One of the men charged this week in a militia plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan shared the stage earlier this year with an extremist sheriff at an anti-lockdown rally, highlighting the often cozy relationship across America between law enforcement and violent right-wing paramilitary groups.
William Null, 38, was among seven men arrested this week in Michigan on state charges of material support for terrorist acts and possessing firearms in the commission of a felony. Prosecutors allege Null is a member of a far-right militia group called the “Wolverine Watchmen” that had teamed up with another militia contingent in a plot to, among other things, kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and put her on trial for “treason.” Six other men in the plot were also arrested Thursday on federal kidnapping charges.
After the arrests, Fox17 reported that the Null was among the armed attendees of a May rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, against Whitman’s lockdown measures to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Fox17 showed footage of Null appearing onstage at the rally, carrying a long gun and standing alongside Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf as the sheriff lashed out at Whitmer in a speech to the crowd.
In a shocking interview with Fox 17 on Thursday, Leaf said he had no regrets for having appeared at the rally with the recently arrested militiaman. He added that he knew Null — as well as his identical twin, Michael, who was also arrested in the terror plot — and called the brothers “nice” and “respectful.” He also appeared to defend the Nulls’ motive for the alleged kidnapping plot, arguing that there’s a legal argument to be made that Whitmer should be arrested for imposing coronavirus restrictions.
What Leaf did not address in his Fox 17 interview, however, is his membership in the right-wing extremist “constitutional sheriffs” movement — a close ally of America’s armed militias — that has gained a concerning momentum during the era of President Donald Trump.
Leaf, according to a database created by the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, attended the 2019 conference of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
The CSPOA is the flagship organization of the constitutional sheriff’s movement, which maintains that sheriffs are the ultimate law-enforcement authority in their respective counties, outranking officials from the federal or state government. Constitutional sheriffs are part of the broader antigovernment “patriot” movement in the U.S., which is animated by a multitude of conspiracy theories about immigrants, Muslims, Jews, gun control measures, and a coming “New World Order.”
The CSPOA also has a close working relationship with armed far-right paramilitary groups. Among those who attended the 2019 CSPOA conference with Leaf was Stewart Rhodes, leader of the national militia organization the Oath Keepers.
Leaf did not immediately respond to a HuffPost request for comment on his affiliation with CSPOA on Friday. According to Political Research Associates, the sheriff was also the signee of a 2014 CSPOA resolution. In 2013, a far-right patriot group listed Leaf as an ally.
“One of the things that has been concerning [about] constitutional sheriffs more broadly, is that they have been normalizing a relationship between elected officials and self-proclaimed militias,” Cloee Cooper, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told HuffPost.
Last month, Cooper published a map showing 401 documented “constitutional sheriffs” across the U.S. since 2013, 161 of whom are currently in office.
One of the goals of these sheriffs, Cooper said, is to legitimize militia groups and turn them into “sheriff’s posses” who can be enlisted to patrol their respective city’s streets.
The danger of law enforcement lending credibility to such groups has come into clear focus over the last four years, as militias have been implicated in violent plots targeting Muslims, leftist and anti-racist protesters, and most recently, the governor of Michigan.
Such groups have also enjoyed the endorsement and encouragement of the Trump administration, which shares militia groups’ bigoted and conspiratorial views about Muslims and immigrants.
Constitutional sheriffs have been a regular fixture of anti-lockdown protests across the U.S, like the one the Null twins attended with Leaf in Grand Rapids.
Organizers of that event — titled “American Patriot Rally-Sheriffs speak out” — encouraged attendees to show up armed. A promotional video for the event included photoshopped images of Whitmer against a backdrop of former communist leaders, comparing her coronavirus restrictions to Stalinism.
The organizers of that rally were also behind an April 30 anti-lockdown protest in Lansing, Michigan, where armed protesters entered the state capitol building, disrupting a legislative session.
Among those spotted in the Capitol were the Null brothers, prosecutors announced on Thursday. They can be seen in a photo posted to Twitter that day by Democratic state Sen. Dana Lynn Polehanki.
“Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us,” Polehanki wrote. “Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.