Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been in the national news for almost a decade, first as a state Senate leader fighting Right to Work and then as a rising star as Michigan governor, who made Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential short list.
On Oct. 8, news outlets around the world covered her for a much more disturbing reason, as the FBI and state police announced an elaborate right-wing extremist terrorist plot to kidnap and murder her. Some of the 14 men arrested had plotted at heavily armed right-wing rallies against her COVID-19 pandemic orders, which leaders like state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) attended.
Whitmer told the Michigan Advance Tuesday that she had never gotten death threats until she became governor. In a telephone interview, Whitmer said her family is doing “OK” throughout the ordeal that she called “a sad moment in our nation.” The Advance asked her about many stories referring to it as a “kidnapping” plot, not a murder attempt.
“The intent was not about ransom,” Whitmer noted. “It was to put me on some sort of a trial and execute me. And for some reason that seems to have been lost in all of the coverage.”
Biden was among those who reached out to her. Like Whitmer, he was also critical of the role in inflaming extremism played by President Trump, who again attacked her at a Saturday rally in Muskegon where he declared of Democrats, “Lock ‘em all up.”
“[Biden] was mad. You know, I mean, he’s my friend. And he called to see how I was doing. He called to ask how my family was,” Whitmer said. “He was mad that the rhetoric in this nation has gotten so dangerous and was being fomented by the White House.”
The Advance also asked how she can work in the future with GOP legislative leaders who have attended protests with extremists, called her a “dictator,” and in her words, ‘didn’t do a darn thing’ to turn the heat down of the anger of her right-wing critics.
Whitmer was blunt in her answer.
“Well, anyone who has participated in events with the groups that have now been charged with plotting to kidnap and kill me, it’s going to be difficult to sit at a table and find common ground,” she said. “But, you know, I have a job to do. I’m always going to do my job, to the best of my ability, but I think most people would acknowledge that if someone has given comfort to or encouragement to people who have been plotting to kill you and hurt your family, that’s going to take superhuman strength to try to find common ground there.”
The Advance also talked with Whitmer about rising COVID-19 cases in Michigan, misogyny fueling the threats against her, the GOP Legislature’s power grab against her before she took the oath of office and more.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Michigan Advance: Much of the coverage refers to it as a kidnapping plot against you, but these extremists had plans to kill you. Do you think this is an oversight? Is there some denial? Is there something else going on?
Whitmer: I don’t know. I have observed the same. The intent was not about ransom. It was to put me on some sort of a trial and execute me. And for some reason that seems to have been lost in all of the coverage. So is it intentional? Is kidnapping more interesting? I can’t figure out why that is or is it downplaying the seriousness of this? And I’m not quite sure what really is happening here, but I have found it to be concerning and curious myself.
Michigan Advance: How has your family — especially your children — how are they dealing with it?
Whitmer: You know, they’re OK. We have been talking about this. Since April, there have been threats. There has been lots of vitriol. We had people on our front lawn with automatic rifles. I mean, the hate that has been spewing has been coming at me ever since, I think, the White House put a focus on me and each time they talk about me specifically or Michigan, generally we see an increase in it.
My digital digital director [Tori Saylor] shared that on Twitter the other day. And I’ve been saying that for months, but unfortunately it took the revelations around this plot for people to understand how serious this has been and how long it’s been going on. I also, over the course of many months, asked the legislative leaders in our state Capitol and the White House through the vice president himself [Mike Pence] to bring the heat because as we’ve seen these threats online and seen the rhetoric get hotter and more violent in nature, I’ve been concerned about it for a long time, but I couldn’t get anyone else to take action to bring the heat down.
Michigan Advance: When did you get your first death threat as governor?
Whitmer: I think it was the [Detroit] Metro Times that published [in January] a lot of the Facebook conversation that was happening — that even we had a sitting senator participate — in this Facebook group.
Michigan Advance: You’re talking about Sen. Pete Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.)?
Whitmer: Yeah, Pete Lucido was a part of this Facebook group where some incredibly ugly threats and vitriol was being published and inflamed. So, I mean, from the early days of the pandemic, that first moment that the Trump administration focused on me, the whole climate changed and got a lot more dangerous here on the grounds.
Michigan Advance: Has Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist gotten any death threats?
Whitmer: You know, I know that many of us have in the administration. I believe that he has, I can’t shed any more light on it, though.
Whitmer: No. This was a sad moment in our nation. And I have talked to my fellow governors on both sides of the aisle who — whenever their state is highlighted [say] that the rhetoric gets more intense and more volatile — a number have reached out to me. I’ve had ongoing conversations with many of them, and I think it’s worse here for me. Many of them have acknowledged that, but to some extent, we’re all navigating some of the most aggressive, violent waters that we’ve seen as a nation.
Michigan Advance: How much of a factor is misogyny in the anger and threats that you’ve received?
Whitmer: Well, a few of my colleagues … whether it was Charlie Baker, who is a Republican governor in Massachusetts, or Larry Hogan, a Republican in Maryland, or J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat in Illinois, or Tim Walz, a Democrat in Minnesota, they’ve reached out to check in. No. 1, these are incredibly decent people who call and say, ‘How are you doing? How’s your family doing?’ They’ve also shared that they’ve seen the vitriol increase — that they’ve never seen it in like this.
But they’ve also acknowledged I’m getting it worse than anyone. And a few of them shared their theory that it was because I’m a woman. I don’t point that out myself, but I do think that the experience here has been different than anyone else has. It’s been similar, but much more intense than what we’re seeing in other parts of the country.
Michigan Advance: What did former Vice President [and Democratic nominee] Joe Biden say to you after he called after the terrorist plot was announced?
Whitmer: He was mad. You know, I mean, he’s my friend. And he called to see how I was doing. He called to ask how my family was. He was mad that the rhetoric in this nation has gotten so dangerous and was being fomented by the White House. The piece just in the last couple of days about threats on [White House COVID-19 adviser] Dr. [Anthony] Fauci’s life.
I mean, this is what’s going on across the country. We’ve seen public health experts in various states step down because they have threats on their lives. These are people who don’t have any political bones in their body. They’re just trying to do their job and save lives. And I think that’s a part of this bigger climate that is going to have repercussions long after COVID is gone. And this was a sickness that we have to address, as well, as a nation.
Michigan Advance: How do you work with Republican legislative leaders who have appeared at some of these armed protests with extremists, called you a dictator, and in your words, ‘didn’t do a darn thing’ to turn the heat down of the anger of your right-wing critics?
Whitmer: Well, anyone who has participated in events with the groups that have now been charged with plotting to kidnap and kill me, it’s going to be difficult to sit at a table and find common ground. But, you know, I have a job to do. I’m always going to do my job, to the best of my ability, but I think most people would acknowledge that if someone has given comfort to or encouragement to people who have been plotting to kill you and hurt your family, that’s going to take superhuman strength to try to find common ground there.
And I’m going to try to do it, but I can tell you that the rhetoric that has come directly out of the leadership of the Capitol, the very people I asked to bring the heat down on behalf of myself and my family, it’s very disturbing. And the kind of the actions that they’ve taken, not only not bringing the heat down, but adding to it. It’s created a very dangerous situation for me and my family. And that will certainly make it harder to find the ability to sit down and, and build trust and find common ground.
Michigan Advance: Republicans in the Legislature were trying to take away many of your powers before you even took the oath of office [in the 2018 Lame Duck session]. Do you think that they ever really considered you to be a legitimate leader of this state?
Whitmer: You know, I don’t know how to answer that. I can just say the climate in Michigan for so long was so one-sided for so long.
Michigan Advance: Are you talking about the eight years of Republican control [from January 2011 to December 2018]?
Whitmer: Yeah. It was completely Republican-controlled in Michigan. The voters of Michigan elected me by a historic number of votes [in 2018] I won, I think, because [they knew] I’m going to be focused on the things that really are going to improve people’s lives, and after the kind of leadership [from Republicans], that resonated with people.
It used to be in this country that the people have a say in the election and that the person who won the election has come in with an agenda that the people support and that person has the ability to exercise all of the historical tools that come with that office. But in recent years, we’ve seen people that disagree try to change the rules and try to limit the ability of an incoming elected official. And I think that that’s undermining our whole system and our confidence in the system. And it’s got to stop.
Michigan Advance: Some sheriffs like in Barry County’s Dar Leaf refused to enforce your COVID-19 orders and they had sympathetic comments for those who were arrested in the plot. What’s the impact of this so-called ‘constitutional sheriff’ movement. And what do you think needs to be done here?
Whitmer: I think it’s dangerous. I think that no one is above the law, especially the person that is given a gun and a badge and who is supposed to be enforcing the law. Sheriffs take an oath of office. And that oath mandates that they serve the people to the best of their ability. And they abide by the laws that are applicable to all of us.
And so to see this, this movement, and to see sheriffs substitute their own political agenda for the law of the state is very troubling. And it’s been denounced by a number of other sheriffs on both sides of the aisle who understand that their job is to enforce the law, not to interpret it or change the law. And that’s what I think gives me hope to see these sheriffs on both sides of the aisle come out and, and criticize this one sheriff in Barry County.
Michigan Advance: The president criticized you over the weekend at a rally and whipped up the ‘lock her up’ chant. When was the last time that you actually talked with the president?
Whitmer: I spoke with the president after the Midland dam burst [in May]. And in that conversation, I was trying to get some additional help from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] for Midland to get things moving very quickly so we could help people. I was also trying to get extension of Title 32 funding for our national guard who’s been doing incredible work around COVID and testing and the flood. Obviously, I’ve been on calls that he’s been on since then, but I have not spoken with him one-on-one. I reached out to try to get help for the national guard, but I didn’t get a phone call with him.
Michigan Advance: A lot of public officials have said, ‘We get threats, too.’ So what do you think the public needs to know about the threats that have been made by right-wing extremists like the ones involved in the plot against you? Are these different?
Whitmer: This was an unprecedented moment. You know, the FBI and the Michigan State Police, no one’s ever seen this serious and this pervasive multi-state effort to combat this plot to kidnap and kill a sitting governor in the United States. This was heightened seriousness with which these people were plotting to carry out a heinous crime. And these are people that have been active in a lot of these rallies that have had a presence, that had brought their guns to the Capitol. And this is a very different and heightened situation that we’ve ever seen in this nation.
Michigan Advance: Do you think that Republican leaders that have downplayed some of these threats and criticized your rhetoric about the president, is a lot of this about presidential politics? They want Donald Trump reelected, you support Joe Biden, and that’s coloring their take on this very serious plot against you?
Whitmer: I don’t know. You know, I can just say this. When I gave my remarks after the charges were announced, I called on people of goodwill from both sides of the aisle to stand up against this kind of rhetoric. These domestic terrorists are working to intimidate and hurt their fellow Americans. They are terrorists, and they need to be called terrorists by Republican leaders and Democratic leaders alike. This is anti-democratic; this is anti-American. If you heard this fact pattern, you would think that it was ISIS.
We settle our disagreements at the polls at the election. I’m a duly elected governor. I’m going to keep doing my job, but I’d really love it if we could have people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle who would hold us to a higher standard, who would speak to our mutual American values and denounce this ugliness, this hate and certainly not participate or encourage it.
Michigan Advance: With fewer restrictions and fewer options for you to fight the pandemic, what does the state model say about the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Michigan through the end of the year?
Whitmer: Well, our numbers are unfortunately going up and we’re very concerned about the trajectory in which we’re headed. For a long time, Michigan had the best numbers in the region and the Midwest was in a stronger position than most other parts of the country. And now, while we still have the best numbers in the region, they’re going in the wrong direction. And all the states around us are in trouble. And we’re very concerned that that’s where we’re headed.
We’re going to continue to fight. COVID; we’re going to continue to protect people, but the Supreme Court decision — party-line, slim-majority decision — has really undermined that work and created a lot of confusion. We still have a mask mandate, but people going to the grocery store are challenging whether or not that’s true based on the Supreme Court decision. And so I do think that this is a moment where we have to keep following the science.
We knew that the fall was going to be inherently dangerous because we go back inside and we have more contacts and it’s flu season, as well. We know what to do. We know how to push this curve down. We all have to continue doing it and going into the holidays, it’s hard not to see your loved ones. But I’m encouraging people to stay home and stay safe and try to stay connected through technology. But gatherings are dangerous and I know no one wants to pull their family together only to see one of their family members get sick. And that’s the challenge ahead of us.