Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses members of the media and Midland County residents during a press conference at the temporary shelter at the school, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Midland.  (Katy Kildee/Midland Daily News via AP)
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses members of the media and Midland County residents during a press conference at the temporary shelter at the school, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Midland. (Katy Kildee/Midland Daily News via AP)

TRAVERSE CITY—The conviction of two men for conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shows that jurors in a deeply divided nation can still reach agreement in politically charged cases, experts say.

But it leaves unanswered questions about the potential for violence by extremists with a vendetta against government and law enforcement, they say.

“I hope it will be a deterrent in the future, but we need to see some softening of the rhetoric before we can accurately predict that,” said Michael Edison Hayden, spokesman for the nonprofit Southern Policy Law Center, which monitors hate groups.

A federal jury in Grand Rapids returned guilty verdicts Tuesday against Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. on two counts of conspiracy. Two others in the plot, Kaleb Franks and Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty earlier.

Franks’ sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 6, Fox’s for Dec. 12 and Croft’s for Dec. 28. Garbin is serving a six-year term, but prosecutors Wednesday asked a judge to cut that to three due to his “remarkable” assistance to the government.

Prosecutors said they planned to grab Whitmer at her vacation home and blow up a bridge to stop police from responding.

A different jury in April deadlocked on Fox and Croft while acquitting two other men. That outcome prompted worries that the overheated political landscape was hampering jurors’ ability to put aside biases, particularly when the FBI—a frequent target of right-wing activists and commentators—was involved.

Some legal observers criticized the government’s handling of the case and questioned the wisdom of retrying it. Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor, said refusing to do so would have been “the coward’s way out.”

“We’re seeing an escalation of threats of violence against public officials,” McQuade said. “The only way to stop that is by holding people accountable when they engage in acts like this, threatening to harm public officials.”

The case unfolded against a backdrop of nationwide polarization.

Whitmer, a rising Democratic star, had exchanged barbs with former President Donald Trump and was unpopular with conservatives, including over her policies early on during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump and other Republicans had accused the FBI of being a tool of Democrats. He described the Whitmer kidnapping plan as a “fake deal.” Jury selection in the retrial of Fox and Croft happened the day after federal agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for classified documents. During the trial, a man apparently angered by the search tried to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati office and was killed.

Even so, the jury in Michigan’s Western District—a blend of urban, suburban and rural areas representing a broad political spectrum—delivered “a real statement that citizens of our country aren’t going to put up with violent actions against public officials,” said Mark Chutkow, a former Detroit federal prosecutor.

Less clear is what, if any, effect the case will have on anti-government extremism and white-hot partisanship. Following the verdict, Whitmer renewed her call to “lower the temperature.”

“This is about every American who is serving the public, who’s dealing with threats, whether it’s an election worker or it is a police officer or a teacher,” she told reporters Wednesday after a back-to-school event in suburban Detroit. “This continued political rhetoric that is aimed at inspiring people to hurt their fellow Americans is dangerous.”

The convictions of Croft and Fox could be another rallying cry for far-right extremists, although likely not as potent as 1990s sieges in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow with George Washington University’s program on extremism.

“It’s possible that individuals in anti-government spaces could leverage this as an example of continued tyranny, abuse of the rights of Americans,” Lewis said.

A more concerning outcome could be an increase in lone-wolf attacks as extremist groups become more wary of the potential for infiltration by undercover operatives, he said.

“It’s much harder with the lone actor,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t tell anyone his plans, he has legal access to firearms.”

The George Washington program is tracking cases against 49 people charged with “offenses related to the boogaloo movement,” a loose confederation of believers in a second civil war, he said.

Far-right paramilitary groups were gleeful about the first trial’s outcome and probably are unhappy with the convictions, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. But history suggests guilty verdicts are less likely to incite violent reactions than arrests perceived as unjust, he said.

It’s equally doubtful that the case will bring about a calmer tone in politics, Pitcavage said.

“We’re in such a heavily polarized society right now and few people seem to want to step back from the brink,” he said.

The most significant ripple effect, he said, might be what was avoided: another defeat and further damage to the FBI’s credibility.

Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor in California who has followed the Michigan case and criticized the government’s performance in the first trial, said the convictions vindicated the bureau’s investigation.

“Obviously there are folks who are always going to distrust the FBI,” he said. “But this is a big win.”

The convictions may boost public understanding of the FBI’s tactics in combating domestic terrorism, particularly use of undercover operatives, said Dennis Lormel, president of the Society of Former FBI Agents.

“I understand the concerns about overreaching, especially with the rhetoric about the FBI being politicized,” Lormel said. “But the opportunity to insert FBI employees or cooperating witnesses is critically important. If we lose that, we will be in a lot of trouble, we’ll see more terrorist attacks.”