conducted that haven't been answered."

Benson responded by noting that Michigan clerks have completed over 100 local post-election audits that confirmed the accuracy and security of Michigan's Nov. 3 election.

"The incredible amount of scrutiny that has been placed, the number of questions that have been asked and answered consistently since the polls closed on November 3, have only shown to really underscore those facts," Benson said. 

Menendez also asked Nessel about her response to Flint residents who are disappointed in the criminal charges leveled last week against nine former state and city officials resulting from the water crisis there. Residents said the charges weren't serious enough, with one saying it was "a slap in the face." 

But Nessel said criminal charges cannot be based on community outrage alone.

"I expect that the career prosecutors who handle these cases took into account in the 20 million documents that they looked at, the hundreds of devices, the hundreds and hundreds of witnesses that they interviewed," Nessel said.

"I'm sure they explored every potential avenue, and that the charges that they arrived on were based on facts, law and evidence." 

She highlighted the $641 million civil settlement for Flint victims that she said will only grow as it later includes the Environmental Protection Agency and potentially some engineering firms.

"We're never going to be able to make the residents of the city of Flint whole. No matter how much money, no matter how lengthy the prison sentences are for anyone who is charged and if they're convicted, they won't be made whole," Nessel said. 

"The best we can do is hold people accountable and to make the promise that, while the three of us are in charge of the executive offices, nothing like this will ever happen again."

mburke@detroitnews.com