Theoretically, those guidelines suggested slow reopenings beginning in May. But Trump insisted that some states could reopen sooner and began actively calling out states run by Democrats for not immediately scaling back their restrictions.
The state of Michigan was already an epicenter of opposition to pandemic-related restrictions. When a caravan of protesters traveled to the state’s capital on April 15 to protest orders by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Trump obviously understood the overlap between their politics and his own — despite their protesting a policy that he ostensibly advocated.
In short order, he endorsed the challenge to Whitmer explicitly.
That “liberate” verbiage was criticized at the time as dangerous in its implications. At a briefing on April 18, a reporter raised that point with Trump.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) “said your tweets encouraging liberation in Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, were fomenting rebellion,” the reporter said. “I’m wondering how that squares with the sober and methodical guidance that you issued yesterday — ”
“Well, I think we do have a sobering guidance, but I think some things are too tough,” he said. “And if you look at some of the states you just mentioned, it’s too tough.”
“I think I feel very comfortable,” he concluded, after briefly disparaging Virginia’s Democratic governor. Virginia was also mentioned in one of Trump’s “liberate” tweets — with the added context that, in his view, the state’s leadership was hoping to end gun rights.
Over the course of the past several months, Trump has repeatedly cast continued efforts to contain the pandemic as politically motivated efforts to suppress the economy and, therefore, his reelection chances. Last month, he retweeted a description of news that a judge had ruled against Pennsylvania’s shutdown that claimed, “TYRANTS RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL.”
This is an obviously problematic mixture, blending calls for “liberation” with criticisms of “tyranny” and the need to defend gun ownership. That came to a head when armed protesters stormed the state capitol building in Michigan, calling for an end to shutdowns.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump tweeted on May 1. “These are very good people,” he said of the protesters, “but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely!”
On Thursday, the FBI announced it had charged six men who it said were part of an alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer. The criminal complaint detailing the government’s evidence depicts a serious effort to obtain weapons and explosives, to train for their use, to surveil Whitmer’s vacation home in Michigan and even to disable a bridge with the goal of preventing law enforcement from assisting Whitmer during an attack.
What had Whitmer done to deserve this? She was a “tyrant.”
In a video posted to a private Facebook group — apparently one of the main tools used in organizing the alleged plot — one of the indicted individuals allegedly disparaged Whitmer using that term, according to the criminal complaint. At another point, the complaint asserts, the same man allegedly told his compatriots that Whitmer “loves the power she has right now” and that she “has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now.”
“I can see several states takin’ their [expletive] tyrants,” he purportedly added. “Everybody takes their tyrants.”
At another point, he allegedly insisted that they weren’t “gonna let ‘em burn our [expletive] state down.”
It doesn’t seem that the rhetoric motivating the alleged threat against Whitmer derived from Trump. The group first came to law enforcement’s attention in March when allegedly targeting police; it apparently wasn’t until June that the focus on Whitmer emerged.
Instead, it seems clear that Trump understands the political utility of using similar language, of portraying himself as standing with those who see the government as a threat, however improbable that might be, given his own position. He knows that armed individuals who are skeptical of the government and who oppose coronavirus restrictions are people who are likely to vote for him, so he echoes and amplifies them.
In an April YouGov poll, 6 in 10 Michiganders rejected the idea that a lockdown was unconstitutional. More than half of Republicans, though, said it was. Nationally, Republicans were more likely than Democrats or independents to say lockdowns were unconstitutional, but were more evenly split on the subject.
Trump clearly lets politics drive how he perceives threats. He regularly derides antifa, a loose-knit, leftist ideology, as a significant threat to the country while downplaying the risks posed by groups sympathetic to his positions — though they may pose a bigger risk. We’ve seen multiple instances in which Trump plays footsie with sketchy elements of his base out of apparent concern with alienating them. Asked about adherents of the wildly bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory in August, for example, Trump coyly described the group as one that liked him very much, which he said he appreciated. Asked at the first presidential debate if he would condemn white supremacists, Trump declined to do so explicitly. Instead, he told one prominent group to “stand back and stand by.”
Trump gives those dangerous groups oxygen. The FBI announced last year that QAnon was one of a number of fringe groups whose adherents might commit acts of violence. This month, the Department of Homeland Security released a report identifying violent white supremacists as a primary threat to the country.
Calling for the “liberation” of Democratic states and approving of armed protests targeting his opponents might be politically useful for Trump, but the risks should be obvious. We’ve seen several examples in which violent acts have been committed by people echoing Trump’s rhetoric, if not directly.
Before a mass shooting in El Paso last year, the alleged shooter is thought to have published a document mirroring Trump’s language about immigrants.
More recently, a 17-year-old is accused of killing two people in Kenosha, Wis., at a protest following a police shooting in the city. Trump had repeatedly argued that violence at protests centered on racial justice posed a threat to the country. Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly took his rifle and traveled across state lines to serve as a citizen peacekeeper, with tragic results. Trump later defended the teen’s actions.
The alleged plot to target Whitmer was also cognizant of the political calendar.
“On September 14, 2020,” the criminal complaint reads, one participant “posted in the group’s encrypted chat that he did not want the exercise to be the last week in October because it would leave insufficient time to execute the kidnapping before the national election on November 3, 2020.”
Luckily, federal law enforcement was able to track and disrupt this alleged plot. Trump’s disinterest in rejecting extremists and his explicit mirroring of their rhetoric, though, doesn’t diminish the likelihood that other such plots exist.
Update: On Thursday evening, Trump addressed the alleged plot in a series of tweets. They began by attacking Whitmer and never criticized the alleged plotters.
He did add that he does not “tolerate ANY extreme violence."