Attorney General Dana Nessel has had a lot on her plate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most recently, her office has been collaborating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Michigan State Police to thwart an elaborate kidnapping and murder plot against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other state officials. The anti-government extremists, many of which have attended armed protests against Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders, had also discussed storming the state Capitol and taking hostages.
If that wasn’t enough, so-called “constitutional sheriffs” — like Barry County’s Dar Leaf — have appeared to take a page out of the anti-government book by openly declaring that they will not uphold state orders on COVID-19, guns at polls and more.
Although a Court of Claims judge struck down Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s ban on firearms at polls Tuesday, Nessel filed an emergency appeal Wednesday morning to reinstate the ruling.
“To have people [like Leaf] in those types of positions of power is very concerning for me,” Nessel told the Advance last week. “… Freedom is not a society being free of all regulations. And as our Supreme Court has noted on multiple occasions, the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact.”
Nessel also pointed out that during a May 16 rally in Grand Rapids — at which Leaf shared the stage with state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), as well as two of the alleged conspirators — the sheriff joked about running over Whitmer and other elected officials with a bus.
“I am disappointed that no one has covered that,” Nessel said about the remarks. “It’s not just that he’s standing on the stage while he is, you know, standing right next to some of the defendants in the case. He’s talking about killing the governor as he’s doing it, and nobody’s brought it up.”
The remarks can be heard after the 3:20 mark of an onlooker’s YouTube video.
Leaf can be heard saying to the crowd: “If you guys are here to hear a sheriff pick a fight with the governor, that fight’s already picked. [Laughs] So I just want to be real up front with you guys. Most of us here are Christians, and we’re supposed to pray for our leaders. That includes our governor. That includes our president. And I mean a good prayer, don’t pray they get hit by a bus, alright. We can’t be wasting buses like that, c’mon.”
Amidst this rhetoric and the arrests of a dozen alleged conspirators, when it comes to the inaction of the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC) — the small panel which has been debating for six months whether to ban firearms from the state Capitol building — Nessel didn’t mince words.
“They’re cowards,” the Democrat said. “… It’s the height of irresponsibility, especially to look back and to know that there were armed gunmen at the Capitol who allegedly had been plotting to kill legislators at the Capitol. To know all of that and to still do nothing is unbelievable to me.”
Commissioners have been delaying the decision since late spring, after armed anti-Whitmer protestors stormed the building in April and loomed over legislators in session.
The state Capitol currently allows both open and concealed carry, with no security measures like metal detectors.
“I love the state of Michigan … but some of these policies, they are just a stain upon our state,” Nessel said.
She added that it’s a “sad state of affairs” when your state Capitol is too dangerous for parents like her to let their children visit “because there’s too significant a chance that they’ll either catch a deadly bug or that they’ll be murdered.”
The Advance also talked with Nessel about her office’s Hate Crimes Unit, the death threats she has received since taking office and more.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Michigan Advance: First, I would like to talk about the murder plot against Gov. Whitmer. Were you prepared for a plot like this because of the increase in hate crimes your Hate Crimes Unit has seen?
Nessel: Well, we had been working with a coordinated task force, so we had been following events as they unfolded for quite some time. So it’s hard to be surprised by things when you are constantly apprised of new activity. But I will say that the reason for me forming the Hate Crimes Unit in our office in the first place [in 2019] was in contemplation of the fact that white supremacy groups, militia groups, domestic terrorism groups had been rising exponentially across the state. Membership had been rising.
And then especially as we saw the COVID pandemic take over Michigan, you know, these groups thrive on unrest. So between that and [response to] the Black Lives Matter protests, we had really seen a rise in activity. So when it got to the point of them actually becoming more engaged and moving forward in terms of activities, I can’t say that I was surprised by it at all.
Michigan Advance: And does the assassination plot against Whitmer show that there’s a need for the division?
Nessel: Absolutely. I always thought there was a need for the division, and was rather startled and taken aback actually by claims, particularly by Republicans in the Legislature, who seemingly didn’t understand why I would be interested in such a division in the office that would focus on these types of criminal activities. I think if anything, this set of circumstances has supported my choice to have the division.
And of course, the head of our unit, AAG [Assistant Attorney General] Sunita Doddamani is the lead attorney on these cases. So, important that she was there and participating, and of course, now at this juncture we have eight of those defendants.
Michigan Advance: You yourself have received death threats, too, particularly early on during the Catholic priests investigation. Could you comment on that, as well as how many threats you’ve received related to your religion and sexual orientation?
Nessel: Well, I don’t know that I can put a number on it. I can tell you it’s something that seems to happen on a regular basis. And I’ve been aware of it since early on, as you said, when I took office [in January 2019]. And certainly, we’ve had to request enhancements to my security as a result of it. I will say that.
Michigan Advance: There are a number of sheriffs in Michigan, including Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, who call themselves ‘constitutional sheriffs’ because they believe they’re the final authority on law enforcement in their county and refuse to enforce the governor’s orders. In your opinion, what can be done about Leaf and these other so-called constitutional sheriffs?
Nessel: Well, to me, the most important thing we can do is vote them out of office. It’s dangerous. It’s a dangerous set of circumstances when you have individuals who say they won’t abide by the Constitution, they won’t abide by federal or state laws — and that even sheriffs that have little to no legal education at all, that they feel as though they’re in a better position to say what is constitutional or unconstitutional than the courts.
And when it comes to the executive orders … at the time that the governor issued her EOs [executive orders], there was no court since 1945, when the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act had been first passed by the Legislature, no court had ever ruled it to be unconstitutional. Even the Supreme Court that ultimately ruled on this said that there had never been such a ruling. And they found it unconstitutional — not as applied, not the way that she was promulgating her orders — but just that the act itself was unconstitutional.
But prior to that, we had many rulings from other courts. So we had favorable rulings in the Court of Claims, and then by the Court of Appeals. We had a favorable ruling by the federal courts. In the Sixth Circuit, a three-judge panel — all [President Donald] Trump appointees — had upheld some of the judge’s orders. So even before you got to the Supreme Court, which split obviously 4-3 on this along party lines, you exclusively had courts that had upheld the governor’s orders.
So for county sheriffs to say that they somehow know better than the courts and that they will not abide by the rulings of the courts, I think is a very dangerous set of circumstances. And I think it’s offensive to the way that law enforcement ought to operate in the first place to say that you’ll completely disregard court rulings. And it’s quite frightening, I think, for a lot of people.
And especially this particular sheriff [Leaf], to have seemingly not just allied himself with some of those that were alleged to have been involved in this plot … but he said in that speech, he said something like, that he would recommend that somebody drive a bus over the governor and other elected officials but that’s a waste of a perfectly good bus. … I don’t know why no one brings that up.
You know, that’s a county sheriff who’s joking about murdering elected officials. That’s a concerning set of circumstances. And then for him later, when asked about it, to be seemingly making excuses for the defendants — and even suggesting that it’s possible that a viable defense be a citizen’s arrest … that unlicensed citizens who are not a member of a law enforcement organization can somehow just make an arrest of anyone, and use their weapons to arrest a sitting governor, if they feel as though she has committed a crime — [that’s] absolutely terrifying. To have people in those types of positions of power is very concerning for me.
And very concerning to see that a lot of those groups seem to actively recruit from the military. … A couple of the individuals that were charged had military ties and had been in the military. Might have even been more than two. And that is a source of great concern. Absolutely.
Michigan Advance: The Michigan State Capitol Commission is now going on six months without action on a Capitol gun ban, even though you confirmed that they have the power to do so. Why do you think the panel hasn’t taken action?
Nessel: Well, firstly, the majority of them, of course, have been appointed by Republicans who they, themselves, are not taking action on guns, even though they have the authority to do that in the Legislature. And secondly, I think they’re cowards. They’re cowards who would rather kowtow to the gun lobby and to those that are gun fanatics over the health, welfare and safety of those who work at the Capitol and visit the Capitol.
Michigan Advance: I know that at least [MSCC Vice Chair] John Truscott has said publicly that he believes it should be the Legislature’s decision, although Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have both basically said that that’s not going to happen. So what are your thoughts about Truscott saying that the Legislature should do this, even though you explicitly said that the panel itself has the authority to do so? [Ed. note: Truscott is the former business partner of Kelly Rossman-McKinney, Nessel’s communications director.]
Nessel: Well, it’s just passing the buck. They just pass the buck back and forth to each other, back and forth to each other, so nothing ever gets done, no one does anything. And it’s irresponsible. It’s the height of irresponsibility, especially to look back and to know that there were armed gunmen at the Capitol who allegedly had been plotting to kill legislators at the Capitol. To know all of that and to still do nothing is unbelievable to me.
When I hear the ridiculous statements of, ‘Oh, well, they could still potentially do something even if you had metal detectors, even if you had security stopping them from coming in’ — well, we don’t use that rationale at courthouses. I’ve been working in courthouses my entire career. We very, very, very rarely have an incident where somebody is able to get a gun into a courthouse. It almost never happens. And I can tell you right now, the reason for that is because you have metal detectors and because you have security for it. And could people potentially barge in? I guess it could happen. Does it happen? Almost never.
And the kind of situation where you’re talking about a mass shooting, why would you make it easy for people to do that? Why would you say, we’re going to do everything in our power to make it as easy as possible for you to commit a massacre, and we will do nothing, nothing at all whatsoever, in order to try to prevent that from happening?
I mean, sometimes people are wearing seatbelts and they still die in automobile crashes. But we don’t tell people, ‘Don’t wear seatbelts, because there’s a chance you could still die even if you’re wearing one.’ Right? And frankly, it’s the same thing with masks and COVID, right? You don’t tell people, ‘Well, there’s a chance you could still get COVID, even though you have significantly decreased your chance by wearing a mask and socially distancing, so what’s the point?’
I mean, I’ve never seen such ridiculousness. It’s really just this movement away from any kind of meaningful regulations, governmental regulations, in the name of ‘freedom.’ Freedom is not a society being free of all regulations. And as our Supreme Court has noted on multiple occasions, the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact.
… It’s embarrassing for our state, is what I’ll say. What frequently happens is I’ll be on some of these calls — before COVID, I would actually go to conferences — and I would see attorneys general from other states, both Republicans and Democrats. And sometimes they would say, ‘What’s going on in Michigan? What’s going on in your state?’ Because it just looks so insane to them.
You know, I am a lifelong Michigander. I love the state of Michigan. I love its people. I am proud of this state. But some of these policies, they are just a stain upon our state. We are a national embarrassment when it comes to these types of policies. People are likely being deterred from running for these seats [in the state Legislature] because their safety cannot be protected in any way, shape or form the way any other worker in the state [is]. You can sue your employer otherwise. If you worked in an office, if you worked at a factory, if you worked at a plant and your employer refused to protect you from armed gunmen and refused to protect you from COVID, you could sue them. And you might come away with a really substantial judgment in your favor.
That’s one of the reasons why I have really worked hard, in fact, established a leadership PAC [political action committee], to try to flip the state House [to Democratic control]. I know the Senate’s not up this year, but we can at least bring some sanity to the state House and people who care about just reasonable policies. And I would say whether it’s mandatory that people that are legislators have to wear masks so that we don’t have more people getting infected and more deaths amongst legislators, or whether it’s the gun situation.
Really the Capitol sort of stands alone, as this place where the Legislature itself refuses to protect its own membership to the extent that they have. I don’t know. It defies reason, it defies logic. I can’t explain it.
Michigan Advance: Is there anything else that you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you?
Nessel: The thing is that I really feel as though it is really just a matter of time. Even these groups, these sort of larger, more organized efforts for these domestic terrorist groups, even if they do not settle on a plan to overtake the Capitol, all it takes is two or three of these guys with multiple [firearm] magazines. And they can bring in whatever they want. I mean, you could take out an entire chamber of legislators in a minute. You really could. So it’s something that could happen at any time, and I don’t think it’s going to, now that the governor has buffed up her security [and] many other folks in government are being a lot more cautious than they’ve been in the past.
But the one place that you know you can walk into any time with a full kit, fully geared up and literally do whatever you want is the Michigan Capitol. And I don’t think that’s going to escape their interest or attention, especially if the election doesn’t go the way that I think some of those folks are hoping it will go.
I have grave concerns about our legislators, and the press, everybody else who works at the Capitol. … I know that schools aren’t doing the same types of activities that they used to, but if things don’t change, I mean, my kids went and visited the state Capitol and I signed a permission slip for them to go. I would never do that now.
And that’s a sad state of affairs, when the state Capitol is a place that is too dangerous to allow your school-aged child to visit and see how his or her state government operates, because there’s too significant a chance that they’ll either catch a deadly bug or that they’ll be murdered.