Fact-check: Did Trump's 'Liberate Michigan' Tweet Inspire Plot to Kidnap Gov. Whitmer?

The FBI said Thursday it had foiled a militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Six men have been arrested and faced federal charges, while seven others were charged under Michigan's anti-terrorism act. Since then, a number of prominent Democrats have claimed the men arrested were inspired by President Donald Trump's tweet to "Liberate Michigan!"

The Claim

Whitmer, a Democrat, was quick to associate President Donald Trump's heated rhetoric with the plot, including his criticism directed at her and her state over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a speech following the FBI announcement, Whitmer highlighted Trump's comments about the right-wing Proud Boys group during the first presidential debate.

"Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups, like these two Michigan militia groups," Whitmer said.

"'Stand back and stand by,' he told them. 'Stand back and stand by.' Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told Business Insider on Thursday that Trump and Republican Michigan Senate Leader Mike Shirkey had lent legitimacy to militias like the one involved in this case.

"And then not only do you have our majority leader, Mike Shirkey, I mean he, I know has attended a number of their events. You have county sheriffs that are at their events, " Nessel said.

"And so their gripes, their complaints with the government seemed to be further legitimized by the fact that you have elected leaders [supporting them]—and in one case, of course, the commander-in-chief of our nation, putting things on his social media feed saying 'liberate Michigan.' And these guys think that he's talking to them. I mean, he actually said, if you recall, that the governor ought to sit down and negotiate with these armed gunmen."

When Biden was asked on Thursday if he believed Trump's "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" tweet had encouraged militias, he said "yes I do."

"The words he utters matters," Biden said, adding: "Why won't the president just say 'stop. Stop, stop, stop.' And if we will pursue you if you don't."

The Facts

On April 17, Trump tweeted: "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" as part of a series of tweets appearing to attack lockdown measures aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak. In the same month, protesters opposed to the lockdown entered the Michigan Senate Gallery and demanded access to the House Chambers. Some were armed.

On May 1, Trump wrote, "The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal."

The tweets have resurfaced in the wake of the arrests.

The FBI charging document said "[s]everal members talked about murdering 'tyrants' or 'taking' a sitting governor" and they discussed overthrowing state governments "that they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution." However, the sworn affidavit does not link the militia members to Trump.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that Whitmer's emergency executive orders were unconstitutional. The court said that statewide rules on fighting COVID-19 must be approved by the Republican-led legislature.

Trump strongly denied he had encouraged actions of the kind outlined in the FBI charging document. He took to Twitter to criticize Whitmer and Biden, while disavowing violence.

"My Justice Department and Federal Law Enforcement announced today that they foiled a dangerous plot against the Governor of Michigan. Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist—while Biden and Democrats refuse to condemn Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs that burn down Democrat run cities," he said.

"I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence. Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President! Governor Whitmer—open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!"

The Ruling


The FBI has provided no evidence that the arrested men were inspired by Trump. However, more information about their political beliefs and motivations is likely to come to light, particularly when the matter goes to trial. At this stage, it is not possible to say with certainty whether or not the men felt emboldened by the president.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer
In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the virtual convention on August 17, 2020. The convention, which was once expected to draw 50,000 people to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. Whitmer has associated a plot to kidnap her with President Trump's rhetoric. Handout/DNCC/Getty Images