In the spring of 2020, President Donald Trump posted three tweets in a row aimed at Democratic governors continuing to impose draconian lockdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Trump tweeted on the morning of April 17, 2020. A few moments later, he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!”
His tweets coincided with anti-lockdown rallies in several states, including a blockade around the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing a few days prior. As usual, the media expressed shock and horror at the innocuous tweets, insisting the president was encouraging violence against his political rivals.
“One shudders to contemplate what sorts of actions right-wing protesters might take if they interpret Trump’s call for them to ‘LIBERATE’ their states seriously,” perpetual drama queen Aaron Rupar wrote at Vox. Over at the Washington Post, Mary McCord, a former top official for Obama’s Justice Department who now serves as a legal advisor to the January 6 Select Committee, claimed Trump advocated “the overthrow of democracy” and “incited insurrection” with his tweets—a stunningly prescient observation considering how the events of January 6 would later be described.
“The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee tweeted on April 17, also foreshadowing terms subsequently applied to the Capitol protest.
Less than six months later, Trump’s critics appeared vindicated when law enforcement authorities arrested several men for conspiring to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ahead of the 2020 presidential election, a plan now exposed as a case of FBI entrapment. A Michigan jury acquitted two defendants last week and could not reach a verdict on two other defendants in what the government considered one of the largest domestic terrorism investigations ever. (The Justice Department just announced it will retry Adam Fox and Barry Croft, Jr., who remain in jail.)
Defense attorneys successfully argued that multiple FBI agents and informants attempted to induce the men to commit the crimes and blasted the government in closing arguments.
“That’s unacceptable in America,” Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, told the jury on April 1. “That’s not how it works. They don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
But the government not only attempted to manufacture “terrorists” in the Whitmer kidnapping hoax—the same FBI operation also tried to coax a man in Virginia to participate in the same sort of plot against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. That scheme didn’t fully materialize, but the FBI’s attempt to pull off a similar stunt in Virginia reveals just how far agents were willing to go to bolster FBI Director Christopher Wray’s false warning that domestic extremists planned to “kill and assassinate” public officials.
In summer 2020, Dan Chappel, the main informant in the Whitmer fednapping who was compensated at least $60,000 by the FBI for his services, targeted a man named Frank Butler, a disabled veteran in his late 60s and an alleged militia member. Taking instructions from Jayson Chambers, one of his FBI handling agents, Chappel used the same playbook in Virginia.
“Dan suggests to Frank that he engage in acts of domestic terror,” defense attorneys wrote in a joint motion filed last year in the Whitmer case. “Like the defendants in this case, Dan suggested to Frank that he attack the governor of Virginia.”
Screenshots submitted into evidence show a jaw dropping exchange between Chappel and Chambers in August 2020. “Goin [sic] to call frank butler today,” Chappel texted Chambers, asking for direction on what he should say to his target.
“Mission is to kill the governor specifically,” Chambers replied.
Just as in the Whitmer plot, Chappel lured Frank Butler into attempting to build an explosive device. Another text exchange in September 2020 shows Chappel and Chambers discussing a “recipe” for a bomb that Chappel can provide to Butler. After passing along the information to Butler, Chappel texted Chambers to tell him Frank planned on purchasing bomb-making supplies. “Awesome. Excellent work,” Chambers told Chappel.
Chappel also invited Butler to a field training exercise in Wisconsin during the last weekend in October, an excursion attended by some defendants in the Whitmer caper.
“This event, like all the others,” defense attorneys wrote, “was conceived, planned, and conducted by the federal investigative team of agents and undercover informants working together to provide a stage upon which to manipulate their targets into acting out ostensibly incriminating behavior the government hoped to elicit in its bid to develop and then ‘interrupt’ the operation of a ‘domestic terrorist organization.’”
Butler, who cannot drive due to disabilities, did not participate. And to date, he has not been charged with any crime.
Northam, like Whitmer, made the most of the imaginary threat against him. Also like Whitmer, Northam repeatedly blamed Trump for the FBI-concocted plot, adding to nonstop news coverage as Americans were already voting for president.
“Words matter,” Northam said during an October 14, 2020 interview on CNN, echoing the talking points being used by Joe Biden on the campaign stump at the time. “People take their marching orders from people like the president and it needs to stop.” Northam accused Trump of emboldening “white supremacists” and fueling “hatred and bigotry.”
Northam’s spokeswoman also got in on the act. “The President regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him,” Alena Yarmosky said in a statement to reporters. “The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences.”
But she also told reporters that Northam’s security team had been briefed “throughout the course of the investigation” by the FBI. Whitmer clearly knew about the plot because the FBI testified during the trial that investigators installed surveillance cameras around her vacation cottage, the potential scene of the fake crime.
So, now that the kidnapping plots have been exposed as an elaborate case of FBI entrapment, the public deserves to know how the governors were “briefed” on the sting operation. In an earlier column, I named a few government officials who need to account for their knowledge and/or participation in the scheme.
Ralph Northam should be on that list.