German Coup Plot's Troubling Echoes Here
Too many U.S. police and military veterans still embrace far right ideas
On the eve of a vast German police raid to bust coup plans of a far right extremist group this week, officials in Washington, D.C. were gathering in the U.S. Capitol to honor police who put their lives on the line to stop a Trump-fueled American mob from overthrowing the U.S. government.
One of the honorees was former D.C. police officer Mike Fanone, who rushed to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and suffered grievous wounds at the hands of the rioters, who beat and tasered him and threatened him with his own gun. On top of his traumatic brain injuries, Fanone suffered a heart attack the day after the event and had to retire at age 40. Since then, he has become an outspoken foe of coup leader Donald Trump and congressional Republicans who minimized the attack and stayed loyal to the former president.
And that has earned him the enmity of his former colleagues in blue. In a disturbing incident at the honors ceremony, members of the Metropolitan Police Department's Special Operations Division heckled him, Fanone says.
“They called me a piece of shit and mockingly called me a great fucking hero while clapping," Fanone told NBC’s Justice reporter Ryan J. Reilly. “Fanone says they called him a disgrace, said he was not a cop anymore, and said he didn't belong at the ceremony. It happened in the rotunda,” Reilly tweeted.
Fanone has previously said he has been “ostracized for being outspoken about the Capitol riot and those who play down the violence that day,” The Washington Post’s police reporter Peter Hermann tweeted the same day.
Fanone, who recently authored a memoir, Hold the Line: The Insurrection and One Cop’s Battle for America’s Soul, said he has given up on D.C.’s thin blue line as a reliable shield against the extremists.
"I mean, at the end of the day, if those people are too ignorant to understand what I've been advocating for these past two years and the fact I had a lot to do with us being here today, then fuck them,” he told Hermann. He no longer brings his family to ceremonies honoring the Jan. 6 heroes, he said: “I don't want them to be subjected to what I am subjected to when I appear with members of my own department, a department I have advocated for at great personal cost.”
White extremist violence has metastasized under the noses of the FBI and state and local police in recent years. Especially during the Trump administration, a number of white FBI agents felt emboldened to openly express their own prejudices, black former FBI agent Terry Albury told me last April. Racist slurs against Muslims, Blacks, gays and others were a commonplace in his Minneapolis office, he said. It was no wonder that the bureau found it easier to run up the numbers against Muslim immigrants than “conservative” whites with First and Second Amendment rights, he said. In 2018, Albury, a 17-year veteran of the bureau, pled guilty to leaking internal documents about FBI domestic counterterror operations and was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released in 2020.
The willingness of too many police and military leaders and supervisors to ignore, or even embrace, extremists in the ranks raises uncomfortable questions about whether the U.S. might well be facing an elaborate coup plot in 2024 like the one German authorities disrupted last week, despite the Biden Justice Department’s successful prosecution of hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters and conspirators, including Oath Keepers leaders Stewart Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, convicted on sedition and other charges.
The antidiluvian German aristocrat Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss, 71, who was to head a new neo-Nazi monarchy of sorts had the coup succeeded, is no Trump, who still commands the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Americans despite all his increasingly heavy baggage. Reuss, who topped the list of 25 Germans arrested so far, seems more like a character out of Young Frankenstein. And yet he and his band included a far right legislator, a federal judge and members of special forces units skilled in subterfuge and sabotage.
“Beyond the immediate threat, the scale of the raids and the ambition of the plot prosecutors outlined pointed to persistent vulnerabilities to extremism in Germany’s core institutions — its Parliament, its judiciary, its local and state police, and even its most elite military forces — which the German authorities have struggled to root out in recent years,” the New York Times reported.
That should be a lesson for America.
“Once seen as harmless cranks, they are very active and pose a high level of danger,” the intelligence chief of the BfV, Germany’s internal security agency, said of the Reichsbürgers. Their coup attempt was reportedly imminent and sophisticated, with a mass violent assault on the legislature in Berlin coordinated with the assassinations of government officials and the takeover of ministries.
“They had already established plans to rule Germany with departments covering health, justice and foreign affairs,'' Berlin's top prosecutor said. The conspirators decided they could only realize their goals by "military means and violence against state representatives," Reuters reported, “which included carrying out killings.”
Axis of Evil
In comparison, the plans and aspirations of America’s pro-Trump groups on Jan. 6, 2021 were simplistic. Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes said they were waiting for a “signal” from Trump to “activate” them for a full-scale coup, which never came, even as Trump’s demonization of Vice President Mike Pence was enough for some rioters to try to locate and kill him. But White House loyalists and outside partisans like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Flynn, the former DIA chief, and a senior Justice Department official did conspire to invalidate the election of Joe Biden and keep Trump in office, according to evidence gathered by investigators. The Pentagon’s reluctance to rescue the besieged Congress suggested it was in cahoots with Trump.
Back in March, SpyTalk reported on an in-depth study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies that said extremist groups had made serious inroads in U.S. military and police units. Intelligence sources had told SpyTalk over the past year, meanwhile, that pro-Trump fervor was centered in special operations and hostage rescue units. Around the same time, intelligence sources told SpyTalk that members of U.S. special forces units were increasingly “unabashed” in vocalizing support for Trump, despite his baseless claims of stolen elections and attempts to hang onto power by any means necessary.
SpyTalk also reported that classified chat rooms in Intelink, the internal U.S. intelligence messaging system, became a “dumpster fire” of hate speech during the Trump administration, and that it was “ongoing,” with outspoken support by some for the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. Critics of the revelation responded that the miscreants were in no way representative of the larger intelligence community, especially civilian agencies like the CIA and NSA.
But the military services have a problem with extremists in their ranks.
“The Army, by far the largest service branch, so far has not implemented any notable changes to how it combats extremism and domestic terrorism in the force, or in how it screens applicants,” Military.com reported Thursday, citing a study by the Center for a New American Security. “None of the service's senior leadership has spoken publicly about the issue in any significant way,” despite Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s one-day stand down in February to address the issue.
“Multiple service officials interviewed by Military.com have said tackling extremism is not a high priority because it isn't seen as a significant problem. Also, any efforts or public statements would be a political minefield that could stoke further criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill and partisan media, which have painted extremism as a minor issue or an effort by Democrats and liberals,” wrote reporter Steve Beynon.
Likewise, most Germans thought of far right activists as a minor problem until one day in late August 2020, when hundreds of them, from a crowd of nearly 40,000 drawn to Berlin by Covid restrictions and other grievances, stormed the Reichstag. Suddenly, German security organs were on “high alert,” the New York Times reported.
“Over the previous 14 months, far-right terrorists have assassinated a regional politician on his front porch near the central city of Kassel, attacked a synagogue in Halle, in the east, and in February, killed 10 people in the west, in Hanau, the paper reported. “Even before the pandemic hit Germany, far-right extremism and far-right terrorism had been officially identified as the biggest danger to the country’s democracy.”
Could It Happen Here?
This week I asked retired senior FBI special agent Tom O’Connor, who spent most of his career tracking domestic violent extremists, whether America might face a future coup plot on the order of the one short circuited in Germany.
“It already did,” he said, pointing to the convictions of Oath Keepers Rhodes, Meggs and the oncoming sedition trials of other militants. As with the German plotters, “the Oath Keepers membership lists have included active and retired military and law enforcement,” inspired by “rhetoric being spewed by people in leadership positions,” O’Connor said.
The German far right party AfD, which holds seats in the Reichstag, is said to have significant links to violent extremists. Some congressional Republicans, like Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, have maintained friendly relations with groups like the Oath Keepers. Trump notoriously welcomed the support of the racist street fighting Proud Boys.
What U.S. law enforcement experts worry most about, however, is a lone extremist, inspired by Trump and the like, carrying out a devastating terrorist act. As with the racists who have attacked schools, synagogues, churches or department stores, most were considered just cranks, losers, or merely alienated oddballs, like the so-called Michigan Wolverine Watchmen gang who were charged in 2020 with plotting to kidnap and murder Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Seven of the accused, including Morrison, Musico and Bellar, have now been convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty to playing roles in the conspiracy, Reuters reported.
O’Connor points to Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled and sometimes delusional army veteran who in 1995 destroyed the massive Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City with a homemade 5,000-lb. truck bomb.
“McVeigh was a man with limited resources and contacts. He killed 168 people. The German group was made up of former military and those following conspiracy theories” such as Qanon, imported from the U.S. “So…being a nut does not make you any less dangerous. Especially when there are followers in the thousands,” O’Connor said.
Janet Reitman, an investigative reporter who has been writing authoritative pieces on law enforcement and extremism for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, said much the same in an interview last April. Racist low life extremists are often “doffuses…but that doesn't mean they're not dangerous,” she told me.
“This is one thing I've learned in my career: You can be a very dangerous doofus. You can be a complete idiot and you can also be dangerous,” she said. Reitman is currently at work on a book, The Unraveling of Everything, for Random House.
“The point is, we tend to see these people as dumb, marginal characters,” she elaborated this week. “It doesn’t mean they can’t also kill people. And it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand them as part of an important strain in American society. They are not all outliers. Many of them reflect the values and beliefs shared by a large number of people.”
The Republican Party has not rejected its own extremist drift. It’s shown little sign of rejecting Trumpite extremism and violence, as exemplified by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s raised fist salute to the mob gathering outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. (His subsequent fearful flight from the rampaging mob inside the Capital was famously captured by a closed circuit security camera.) Only a few Republicans voted to convict Trump on impeachment charges laid on him for provoking the Jan. 6 attacks. Most party leaders continue to support (or at least fear alienating) Trump, despite his courtship of convicted Jan. 6 rioters, neo-Nazis and outspoken racists and the multiple investigations of his presidency and businesses.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s mo
unting problems and losing record at the polls will cause the party, and his loyalist legions, to finally break from him. The same goes for militants like Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ magnetic leader, now that he’s facing serious prison time.
Cooling Off Period
The FBI’s wide-ranging Jan. 6 investigations and federal prosecutions has caused some leading pro-Trump militants to lay low for awhile, according to soundings by reporter Mike Giglio for The New Yorker. Previous federal crackdowns in the 1990s dissipated militant ranks, but as Travis McAdam, a researcher for the Montana Human Rights Network, told Giglio, “The people that leave these groups don’t leave their ideas and political education behind.” In 2012, the election (and subsequent reelection) of America’s first Black president re-ignited extremists and brought in new recruits.
The Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters may have abandoned violent confrontations for now, but they’re still preaching their anti-government mantras. It’s only a matter of time, experts say, before another military-trained misfit, like McVeigh—or an American version of Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss—picks up the baton.
For now, however, the figurehead remains Trump.
"I think these two stories are related, the German raid and Trump continuing to get more and more extreme in who he's meeting with and aligning with,” former FBI counterintelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi said on MSNBC. ” ... The more that Trump goes extreme... that allows the nation... to say... that's who he is.”
No doubt MSNBC’s largely liberal audience cheered that view. And it would buoy Mike Fanone. Alas, however, the fact is that too many just love Trump being Trump, and they want more of it.
UPDATE: We initially reported that the judge in the Michigan Wolverines Watchmen case said the feds failed to make their case and the charges were dismissed. The text has been corrected.
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