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Michigan's Capitol Prepares For Threatened Violence From Far-Right Extremists

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With just four days to go before Joe Biden's inauguration as the nation's 46th president, law enforcement officials in Washington and all across the country are on high alert, monitoring for possible violence by pro-Trump armed extremist groups. Here in Washington, D.C., U.S. Capitol Police said they arrested a man who tried to enter a restricted area with an, quote, "unauthorized inauguration credential," unquote, a handgun and 500 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle. The man was charged in court today. And thousands of National Guard troops have been deployed to help secure the city ahead of the inauguration on Wednesday.

Similar precautions are being taken at state capitols around the country, especially in states that have already been dealing with threats posed by violent far-right extremists. So we're going to begin tonight by focusing on one of those states - Michigan. For that, we're joined now by that state's attorney general, Dana Nessel.

Attorney General, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DANA NESSEL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, some state officials have warned of credible threats against the state Capitol in Lansing this weekend. And days ago, the building was evacuated because of a bomb scare. I just wanted to ask, you know, how did today go? How is this weekend going - any disturbances?

NESSEL: Well, so far, nothing serious that I've been alerted to. But I'm feeling confident that this weekend, for whatever comes, we will be as prepared as possible. Next week, they've already canceled sessions in the state Legislature. And as much as I don't like the thought of our state lawmakers being held hostage to extremist groups, I'm relieved because given, of course, the inauguration occurring, I think it's a time where it's just not worth the risk to hold session.

And, of course, the way things work in Michigan is, pursuant to the Open Meetings Act, you have to allow the public into the building and to be able to witness proceedings when the Legislature is convening. And we are one of the few states in America that allows weapons into our state Capitol, and we don't even have metal detectors.

MARTIN: You know, as I think many people will remember, last year, armed protesters showed up in Lansing to protest Governor Whitmer's stay-at-home orders and other pandemic control measures. And the governor was also the target of a kidnapping plot. And I wonder if you think that that was a precursor to what we saw at the Capitol and that - if you think that perhaps federal officials should have seen that as a precursor to what happened at the Capitol.

NESSEL: I absolutely believe it was a dry run of sorts. We know that, firstly, many of the people that were involved in that incident ultimately ended up being involved and have been indicted for the plot, not just to kidnap and later execute the governor, but also one of their alternative plans was to lay siege to the state Capitol and either to bomb the Capitol or to execute people within the Capitol.

So, that being the case, and the fact that that was known to federal law enforcement - I mean, certainly, it was all over the news - I don't know how you could not have expected the sequence of events that occurred later in Washington, D.C. And, in fact, many of the people that were part of that event in Lansing actually made their way to Washington, D.C., and were part of the people involved in the riots and in the insurrection in D.C.

MARTIN: Going back to Lansing now, you mentioned that it's an open-carry state. Officials have banned the open carry of weapons inside the Capitol building. Is that correct?

NESSEL: They have. That's true. But they have not banned firearms for visitors who want to enter the Capitol. So to me, a firearm that you can't see will kill you just as easily as one you can. So just because you're putting a coat or a jacket over a firearm or you're concealing it in a backpack doesn't make people any more safe in that building. And I think we certainly have not gone far enough. And I remain very, very concerned about the threat to people who work in the Capitol and visit the Capitol.

MARTIN: You know, after everything that's happened over the past year and just over the past weeks, just - can I just close by just asking, what are your thoughts as we prepare to witness the presidential inauguration in just a few days, which is normally a time of - I don't know - national celebration?

I mean, obviously, everybody doesn't always agree with the person who was selected, but normally, it's a time - you know, people are celebrating and enjoying the peaceful transfer of power in the country, which is something that I think, you know, most people have taken for granted up until now. What are your thoughts? Like, how are you feeling about this moment in your state's and the country's history?

NESSEL: Well, firstly, we have to start taking the issue of domestic terrorism far more seriously than we have in the past. And what I've seen in the past is people simply sort of ignore these folks instead of taking them as seriously as they would if they were foreign actors. They're not any less dangerous because they live here and were radicalized here.

But also, you know, this is a time that, you know, Republicans have to do some real soul-searching. They have to distance themselves from Donald Trump. They have to distance themselves from this ridiculous rhetoric involving a conspiracy that the election was not fair and that it was not accurate because absolutely it was. So I hope that we can rebuke many of the events of the last four years and move on together as a country.

MARTIN: That was Michigan's attorney general, Dana Nessel. Attorney General, thank you so much for speaking with us today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.