In yet another demonstration of his characteristic disregard for the dangerous potential consequences of anything he says or does, President Trump prompted, then endorsed, a “lock her up” chant against Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer at his Saturday night campaign rally in Muskegon — less than two weeks after federal authorities said the FBI had foiled a plot to kidnap the governor and try her for “treason.” Then on Sunday, after Whitmer accused the president of inciting domestic terrorism during a television interview, Trump’s campaign hit a new spurious low by trying to suggest that she was secretly fomenting attempts on the president’s life.
The plot against Whitmer, which involved more than a dozen anti-government extremists, was in part motivated by opposition to the lockdown measures Whitmer ordered in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the state. That’s exactly what Trump again attacked the governor for on Saturday prior to the chant breaking out.
“You’ve got to get your governor to open up her state!” Trump told the packed crowd, the same day that Michigan reported its highest-ever seven-day total of new coronavirus cases. The president then chuckled after his supporters began chanting “Lock her up!”
“Lock ’em all up,” he responded.
The chant returned later in the rally after Trump mentioned the lockdown measures again. “A guy like Biden and the Democrats want to keep Michigan locked up, locked down, and closed for business. No, it’s so badly hurting you stay —” Trump said before allowing the “lock her up!” chant to interrupt him for a few seconds. He then went on to skeptically mention the plot against Whitmer:
And then I guess, uh, they said she was threatened. Right? And she blamed me! She blamed me and our people were the ones that worked with her people. So let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens. But I have to tell you something, our FBI has to start looking at Antifa and they have to start looking at some people that they’re not looking at like they should be.
Trump also told his supporters that Whitmer and Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel could not be trusted to handle the ballots for next month’s election. “Be careful of her and her attorney general, because you know they’re like a judge of the ballot stuff, right?” Trump said. “How the hell do I put my political and our country’s political life in the hands of a pure partisan like that? So you’ve got to watch it. Watch those ballots. Watch what’s going on. You’re more important than any eyes, and law enforcement is watching.”
“This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans,” Whitmer tweeted while Trump was still speaking at the rally. “It needs to stop.”
Tori Saylor, Whitmer’s deputy digital director, added that, “I see everything that is said about and to her online. Every single time the President does this at a rally, the violent rhetoric towards her immediately escalates on social media. It has to stop. It just has to.”
On Sunday morning during a Meet the Press interview, Whitmer then accused Trump of inciting domestic terrorism. “It’s incredibly disturbing that the president of the United States, ten days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial, and execute me, ten days after that was uncovered, the president is at it again and inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism.”
Joe Biden made a similar accusation on Saturday, linking the plot targeting Whitmer to Trump’s “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” tweet in mid-April. It’s not confirmed how much the suspects, some of whom are followers of the multi-factional anti-government boogaloo movement (which includes both pro- and anti-Trump elements), were motivated by the president’s rhetoric. On Friday, an FBI agent on the case testified that he believed the plot preceded Trump’s tweet and declined to speculate on why group’s alleged ringleader had said he wanted to kidnap Whitmer before the November 3 election.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Whitmer over her response to the pandemic, despite the fact that the state is not under anything like the oppressive lockdown he implies. On Thursday, Trump accused her of wanting to be a “dictator” while celebrating two Michigan Supreme Court rulings against some of her coronavirus-related executive orders. The governor has still found ways to institute similar measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, however, and she remains far more popular than Trump in the battleground state.
While Trump insisted last week that “I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence” and has tried to take credit for the FBI’s efforts to protect her, the “law and order president” has also consistently signaled that he believes the enemies of his enemies are his friends. When it comes to policy, he has reportedly resisted or dismissed concerns about the rising threat of domestic terrorism. And on Sunday, his campaign threw some gunpowder on the anti-Whitmer fire.
During the governor’s remote appearance on Meet the Press, an anti-Trump “86 45” pin could be clearly seen on her desk in the background. “45” refers to Trump, and “86” is slang primarily used by restaurant workers to denote getting rid of something or it being out of stock, or refusing to serve a customer — though the shorthand, which has no confirmed etymology, has become popular outside the service industry as well.
The Google-armed linguists at the Trump campaign, however, later claimed that “86” has a far more nefarious meaning. The campaign alleged in a Sunday afternoon tweet that “86 can be shorthand for killing someone,” so it therefore stands to reason that “Whitmer is encouraging assassination attempts against President Trump.”
The Trump campaign wasn’t alone, either. Other screencaps of Whitmer’s interview have circulated on social media with red circles highlighting the pin alongside decoding of her murderous numerology. The Republican Speaker of the Michigan House, Lee Chatfield, didn’t go all-in on the assassination leap, but he still tried to leverage the pin for some light both-sides outrage — even though he had lamented on Saturday night that “[Whitmer] was literally just targeted” by the “lock her up!” chants. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too when it comes to civility and respect,” he said Sunday.
It’s not yet clear how far Trump’s allies and supporters will run with the obviously ridiculous suggestion that Whitmer supports killing the president. Hours after the fact, the campaign tried to reframe the provocation as tit-for-tat pushback. (“Gretchen Whitmer can’t have it both ways. These are the standards she set,” it said in a follow-up tweet.) But desperate false equivalency posed as campaign savvy hardly justifies the risk of what could happen if more well-armed extremists take the allegation seriously.
Unfortunately, when it comes to this kind of rhetoric — as with Trump’s comments regarding Whitmer, mail-in ballots, voter fraud, white supremacists, QAnon, unswept forest floors, the media, “Democrat cities,” migrant caravans, antifa, birth certificates, women, Biden ending Christmas, Black Lives Matter protesters, hurricane death tolls, debate moderators, Muslims, the suburbs, gun control, and just about every aspect of the pandemic, including Trump’s continued attacks on lockdowns at a time when many states are already struggling against COVID-19’s third wave — the carelessness is a self-serving feature, not a bug.