For months, defense attorneys representing the men accused of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 have built a convincing case of FBI entrapment, filing dozens of motions in federal court detailing how the government concocted the plot with at least a dozen FBI undercover agents and informants.
But District Court Judge Robert Jonker wanted to delay presenting that trove of evidence at trial for as long as possible. Days before jurors took their seats in his Grand Rapids courtroom on Wednesday morning, Jonker issued an order that warned “initial opening statements and evidence during the government’s case-in-chief—on both direct and cross—must address and be relevant to issues other than entrapment.”
Jonker’s plan, however, didn’t make it past the first morning break.
After it became clear during opening statements that the defense could not argue their case without explaining the deep involvement of the FBI’s confidential human sources, Jonker reversed his ruling, telling the jury that “it won’t be possible to draw a line between the government proving their case and entrapment.”
And the defense was ready.
During the first two days of this high-stakes trial, FBI agents told jurors shocking details about how the department initiated the expansive probe, which stretched across several states and involved multiple FBI field offices.
One FBI official told his supervisor he planned to conduct a “terrorism enterprise investigation” into the loose band of misfits with no solid plans, much less the ability, to do anything nefarious at the time. (The alleged ringleader, Adam Fox, lived in the ramshackle basement of a vacuum repair shop with his two dogs; if he needed to go to the bathroom or brush his teeth, Fox had to use the facilities at the Mexican restaurant next door, his attorney said in court on Wednesday.)
Nonetheless, the FBI directly accessed, through their informants, encrypted chat groups that included both the defendants and FBI assets. Private Facebook messages were retrieved courtesy of a warrant issued to the Big Tech company—Facebook also is actively cooperating with the Justice Department in its January 6 investigation—to produce incriminating comments between members of the group.
Secret gatherings and out-of-town excursions, courtesy of the FBI and U.S. taxpayers, animated the scheme. Two FBI agents met with a confidential human source (CHS) called Steve in the parking lot of a Dublin, Ohio hotel on June 6, 2020 to deliver a recording device so Steve could capture conversations of at least two defendants attending a so-called “militia conference” that day. At the meeting, which CHS Steve organized and paid for on behalf of the FBI, some men can be heard angrily discussing the George Floyd riots that terrorized the country in the preceeding weeks and threatened to retaliate.
CHS Steve also organized numerous trips so defendants could participate in field and weapons training; every remote site was heavily monitored by the government.
FBI special agent Todd Reineck told the court the department used pole cameras, license plate readers, drones, and even airplanes to record the activity at each location. The use of airplanes, Reineck said, would have required “multi-level approval” by the higher-ups.
One location in particular was under tight surveillance: Whitmer’s vacation cottage in upstate Michigan. Reinick admitted it was “possible” a pole camera was installed outside the cottage; another FBI witness testified that scanners used to produce 3-D images were around Whitmer’s property as well.
Now, why would that be? If the threat was so dire and the FBI really wanted to apprehend the alleged kidnap-plotters instead of setting them up, why didn’t authorities simply arrest them?
But that would have thwarted the government’s plan. After all, the defendants were driven to the very remote cottage for an alleged reconnaissance mission in September 2020 by CHS Dan, the government’s lead informant, along with other confidential sources and undercover agents. It’s not as if the defendants were working on their own or that the devices were installed to protect Whitmer’s property. To the contrary, it appears the devices were planted to produce evidence to support the government’s eventual prosecution.
The trial also has exposed a dangerously sloppy system of vetting, paying, and managing FBI informants—many of whom, one FBI agent admitted, have another agenda aside from getting the bad guys. Sometimes the informant is the bad guy,
Which is the case with CHS Steve, whose real name is Stephen Robeson. He’s a longtime FBI informant and convicted felon from Wisconsin with a record “in nine states,” one defense attorney told the jury. In addition, Robeson committed at least two separate crimes while he worked the Whitmer case. (He was removed from the government’s witness list, although the defense plans to call him as a hostile witness.)
In addition to repeatedly breaking the law, it appears CHS Steve also violated already-lax FBI rules while working the sting operation. He was “plying guys with drugs . . . until they were out-of-their-mind stoned,” said Joshua Blanchard, the attorney representing defendant Barry Croft. That alone violated FBI guidance. CHS Steve would then get the defendants “whipped up” and selectively record conversations when the defendants were high. When the FBI found out, the agency did nothing to reprimand Steve.
Informants, Reineck testified, are paid only in cash. Payments may involve either reimbursements for expenses—no receipts necessary—or for services rendered. Some informants are paid after their work is done as a sort of bonus. CHS Dan, Reineck confirmed, was paid roughly $64,000 for six months’ work, higher than originally reported. CHS Dan also received a new laptop computer with an extended warranty, a smart watch, and new tires for his car, all funded from the FBI’s deep coffers. (CHS Steve, according to reports, was paid around $20,000 and received a sweet deal on a weapons charge.)
A vetting system for informants includes a background check but not a credit check. Reineck admitted that someone might approach the FBI to act as an informant to “get a better deal” in a legal case or to make money. Apparently, those motives are not disqualifying.
Not exactly the strict process Americans might expect from the nation’s top law enforcement agency, which prides itself on operating “by the book.”
In just the first two days, the defense attorneys have blown the lid off a careless, reckless FBI and a weak prosecution. As one defense attorney told jurors, “this was stoned crazy talk, not a plan.”
Further, the testimony by the prosecution’s FBI witnesses raises significant political questions.
Who in Trump’s Justice Department was aware of this operation? Was Attorney General William Barr briefed on what was happening and did he notify the president? What about FBI Director Christopher Wray? Who authorized the arrest of these defendants less than a month before Election Day, which produced critical national headlines for Trump as early voting was underway in Michigan and other states?
And how much was Whitmer herself in on the plan? It’s not as if the FBI installed a pole camera and scanners without her knowledge. What did she know and when did she know it?
But perhaps the biggest questions are for Steven D’Antuono, the head of the FBI’s Detroit field office whose agents signed the criminal complaint against the Whitmer defendants and handled CHS Dan. D’Antuono was promoted to lead the D.C. FBI field office in mid-October 2020, just a few months before the Capitol protest on January 6, 2021. How much did D’Antuono pull the strings of the multi-layered Whitmer operation? And did he use any of the same undercover agents and informants on January 6?
Finding out which high-ranking politicians and government officials were in on the Whitmer “kidnapping” caper just became a major part of this growing scandal.