ELLA: Hi. My name's Ella (ph), and I just finished two hours of simultaneous phone banking and Zoom studying. This podcast was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
2:27 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, October 8.
ELLA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll probably still be talking to voters and studying the Federalist Papers.
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KHALID: A bit of multitask.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: (Laughter) And that's a good combination.
KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.
LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
KHALID: Six men are facing federal charges in this wild plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. The government is alleging that these men were driven by what they saw as the governor's, quote, "unchecked power." Andrew Birge is the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan.
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ANDREW BIRGE: The federal complaint in this case alleges that the FBI began an investigation earlier this year after becoming aware that, through social media, that a group of individuals was discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law enforcement components.
KHALID: Ryan, what should we know about this allegation?
LUCAS: The first thing I would say is that I called up a source of mine, and just upon answering the phone, the first words that I heard over the receiver was this is crazy. This is crazy. This is nuts. This is a plot that allegedly began in early 2020 with a couple of guys named Adam Fox and Barry Croft talking about overthrowing state governments. And they ultimately settled in on targeting the governor of Michigan. Not entirely clear why from the court papers at this point in time, but what we do know is that they had different ideas of how they wanted to take action over the course of several months.
This summer, they teamed up with other people who are part of - allegedly part of a militia in Michigan. And they had regular conversations, discussions about what they wanted to do. At one point, there was talk about targeting the state House in Michigan, taking it over. And what they ultimately decided upon was the best course of action for them would be to try to snatch the governor at her vacation home in Michigan. They did a lot of work to try to figure out where that was. Ultimately, they discovered it. They did a couple of kind of reconnaissance missions to figure out what would be the best course of action.
The important thing here, though, is that the FBI was actually attuned to this from the very beginning because they had confidential human sources who were in these various conversations that were going on and providing, essentially, real-time updates to the FBI about what this group of men were planning to do.
LIASSON: Well, Ryan, well, you said they were connected to a militia, so it doesn't sound like they were just a group of individuals. Does that mean they were part of a right-wing extremist group or a white supremacist group? I mean, what's the character of this group of guys?
LUCAS: There is no indication in the criminal complaint about their character other than the fact that they appear to be anti-government. They clearly held very strong views against what they viewed as state governments that they thought were violating the Constitution. But beyond that, there is no indication of any sort of racial motivation or any other motivation other than, as I said, anti-government. But we don't know a whole lot at this point. All we have is the criminal complaint to work on.
KHALID: You know, Ryan, you mentioned this plot, and it just feels - I mean, candidly, it just feels like this really far-fetched plan. And I guess I want to get a sense of, like, how far along were these folks? You mentioned that they had done some reconnaissance work and had found out where the governor's house was. You know, was this something that was imminent? Do we have any sense of actually how realistic this plot seemed?
LUCAS: So it was realistic in the sense that you had a group of individuals who were conspiring, who had firearms, were conducting firearms training, combat drills to prepare for the plot that they had settled upon. They had a timeline, which was they wanted to get this done before the November election. In terms of how realistic it was or how big of a threat it was, the fact that the FBI was aware of it from essentially the very beginning indicates that it doesn't seem like the governor was ever really in real danger.
KHALID: You know, Ryan, you mentioned that there was a timeline for this to occur before the November elections. And, Mara, I must point out that these militia groups as a whole seem to have become more outspoken. They seem to have become more visible in the last few years. And at times - at moments - it feels like President Trump has occasionally encouraged them. We saw that he tweeted out this phrase liberate Michigan in April. And this was happening around the time that armed protesters were gathering at the state House there in Michigan. So, I mean, I have to ask - I mean, has the White House offered any comment on today's news? Any sense of where they stand on all of this?
LIASSON: Not yet. The president not only tweeted out liberate Michigan in April, he described these protesters as patriots. He suggested that Gretchen Whitmer should sit down and make a deal with them. And, of course, we know that he's been very reluctant to condemn violence by armed white men in the past. He had defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the white man who's charged with killing two protesters in Wisconsin. As we know, he was reluctant to condemn white supremacy in the first debate with Joe Biden. So this is a constant theme with the president - that he says over and over again he considers the problem of violent extremism to be only on the left while his own FBI director has said that right-wing extremist groups are a much greater threat.
LUCAS: It is really striking, what you're saying there, Mara. And the fact that we have heard repeatedly out of both the attorney general and the president allegations about violence coming from the left, from Antifa in particular - really been the boogeyman for the administration - but without any sort of documentation of that in public court papers. And yet, here we have another plot that is tied to some sort of anti-government group that would appear to be an anti-government militia more on the right than on the left. And we do not see that sort of threat reflected in the rhetoric coming out of, as you mentioned, the president or, as I said, the attorney general.
LIASSON: Well, what about the FBI director, Ryan? I mean, he's been pretty clear on this. The president hasn't always been happy about what he's said. But how does the FBI view this problem?
LUCAS: The FBI views this problem as a significant one. You know, for a long time, obviously, international terrorism was the main focus for the FBI - just kind of the overwhelming focus of the national security establishment writ large, really. But what we have seen in the past couple of years is certainly the FBI attempting to shift its focus - at least publicly, in the way that it discusses these things - to domestic violent extremism coming from extremist groups here in the U.S. And as you noted, you know, the leading cause of concern on that front - particularly in terms of violence, if you go by the statistics - would be actors on the right as opposed to the left.
KHALID: Ryan, this is all such a fascinating story to cover, but we are going to let you go ahead and do more of that work. So thanks so much.
LUCAS: Thanks for having me.
KHALID: And we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll have the latest on next week's presidential debate, which may or may not actually occur.
And we're back. And we're joined now by Ayesha Rascoe. Hey there.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hey.
KHALID: So, Ayesha, we wanted to bring you on because there's been a lot of debate just in the last few hours about the status of the next presidential debate. President Trump is now suggesting that he will not participate in next week's town hall-style debate that was slated to occur in Miami. His campaign is pushing to delay that debate to the following week. And Trump, we should point out, you know, at this point in the race is down considerably to Joe Biden in national polling. He told Fox Business this morning that he objects to the newly announced virtual format. This was something that the Presidential Commission on Debates had initially announced for next week's format. They said that due to safety concerns, they felt like moving this to a virtual format would be best.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about - you sit behind a computer and do a debate. It's ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.
RASCOE: Well, and the reason why there are safety concerns is because President Trump has the coronavirus. And even though he also said on this interview this morning he doesn't feel like he's contagious, that's not something that you can tell by feeling. Depending on when you look at the CDC guidelines, if you have a serious case of the coronavirus, they say between 10 and 20 days you might, you know, be contagious. And so I think because of all of those concerns, you have the commission saying it has to be virtual. And President Trump totally said that he would not do that. But then the campaign came back and said, well, if we can't do the debate next week, let's just push the debates back by a week and presumably do them in person. They still want to do the debates in person, and they don't want them to be virtual.
KHALID: You know, Mara, what do you make of the president's positioning here? There was a - you know, that line he said in that tape clip we heard about how, in a virtual debate, they could cut you off, et cetera. That, you know, obviously that's been a concern of his given how much he was able to interrupt in that first debate.
LIASSON: Yeah. I think the simplest explanation is always the best. And I think he doesn't want someone else to be in control of his microphone. His posture in the last debate was of all-out aggression, and it's going to be harder to do that in a virtual format. It's also harder to do that in a town hall meeting format. The town hall was going to be the next debate. That means ordinary voters ask the questions. It's a lot harder to be as aggressive and domineering as the president was in the first debate when you're answering questions from ordinary people.
Now, there are many explanations for this. Maybe he isn't sure that he's going to be feeling up to debating next week or that he'll test negative. You know, if he wanted to get out of the debates, the commission gave him a handy excuse. But I should say, the president has not shied away from virtual communication. He issues videos recently from the White House. He isn't appearing in front of reporters. And, you know, he runs a risk here. Number one, he could be seen as being too chicken to debate. He also gives up an opportunity. The guy who's trailing is the candidate who needs the debates more.
KHALID: And we just got word that ABC News is intending to host a town hall with Joe Biden. It's going to be moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. And that's going to take place next week, on October 15. That was the night of the second debate. So it seems like in lieu of a second debate, Biden will be having his own town hall in Philadelphia on ABC News.
RASCOE: Yeah. A third debate would be October 29. So that's about five days before the - you know, the final day for voting. So that - you know, I mean, that is really close to, you know, when all of this will - at least on the side of people voting - will be wrapped up. We won't know - may not necessarily know all the results.
KHALID: You know, and we still haven't heard from the Commission on Presidential Debates. It would be nice if they could weigh in and give us a sense of, you know, at least putting an end to all this back-and-forth we've seen this morning between the two campaigns. But I want to play some more sound from that Fox Business interview that Donald Trump did this morning. It's not relevant to the back-and-forth over debates, but it was actually the president's take on the vice presidential debate that took place last night.
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TRUMP: And this monster that was on stage with Mike Pence - who destroyed her last night, by the way - but this monster, she says no, no, there won't be fracking, there won't be this - everything she said is a lie.
KHALID: You know, and to be clear, the monster that the president was referring to there is the Democratic vice presidential candidate, California Sen. Kamala Harris.
RASCOE: Yeah, and this from President Trump is a part of a pattern, especially when it comes to women of color. You know, people will often say, oh, President Trump goes after everybody. He does go after a lot of people. You know, I've looked at his tweets extensively. He does insult a lot of people. But there is a very specific way that he has gone after people of color and gone after Black women. We all remember when he called his former aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman, when he called her a dog. He doesn't go around, you know, calling everyone else a dog. In this case now, he is calling Kamala Harris a monster, so completely dehumanizing them. And I just have to say because we keep coming back to this issue - and I know that you guys talked about this earlier - about the way President Trump talks about, say, white supremacist groups or, you know, violent groups on the right. You know, when he was asked to disavow them and he said sure, he didn't call them a monster.
KHALID: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there. Remember that you can always follow us online for the latest on this debate debacle. There will probably be more developments coming in the days ahead. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
KHALID: And thank you, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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