“It’s going to take quite a while to turn back what’s been started here,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D), who has participated in joint calls in recent days with other Midwestern governors about the possibility of fresh violence in the aftermath of last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol and an FBI warning about armed far-right extremists gathering across the country this weekend.
The weekly calls began last spring between the governors — mostly Democrats, but some Republicans — as a way to informally coordinate and trade ideas about how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic amid a perceived leadership vacuum by the Trump administration.
But in recent days, the calls — which have included the governors of Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — have taken on a new urgency as state officials have shared information and advice about how to confront what many believe could be a dark and dangerous period of extended insurgency against state and even local governments.
“This is going to be a reclamation project, and it’s going to be on several fronts,” Walz said Wednesday. Although he and other governors have been focusing on the immediate physical threats — securing buildings and protecting state lawmakers — the longer-term challenge is convincing Americans to turn away from “the partisan and false propaganda that’s poisoning where we are at, and that’s going to take quite a while.”
On the same day the pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, Walz’s 14-year-old son was evacuated from the governor’s mansion after a group of armed protesters gathered to cheer on the events in Washington, with one speaker promising there would be “casualties,” before marching to the residence.
The Minnesota State Patrol, which oversees security for the governor and his family, added more officers at the scene after an attendee shouted that Walz and his family should be taken prisoner.
Walz, whose state was prominently mentioned in a leaked FBI memo this week detailing threats of armed violence and protests in state capitols on Jan. 17, said state officials had been left largely alone to confront coming potential threats. He said he had not been briefed by any Trump administration officials about the FBI memo or any potential unrest.
“I think they’ve pretty much checked out of the game,” Walz said. “And you would think if there were credible threats after what we saw at the U.S. Capitol, that maybe the governor of Minnesota would get a call from an undersecretary or somebody just to let us know. But no.”
Walz on Wednesday joined governors in at least a half-dozen states, including North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania, who have activated National Guard troops amid fears of unrest.
State and local officials have declined to detail their security plans for the weekend through Inauguration Day. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray was set to hold a call with law enforcement leaders across the country Wednesday to brief them on the “state of play,” an FBI official said. The director on Monday briefed Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, as agents continue to investigate last week’s attack and possible future threats to Washington and state capitols in the days ahead.
Even some local police departments far from their state’s capital are on heightened alert in case problems arise.
In New York, Westchester County told residents Wednesday that it was deploying additional police patrols through Inauguration Day “to enhance public safety and ensure” the county police force’s “ability to respond to any situation that may arise.” In Montana, the police department in Missoula announced Wednesday that it was boosting its preparedness because of its relative proximity to Helena, the state capital about 100 miles away.
“We fully support the Constitution of the United States, as well as the constitution of the state of Montana, that includes the freedom of speech, and the freedom to peacefully assemble,” said Missoula Police Chief Jaeson White, who is coordinating efforts with the county sheriff. “However, we do not support violence and we will enforce the law. . . . We are prepared for any civil unrest that may occur.”
But amid the preparations, state and local officials are increasingly worried that the nation has entered a long period of political upheaval, which will tax security resources for the foreseeable future.
“Trumpism is not dead and it won’t die on January 20,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in interview on CNN on Tuesday night, adding the nation’s leaders will have to work hard to mend the country’s political divisions. “In my view, we could be in for a very dangerous time in our country if we don’t have leaders who speak up.”
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed an order Tuesday keeping 750 National Guard troops on duty protecting the Capitol complex through President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday amid ongoing threats.
Chris Loftis, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said authorities are racing to track numerous “general threats from specific groups and individuals.” But Loftis cautions that law enforcement officials still have not matched any of the threats with specific details that would indicate imminent danger to the public or government buildings.
“We have a general understanding of people’s intent to do harm, and are indicating they want to create havoc,” Loftis said. “But we are trying to verify those things, and trying to separate out what someone is just spouting off from what someone has actually developed a plan to do.”
Loftis declined to identify the groups that are linked to the threats, except to say they come from both “the right and the left.” He added that many of the groups are well known to law enforcement because they have been involved in protest activity.
But in recent days, after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Loftis said the leaders of some of the groups have “gone dark and gone quiet” and in some in cases told law enforcement officials that they are now urging their supporters to stay home. Loftis said leaders of some of those groups have told police that “even though they have canceled those events, they couldn’t speak or control all of the elements within their following.”
“And we are aware it only takes a small group of folks to do anything and everything,” Loftis added.
Residents and government leaders in Olympia, the Washington state capital, have been on edge since about 100 pro-Trump demonstrators, some armed, stormed the gate of the Governor’s Mansion on Jan. 6 and marched to its front door while Inslee was inside.
Loftis said it was the first time in 100 years that demonstrators had breached the gate of the mansion, which the Washington State Patrol protects. Loftis said the demonstrators shook the mansion’s metal security fence with so much force that it popped open, and the crowd stormed past an armed guard.
Loftis said the unrest, which occurred on the same day that the U.S. Capitol was attacked, is likely to have far-reaching consequences for how governments and law enforcement agencies across the country view security at “state capitols, county courthouses and city council meeting rooms.”
“This was a page-turning event … This is going to ripple across the nation,” Loftis said. “Just as schools have had to deal with increasing violence, legislative and judicial facilities are going to have to recognize we are in a new world of elevated acceptance of conflict.”
It isn’t just Democratic-led states that were bracing for potential unrest.
In deeply conservative Oklahoma, security has been increased around the Capitol building in Oklahoma City out of caution. And as Texas lawmakers gathered for the opening day of the legislative session in Austin on Tuesday, they were greeted by scores of state troopers, many in riot gear including face shields and tactical vests, who had been deployed to protect the building.
Among the protesters on site were disaffected conservatives, including many who were armed, who said they were angry at the state’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for business shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic and for not standing up more forcefully to Democrats on other issues. “Gov. Greg Abbott is a Democrat! Change my mind,” one protester’s sign read.
Martin Holsome, who sits on the Rusk City Council and is aligned with several armed Texas groups including the Three Percenters, said he is planning to hold a gathering at the state Capitol on Saturday. Holsome is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat Abbott in the state’s 2022 GOP primary, arguing the governor has been too willing to consider additional restrictions on firearms.
Holsome estimated that there are as many as 35,000 Texans closely aligned with heavily armed, far-right militarized groups. But after last week’s mob assault in Washington — Holsome did not attend — he says there is considerable disagreement among members of those groups about how to proceed during future demonstrations in Austin.
Some members of far-right groups, Holsome said, “want to take over the capital of Texas” to express their frustration with Trump’s election loss as well as their broader concerns that America’s electoral system is “broken” because of allegations of fraud.
But Holsome said he and plenty of other adherents of far-right views strongly believe that any violence, at least for now, is misguided.
“You would have to fight the Capitol Police … You got to fight the Texas Rangers … And even if you are Mr. John Rambo himself, the FBI [will be] on their way their down there,” Holsome said. “And say you are superman, and beat every one of those guys — you slay over 10,000 people in breaching the Capitol — then what are you going to do?”
Still, he warned that disgruntled Trump supporters need to be prepared to both make their case politically, as well as prepare for possible conflict in the weeks and months ahead because he fears “Democrats and socialists” are pushing the country toward “civil war.”
“If you are doing something to me I don’t like, if I punch you in your freaking teeth, you are going to stop doing what you are doing,” he said.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.