Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday tied a thwarted kidnapping plot against him to public statements by President Donald Trump, calling the president’s rhetoric “regrettable.”
His comments followed reports earlier Tuesday that members of an anti-government paramilitary group who allegedly sought to kidnap Michigan’s governor also discussed abducting him.
Northam, in his first public appearance since being diagnosed with COVID-19, cited comments by Trump urging his supporters to “liberate Virginia.” The president has at least twice made such comments, criticizing Northam over his stay-at-home order and deriding him as a threat to people’s Second Amendment rights.
“Words have meaning to people, when our leaders make statements like this. That’s just one example of many,” Northam said.
The governor added that he will not “work under a cloud of intimidation,” and recalled his service in Iraq against enemies to U.S. troops.
“What is different now, which is concerning to me, is that the people that are making comments and the rhetoric about our elected officials, not just me or the governor of Michigan, these threats, this rhetoric, is not coming from another country. It’s coming from Washington. That, I regret, and it needs to stop.”
The White House on Tuesday quickly pushed back against claims that the president’s public statements had in any way contributed to the plot, instead chiding Northam for “sowing division.”
“President Trump has continually condemned white supremacists and all forms of hate. Governor Whitmer, and now Governor Northam, are sowing division by making these outlandish allegations,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement emailed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “America stands united against hate and in support of our federal law enforcement who stopped this plot.”
Earlier Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that an FBI agent testified that members of the anti-government group that allegedly planned to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had also discussed kidnapping Northam during a June meeting in Ohio.
“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders,” FBI special agent Richard Trask testified during a court hearing in Michigan on Tuesday. He said the people at the meeting were unhappy with the governors’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic; Trask did not share further details about the threats against Northam.
A spokesperson for the Northam administration said Tuesday that the FBI had alerted “key members” of the governor’s security team throughout the course of the investigation, though notably, Northam himself was never informed, and neither were other members of his staff.
Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said in an interview that the governor regularly fields threats, as do many public officials. Per the administration’s protocol, Northam isn’t notified unless the threat rises to a level of a risk that would demand it.
Moran said the governor’s security was enhanced at the start of the year, when threats against Northam intensified as he and the new Democratic majorities in the General Assembly pushed to tighten gun control laws in the state.
The legislative push attracted thousands of demonstrators to Richmond, some armed, and a slew of threats against Northam and other elected officials.
Northam’s appearance on Tuesday marked the first time he has appeared in public since being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Sept. 25. Northam developed mild symptoms a week after his diagnosis, but continued to work through his recovery, issuing video updates from the Executive Mansion throughout his 18-day quarantine.
Northam and his wife, Pam, have both been cleared by medical professionals.
The governor on Tuesday touted that 65 people were deemed to have been in close contact with him and/or his wife when they were likely infectious, and none tested positive for the virus.
Northam said he believed that consistent wearing of masks helped mitigate spread.
“I truly believe that is a testament to wearing masks,” Northam said. “My press secretary and official photographer and security detail traveled with me for several hours at a time the week that Pam and I were diagnosed. We wear our masks in the car, or on the plane. And thankfully, none of them got sick.”
On this topic, too, Northam eventually circled back to Trump, whose White House saw a slew of staffers and guests test positive for COVID-19 in short succession. Northam specifically pointed to the Sept. 26 gathering at the White House’s Rose Garden, where Trump, joined by many supporters, formally introduced his latest nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett.
“A gathering where people cavalierly sat together, stood together, hugged each other — you saw, just like I saw, no masks, no social distancing, and look at the number of people that tested positive,” Northam said.
“The guidelines that we’re following in Virginia, they work. And when we don’t follow those guidelines, we have outbreaks like we saw in Washington.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.