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“Daddy … do you want a Dorito?” a little girl’s voice asked.

“Honey, I’m making explosives, can you get away from me, please?”

That recorded exchange between Delaware trucker Barry Croft Jr. and his daughter was just one of hundreds of examples of audio, video and online chatter prosecutors presented to the jury considering the fate of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the fall of 2020. 

The trial has been closely watched because of its potential implications for the increasingly bizarre relationship between Trumpist conservatives and law enforcement.

Croft and three other men charged in the alleged plot were associated with an armed anti-government gang called the Wolverine Watchmen, according to federal law enforcement. But on Friday, a federal jury did not convict any of the men: Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris were found not guilty of conspiracy; the jurors deadlocked on Barry Croft and Adam Fox, with the judge declaring a mistrial on those counts. 

The trial has been closely watched because of its potential implications for the increasingly bizarre relationship between Trumpist conservatives and law enforcement. 

In fall 2020, during the final, tense, Covid-infested weeks before the election and with the prospect of political violence on the horizon, authorities arrested and charged 13 men with a crime simultaneously ridiculous and sinister. Prosecutors say members of a Michigan militia, enraged at their female governor’s Covid lockdown orders, spent months plotting and training with the stated aim of capturing Whitmer and either putting her on trial and executing her or abandoning her on Lake Michigan in a boat without an engine. 

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Six of the men — Barry Croft Jr., Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta and Kaleb Franks — were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of kidnapping conspiracy, facing a maximum penalty of life in prison. Two of them, Garbin and Harris, pleaded guilty and testified against the others.

(Seven more men were charged in Michigan state courts with providing material support to terrorism. Those cases will be prosecuted by the Michigan attorney general.)

Defense lawyers have argued that the government entrapped politically outspoken but otherwise law-abiding men who were simply exercising their First and Second amendment rights to speak freely and collect weapons. Typically, entrapment is extremely hard to prove; U.S. law allows law enforcers to use the tactic against someone with a “predisposition” to commit a crime. Defendants must also essentially admit to the allegations, then prove that undercover agents or informants deceived them into the activities.

Defense lawyers have argued that the government entrapped politically outspoken but otherwise law-abiding men who were simply exercising their First and Second amendment rights.

Nonetheless, the pleadings of defense attorneys got mainstream coverage during the long period between arrests and trial and were enthusiastically amplified by the larger right-wing messaging machine. There is a bigger goal here. By eroding trust in law enforcement, the far right can continue to claim the Jan. 6 insurrection was nothing more than an exercise in free speech.

Fox News personality Tucker Carlson’s three-part documentary, “Patriot Purge,” went so far as to allege the attack on the U.S. Capitol could have been a false-flag operation devised by the so-called deep state to frame, trap and “purge” Trump voters in a “new war on terror.” (His claims are so baseless that several other conservative commentators left Fox in protest.)

Most of the evidence in the trial was collected by a man the pre-Trump political right might once have lauded as an American hero. Michigan postal worker Dan Chappel, an Iraq War veteran whose service got him a titanium leg, is a Second Amendment enthusiast who joined the Watchmen after Facebook’s algorithm pushed him toward the extremist site in spring 2020. 

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The military cosplayers who made up the majority of the Wolverine Watchmen welcomed a man with actual military training. But after only a few interactions with them, Chappel became alarmed by the group’s seeming interest in killing police officers. Throughout the summer of 2020, Chappel says, he participated in semiautomatic weapons trainings and other activities in person and online, collecting incriminating audio and online chatter for the government, and made notes on other observations; he testified that Wolverine wives and girlfriends practiced knife and ax throwing while their men did “field training,” for example. The Wolverine Watchmen and their allies, paranoid that federal authorities were onto them, moved their conversations across a series of encrypted platforms — oblivious to the veteran in their midst providing access to the FBI.

Chappel’s evidence also suggested a wider community of like-minded enablers. And at a top level, the case reveals the degree to which tacit and active support for political violence is on the rise. Even the local sheriff opined to Fox News that the Wolverine boys were all talk — at least in 2020.

But again, this pattern extends far beyond the Mitten State, as conservatives desperate to whitewash the revolting spectacle of bat-wielding, police-beating Capitol insurrectionists who shared the same anti-government ideology as the Michigan men engage in Houdini-level logical contortions.

The acrobatic effort has welded together some of the strangest bedfellows in American history. Carlson, a backer of the police’s thin blue line if there ever was one, has been ridiculing and downplaying the seriousness of the alleged plot for more than a year. He has given a platform to a variety of activists who have made a cottage industry of comparing the Michigan case to what they now call the “entrapment operation” of the Capitol insurrection. Such claims are amplified across the right-wing echo chamber. (Osama bin Laden’s niece Noor bin Laden even wrote a letter to the U.N. on behalf of the jailed Jan. 6 “political prisoners.”)

Law enforcement overreach and entrapment accusations were not unusual when the alleged terrorists were Muslims and brown people guided by paid informants, although they found a far less sympathetic audience among far-right media personalities. The degree to which authorities overstepped in those cases is an important discussion, but it would be a mistake to assume all entrapment accusations are created equal.

Formerly true-blue supporters of police officers and veterans have — shockingly — turned apologists.

In closing arguments, Western Michigan U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said: “They were filled with rage. They were paranoid because they knew what they were doing was wrong and they feared they could be caught.” Clearly, Kessler’s words failed to convince the jury.

But the rise of menace and political violence from the right in America has nonetheless become normalized. Formerly true-blue supporters of police officers and veterans have — shockingly — turned apologists for a clan of heavily armed men who at the very least fantasized about an outrageous act of political terror.

It remains to be seen precisely what swayed the jurors and whether the entrapment claims were effective. The names of the jurors have been kept confidential, but we know four of them conceded they own guns and others said they were fine with guns. Most indicated they were not much interested in news or aware of current events. Meanwhile, the two acquitted men will likely be allowed to arm themselves again if they so choose. One of the acquitted men, Brandon Caserta, is on video vowing to shoot and kill police. The other, Harris, was recorded by an informant saying about Whitmer, “just dome her, shoot her in the head.”

In my view, the four on trial in Michigan attracted right-wing support not in spite of but precisely because of the fact that their alleged operation was political. “We wanted to cause as much a disruption as possible to prevent Joe Biden from getting into office,” Ty Garbin, one of the Wolverines who testified against his former brothers in arms, told the court. “It didn’t have to be. It was just preferred.”

After the verdict, Whitmer released a statement alluding to this rising menace. “Today, Michiganders and Americans — especially our children — are living through the normalization of political violence. The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”

It would be nice if she was proven wrong. But unfortunately, and especially for America’s elected women under siege, I believe it’s already too late.  

Source: This post first appeared on NBC News

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