NOVI, Mich. — The man who federal authorities say threatened to kill CNN employees had declared in high school that he identified with Adolf Hitler and suggested “the Holocaust was exaggerated,” according to a former classmate.
That description of Brandon Griesemer’s behavior in high school emerged after the FBI accused him of placing menacing phone calls to CNN, describing the news organization as “fake news” and vowing to carry out a massacre at its Atlanta offices. The FBI also said in court documents that Griesemer made “disparaging remarks regarding Jewish individuals” during one call and, months before threatening CNN, called a Michigan mosque and “made derogatory comments relating to the mosque and Muslims.”
The FBI’s depiction of the threats to CNN comes as President Trump wages a battle against the news outlet that began during his campaign, regularly labeling it and others he does not like as “fake news.” CNN has been among Trump’s most-consistent targets in the news media. He has tweeted critically about the organization more than two dozen times since taking office a year ago, including on Tuesday morning, when he tweeted about “Fake News CNN” even as many news outlets had picked up on the FBI’s allegation that Griesemer used the phrase while threatening violence.
Anthony Luongo, who was a classmate of Griesemer’s in high school until both graduated last year, described him as a Trump supporter who “came in after the election and was very happy” and compared Griesemer’s reaction to that of a fan whose team had won a big game.
Griesemer is from Novi, Mich., a small city of about 59,000 located in the northwest Detroit suburbs. A man who identified himself as Griesemer’s father told The Washington Post that “this whole thing has been a mistake. He really didn’t mean any of it.”
The man added: “He didn’t know what he was saying, the seriousness of it. We’re not even gun owners or anything like that. We don’t have any, neither does he.” Declining to comment further, the man said that “more will come out later.”
An FBI special agent, writing in an affidavit filed in federal court, described 22 total calls Griesemer made to CNN during a two-day period earlier this month. Four of the calls are described as including threats.
In the first call on Jan. 9, the affidavit said, a phone number associated with Griesemer called a publicly listed number for CNN and said: “Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down.” He then used two expletives and a racial slur before hanging up, the agent continued.
The same male voice called the same CNN number three minutes later, suggesting that CNN employees should kill themselves and saying he was “on my way right now” and “coming to kill you” before hanging up. Another call followed about half an hour later, this time threatening that the CNN “cast is about to get gunned down in a matter of hours.”
That same day, an investigator for CNN determined that the number was registered to Griesemer’s father, the affidavit said. This investigator called another number associated with the account, the affidavit continued, and the man who answered the phone identified himself as “Brandon.” The CNN investigator recorded that conversation and determined that the voice matched the recordings of the threatening calls.
Another call came in the following day, this one making remarks against Jewish people before saying: “You are going down. I have a gun and I am coming to Georgia right now to go to the CNN headquarters to f—–g gun every single last one of you.”
In a statement, CNN said that it had taken actions to protect the safety of its employees.
“We take any threats to CNN employees or workplaces, around the world, extremely seriously,” the network’s statement said. “This one is no exception. We have been in touch with local and federal law enforcement throughout, and have taken all necessary measures to ensure the safety of our people.”
A spokeswoman did not respond to a question regarding how many threatening calls or messages the network and its employees have received in recent years. A CNN source suggested to The Post’s Erik Wemple that threats against the network’s personnel had increased since Trump began his campaign against the organization, with many coming through social media.
Griesemer attended Novi High School and graduated from the school district last year, according to Nicole Carter, the principal. Carter said that due to federal privacy laws, she could not provide further comment on Griesemer’s time there.
Luongo said that during a statistics class they took at the school, Griesemer would often have his hood up and his head down on his desk. During the first few weeks of school, Luongo also noticed that Griesemer was “openly, shamelessly” reading Hitler’s autobiography “Mein Kampf” before class began.
While he assumed that Griesemer was not reading the book because he agreed with it, Luongo said he later joined in with an argument that Griesemer was having with other students. In Luongo’s retelling, Griesemer said he “kind of identified with the Nationalist Socialist Party.”
When asked if he meant he identified with Hitler, Griesemer “basically told me that, yeah, that was kind of how his ideology was,” Luongo, now a student at Michigan State University, said in an interview Tuesday.
The comments described by Luongo echo an account last year from a teacher of James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old accused of fatally ramming a group of counterprotesters rallying against white supremacists in Charlottesville. That teacher recalled Fields expressing positive views about Nazis since at least high school and described him as having “this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler.”
Another time, Luongo said he overheard Griesemer telling someone “that the Holocaust was exaggerated.” Luongo said he joined that conversation, and Griesemer told him that while he believed the Holocaust did occur, “the extent was not as bad as reported and believed by everybody.” (The discredited suggestion that the Holocaust’s toll has been exaggerated is a common tactic among Holocaust deniers seeking to “rehabilitate the German Nazis’ image” and make their ideology “more acceptable,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
An attorney for Griesemer, who is believed to be 19 or 20, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday about the FBI allegations or Griesemer’s classmate’s recollection. When a reporter visited a Novi home believed to belong to the Griesemer family, a male voice said through a closed door that they had “no comments.”
Griesemer was arrested and released last week on bond, court records show.
The FBI also said that Griesemer called the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor in September and made comments against the facility and Muslims. When police visited the family’s home, Griesemer’s mother told officers her son had said he previously called a mosque. Griesemer later told police that he had called the mosque and “was angry at the time of the call,” the affidavit said.
A neighbor who spoke on the condition of anonymity described Griesemer as “just a young, kind of lost kid.” Bill Nelson, another neighbor, said Griesemer worked at a nearby grocery store. He described Griesemer as a “nice guy” who would bring him groceries from the store and said he was completely surprised by the CNN threats, saying he did not believe the young man to be capable of violence.
“He would never have done it,” said Nelson, 53.
After their discussion about the Holocaust in school, Luongo said he tried to avoid Griesemer.
“I was just generally uncomfortable with the kid,” Luongo said, noting that when he learned of the allegations he was not all that surprised.
“If it was going to be a person that I knew, I would have probably guessed it would be that kid,” Luongo said.
Berman and Swenson reported from Washington. Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.