New: Michigan GOP Senate leader advised militias on messaging, says they’ve gotten ‘a bad rap’

By: - January 17, 2021 12:17 pm

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Just a month before 13 men were charged by state and federal law enforcement for a far-right plot to allegedly kidnap and execute Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) had a sitdown conversation with leaders of three Michigan-based militias. 

“I was in Lansing and members — the leaders, the so-called leaders — of three of the groups met in my office and we talked about their messaging, their purpose, what they are trying to accomplish and how they could improve their message,” he told JTV host Bart Hawley in an interview on Sept. 10. “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.”

He claimed in the interview that Michigan State Police assisted him identifying the militia leaders and that such a meeting “has never been done before.”

A spokesperson for Shirkey did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Lackomar, team leader Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia team leader and spokesman said leadership from his group was not part of the meeting and he doesn’t have information on what groups were.

On Sunday, armed, right-wing groups are set to converge on the Michigan Capitol in Michigan after the pro-President Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an alert about demonstrations in all 50 state Capitols and Washington, D.C. before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Whitmer has called up the National Guard.

Shirkey said in an interview on WJR-AM on Monday that he didn’t believe the FBI bulletin was necessary, as the Advance previously reported.

“I think that the entire nation is [in] a state of high emotion right now,” Shirkey said. “And there should be a concerted effort for everybody to practice ‘first seek to understand before endeavoring to be understood,’ and just start listening to each other.

“It just hurts my heart to hear that the FBI is announcing things like that, and I don’t think it’s necessary. And it is up to us as citizens of this nation to calm that down. And the best way for us to do that is to become neighbors again, not enemies,” Shirkey said.

However, on Friday, Shirkey and House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) issued a joint statement that legislative sessions would be canceled this week because the “Michigan State Police, as well as House and Senate sergeants at arms, have expressed concern over credible threats regarding events scheduled to take place at and around the state Capitol.”

As for the militias, of which an estimated 18 operate in Michigan 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Shirkey told JTV in September they were getting a “bad rap.” 

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 side arms. 

While sergeant-at-arms held off demonstrators from entering the state House chamber, Shirkey allowed several armed protesters to fill the Senate gallery as members voted to authorize the Legislature to sue the Democratic governor over her pandemic orders. Shirkey 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. 

On Oct. 8, just a month after Shirkey’s confab with militia leaders, 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.

Shirkey issued a Twitter statement condemning the alleged plot that same day, but failed to mention his own connections and meetings with militias in the previous months. 

“A threat against our Governor is a threat against us all. We condemn those who plotted against her and our government. They are not patriots,” tweeted Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. “There is no honor in their actions. They are criminals and traitors, and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

That same day Shirkey and then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) attended a protest against COVID restrictions at the Capitol where he said the rally-goers were not the same people as those who had been charged in the kidnapping plot. That was despite allegations that the alleged conspirators used anti-lockdown protests in Lansing to recruit like-minded folks to their cause. 

The plotters were particularly upset with Whitmer’s executive orders designed to slow the spread of coronavirus and prevent health systems being overwhelmed with the infected and dying from the novel respiratory virus. 

Shirkey has long advocated for a loosen of those restrictions, noting in early October it was time to “learn to live with the virus,” adding, “I’m also a big believer that there’s an element of herd immunity that needs to take place.” Medical experts called out his comments.

Last week, Shirkey revealed that he contracted COVID-19 in December and had it over Christmas. However, he has continued to criticize the Whitmer administration’s few remaining restrictions.

Amy Cooter, an expert who wrote her doctoral thesis on Michigan’s militia movement and now is a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville,Tenn., said in interviews with the Advance that the current Michigan militia movement has suffered from splintering over internal debates on how and if to respond to Black Lives Matter protests and COVID restrictions. 

The September meeting was not the first time Shirkey was arm-in-arm with militia members. Shirkey was a participant in a Barry County rally May 18 which featured Robinson, as well as accused plotters William and Michael Null. Also present at the event was Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, who has defended the plotters as attempting to enact a legal “citizen’s arrest” of Whitmer. 

MLive quoted Shirkey as telling the estimated 350 people in attendance in May, “Be ready to test and challenge government when they get it backasswards and they think they’re the ones who have the rights to give us, when really the government is to provide and protect our rights.”

In the interview with Hawley, the Jackson television host, Shirkey said militias had gotten “a bad rap.” He also indicated how difficult it was to know exactly how many groups exist, and how many members each group has. 

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown called Shirkey’s ties to militias “extremely troubling.”

“It would be extremely troubling if Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has ties to any militia group. As Governor Whitmer has said before, when our leaders meet with, encourage, share stages with, or fraternize with domestic terrorists they legitimize their actions – they are complicit,” she wrote in a Sunday morning email responding to an Advance inquiry. 

Brown continued, “Immediately after protestors stormed Michigan’s Capitol Building, Governor Whitmer asked the White House, Vice President Pence, Senator Shirkey and top Republicans in the legislature to help turn down the heat. She asked again after the plot to kidnap and kill her was thwarted.

“Instead, the same day the plot was revealed, Senator Shirkey joined protesters and spoke at a rally against the governor on the steps of the Capitol. Republican leaders refused to acknowledge the underlying problem or try to bring down the heat, which continued until the U.S. Capitol was attacked. It was a graphic reminder that actions and words have consequences, and that silence and complicity can be just as dangerous.”

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Todd A. Heywood
Todd A. Heywood

Todd Heywood is an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience. He's worked in print, online, radio and television. His reporting has been cited by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in the United Nations reports on HIV. He's an avid vintage Star Wars collector and lives in Lansing with his three dogs.