Updated, 8:20 a.m., 2/11/21
After facing social media backlash for his September comments about helping militia leaders in Michigan with messaging; Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) changed his story Tuesday in an interview with Bart Hawley of JTV in Jackson.
In an interview in September with Hawley, Shirkey said he met with leaders of three Michigan-based militias to help “improve their message” and said they had gotten “a bad rap,” as the Advance previously reported.
“It was very fascinating and they’re not uniquely different than you and I. They bleed red, white and blue, but they feel like they are not being heard,” Shirkey said.
But he changed his tune Tuesday when Hawley asked him if his views had changed in relation to militias. Since then, some members of the Wolverine Watchmen have been charged in an alleged kidnapping and execution plot of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and at least one militia member has been arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“The purpose was very narrow. Because I defend their right to assemble; defend their right to protest. But I was asking them about, do they have codes of conduct, so they can hold themselves accountable and so the public can hold them accountable?” Shirkey said. “That was the entire meeting was about, do you have a code of conduct? Would it be helpful? I am pleased to report that a couple of groups went out and created their own codes of conduct.I recommended that they actually carry their cards in their pockets so if a media person were to come up to them, they’d show it to them.”
In Shirkey’s new account about the meeting, he alleged in the course of the conversation he was “challenging” the leaders on their gun safety protocols.
“For instance, I said, ‘Do you make sure that your members don’t have a live round in their chambers?’ Some said, ‘Yeah we make sure that’s part of our deal.’ And some said we don’t have a position on that,” Shirkey said. “Another question I asked them about was where do you put your finger on whatever gun you happened to be carrying? It was those kinds of things I was challenging them to just demonstrate to the public that yes you have the right to do what you are doing but you have the responsibility to do it responsibly and safely.”
Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann did not respond to or acknowledge a series of questions the majority leader’s meeting with the militia leaders. Among the questions sent by text message Tuesday afternoon were: Which story that Shirkey has told about his militia leader meeting was accurate? Who attended the meeting on a day the building was closed? Who were the militia leaders he met with and has he had additional meetings with militia members or leaders since?
In September, Shirkey claimed the meeting with militias was organized in cooperation with the Michigan State Police (MSP). But spokeswoman Shanon Banner said that was not the case.
“The MSP was not involved in organizing any meetings for Senator Shirkey, introducing him to the leaders of any militias, or sharing the names of any militia leaders with him,” Banner said in an email response to an inquiry from the Michigan Advance. “The only information we passed along [to the Senate sergeant-at-arms] was the contact information for the one individual who contacted us with legislative concerns.”
In Tuesday’s interview, Shirkey claimed law enforcement and security were present with him during the meeting with militia leaders. Banner said MSP was not in the room for the meeting.
“Our only other involvement in this matter was that on the day that Senator Shirkey met with these individuals, the Capitol was closed,” she said. “We were notified that he was meeting with some individuals and we allowed them entry into the building for that specific purpose.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center said there 18 militias operating in Michigan in 2019. Its 2020 listings are expected in the spring. And that is raising concerns among experts.
“It is extremely disturbing that Majority Leader Mike Shirkey not only openly admits meeting with members of far-right militia groups but is still defending his decision to do so after the meeting came to light,” said Carolyn Normandin, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “All elected leaders have a responsibility not to engage with extremists.
“This is especially important in Michigan, which has a long history of militia-related violence and terrorism. Particularly in light of the violence in D.C. and the plot against our state’s Governor earlier this year, it is imperative that our state leaders avoid engaging with dangerous antigovernment groups.”
Amy Cooter, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan by studying Michigan-based militias, said not all militias are necessarily radicalized and prepared for violence. She has split the militias into two separate ideological forms — constitutional, which she said tend to be less violence-prone, and millenarian, which tends to be more radical and willing to take up arms.
She said while the meeting itself, without a big photo opportunity, wouldn’t assist militias in recruiting new members, it did send a message to current members.
“It solidifies the belief among existing members that they are on the right side, so to speak,” she said.
The senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said she has concerns about Shirkey’s meeting, noting that not all militias operate with violent intent; but that situations like the election and pandemic orders could push the less radical groups further into radicalization.
“Shirkey seems to be aligning with militia groups collectively as an appeal to libertarian values about small government that serves the people,” she said. “Without more info on which groups were involved, it’s hard to say whether that was a good idea on any level, and I, frankly, have doubts about most politicians’ knowledge and general ability to differentiate between problematic and non-problematic groups. At the very least, the optics look bad giving the timing around the arrests and around how groups have let previous ideological boundaries slip in the interest of working toward a perceived common goal about the ‘direction’ of the county.”
State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) said she was “appalled” to learn of Shirkey’s meeting and his changing narrative.
“He needs to get his story straight,” she said. “It doesn’t draw any additional confidence in him.”
She said the meeting was even more “alarming and concerning” in light of complaints from Shirkey and former Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) they had no heads up on the investigation into the plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer.
“When I think about questions members, leadership — like Shirkey and former Speaker Chatfied — have posed about why wasn’t the Legislature informed?” she said. “This is why. These are people who are acting in ways that would give law enforcement pause to inform them of their investigations or their processes or anything related to a credible threat.”
She said that it is unlikely Shirkey will face backlash in the Senate for his actions, noting Democrats are in the minority.
“Until someone on the other side gets a spine, nothing’s going to happen,” she said.
The meeting with militia leaders was not the only time Shirkey has been present with militia members.
This was in light of a mob of anti-COVID-19 lockdown protesters swarming the Capitol on April 30, including some militia members armed with long guns and sidearms.
Shirkey permitted several armed protesters to fill the Senate gallery as members voted to authorize the Legislature to sue the Democratic governor over her pandemic orders. He met with some of the protesters and blocked reporters from covering their conversation.
That incident has been called a “dry run” for the insurrection on Jan. 6 in the U.S. Capitol by Attorney General Dana Nessel.
In May, he attended two protests against Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions. One was in Grand Rapids, where militia groups provided security. Another event in Barry County featured members of the Michigan Liberty Militia (MLM) and Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf.* Two of the MLM members present, William and Michael Null, were charged by state authorities in October for the plot against Whitmer. Leaf has defended the men as trying to affect a “citizen’s arrest” of the governor.
On Oct. 8, just a month after Shirkey’s initial interview on JTV, federal and state authorities revealed charges against 13 men in an alleged plot to kidnap the governor and put her on trial and execute her. The plans also called for an alternative action of taking over the state Capitol and holding hostages they would then execute hourly. At least three of the accused plotters had ties to one of the larger militias in the state, the Michigan Liberty Militia. The group’s leader, Phil Robinson has since told the Advance his compatriots are “not guilty” of the charges leveled against them.
The Michigan Democratic Party on Sunday called for an investigation of Shirkey for his militia leader meeting, but did not identify who should investigate.
Whitmer was asked about Shirkey’s meeting in a Tuesday press conference on her latest COVID plan.
“I don’t know how to respond to the revelation that the Senate majority leader has been meeting with militia groups,” She added: “What groups did he meet with? Were any of them involved in the plot to kidnap and kill me?”
Correction: The story incorrectly stated the county for which Dar Leaf serves as sheriff.