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Q&A: Jeffrey Toobin Connects Timothy McVeigh to Jan. 6
In a new book, the veteran legal journalist argues that the Oklahoma City bomber was part of a rise of right-wing extremism that produced the Capitol insurrectionists and mass shooters.
Jeffrey Toobin is a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book is Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh, with help from an accomplice, Terry Nichols, exploded a bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring 680. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Toobin draws a throughline from the Oklahoma City bomber to the January 6 insurrection, arguing that McVeigh's principles and tactics have lived on after his 2001 execution.
Toobin is also the author of books such as The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court and The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which was turned into an FX series. He was a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1993 until 2020 and a legal analyst at CNN from 2002 until 2022. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, he lives with his family in New York. Toobin and I spoke over Zoom earlier in the week; our conversation follows, edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: Why Timothy McVeigh? Why now?
Jeffrey Toobin: There's a specific answer and a general answer. The general answer is, I covered the McVeigh and Nichols trials in 1997 in Denver, so I've had a longstanding interest in the case.
The specific answer is in October 2020, the FBI brought down the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer drew my intention because it was led by the Michigan militia. I knew that Terry Nichols was affiliated with the Michigan militia. And I thought to myself, gosh, I know these people, this is not a new story. I decided to start looking into that. And then January 6 happened. I thought, there's a book here.
LJ: It seems that the number of people who knew about the plot is actually relatively small, but what groups or circles was McVeigh traveling in?
JT: I do think it's important to draw the precise distinction that you do. From a legal and a moral standpoint, the number of people who were actually implicated in the bombing itself was two or three. It was McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and their friend Michael Fortier, who knew about it and pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
LJ: Fortier was a methamphetamine addict as well.
JT: Yes, the meth addict from Arizona. One of the services I wanted to provide in the book was to, to answer the question, at least to my own satisfaction of whether there was a broader conspiracy for the bombing itself, because there have been a lot of rumors and conspiracy theories to that effect. The answer to that is no, there was not a broader conspiracy either involving foreign terrorists as people on the right have claimed, or more people, as people on the left have claimed.
McVeigh was part of the right-wing extremist movement of the 1990s. When he was a teenager in the late 1980s, when he became obsessed with the novel The Turner Diaries, which talked about a right-wing counterrevolution in the United States. After McVeigh flunked out of Special Forces school in 1992, he became obsessed with Rush Limbaugh. He started listening to Bill Cooper on shortwave radio. He read The Spotlight, Soldier of Fortune —
LJ: Which are magazines.
JT: The Spotlight was the magazine of Liberty Lobby, and Soldier of Fortune is a magazine roughly affiliated with the National Rifle Association.
He makes a statement to his lawyers, saying, "I know there's an army out there, I just couldn't find it." He did look for co-conspirators and partners, but he never actually found them. The movement he was part of was much broader than the number of people actually involved in the bomb conspiracy.
LJ: The bomb explodes; it's on a truck. McVeigh drives a getaway car, without a license plate. He's carrying a handgun without a permit. He's pulled over on the freeway. Can you explain why he was arrested and why he might not be arrested now?
JT: This is one of the great cinematic moments in this story. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Charlie Hanger is disappointed on the morning of April 19, not to be called to Oklahoma City to assist in the investigation. He is doing a normal patrol heading north away from Oklahoma City on I-35. He sees this battered Mercury Marquis, heading north at the speed limit with no license plate. He pulls it over. McVeigh gets out of the car. He sees as McVeigh's jacket tightens to the outline of a holster. He immediately tells McVeigh to get up against the trunk of the car. As he's frisking him, McVeigh says to him, "You know that gun is loaded." Hanger puts his service revolver to McVeigh's head and says, "So is mine," which I consider one of the most badass comments of all time.
Hanger sees that McVeigh doesn't have a license for the handgun, arrests him, and brings him to Perry, Oklahoma. In a series of screwups, McVeigh doesn't get arraigned and doesn't get released on bail for two days. Moments before he's to be released on bail, the FBI realizes he's the guy who rented the truck and says to hold him. And the rest is history.
The key legal point here is why was he arrested? In Oklahoma in 1995, as most anywhere else, you couldn't have a handgun without a permit. Because of the right-wing drift in Oklahoma, the state changed its law in 2019 so that you don't need a permit for a handgun. If Charlie Hanger arrested Tim McVeigh today, all he could do was give him a ticket and send him on his way for not having a license plate.
I think that is a good illustration of how McVeigh, as an individual, remains a reviled figure in Oklahoma and everywhere else. However, his views, especially about guns, have been in ascendancy since then.
LJ: You draw a distinction between Bill Clinton and Merrick Garland, who was the federal prosecutor at McVeigh's initial hearing, when he was in the Justice Department. What's that distinction?
JT: It is really about the public role of the government when it comes to the threat of right-wing extremism. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, President Clinton in the privacy of the Oval Office said to his aides that this was not Islamic terrorism, this was the militias. When I interviewed Clinton, I asked, "How did you know that?" He said, because I had dealt with them and their evil throughout my 12 years as governor of Arkansas. He told me about it, chapter and verse.
Garland had had a very different set of influences. The bombing was in April 1995. In January 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial had started and he was repelled by the spectacle. He was determined not to allow that to happen with the Oklahoma case.He determined that the best way to try this case was to keep it as narrow as possible, as low-profile as possible, and focused on the specific accusations against McVeigh and less on the larger political context.
Clinton gave a series of speeches afterwards, pointing out that the poisonous atmosphere created by Rush Limbaugh, though he didn't name him specifically, was partly responsible. Clinton had no way of knowing how right he was. Garland wanted everything done in the courtroom, not in public.
Fast-forward to his tenure as attorney general, and Garland has operated much in the same way. He has not raised the alarm about right-wing extremism and the threat to democracy in a way that I think he could have. In fairness to Garland, he has been aggressive in prosecuting the people who were involved in January 6, and to order the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. As for what the January 6 investigation ultimately turns out to be -- will higher-ups including Trump be prosecuted -- I don't think we know the answer to that yet.
LJ: But if I were to look at this from the other direction: Merrick Garland secured a conviction, it's not clear to me what the Bill Clinton speeches did politically after Oklahoma City for his presidency. Al Gore was not elected; Clinton was impeached after. Do you think more of a full-throated public criticism of right wing extremism would have made a difference?
JT: I can't know the answer to that question. I can't say that if Clinton and others had continued speaking out about right-wing extremism, the 2000 election [would have been different], there are so many variables. All I can say is that right wing-extremism was a huge threat. It remains a huge threat. And it's important to talk about it. Now, I don't think you can have this conversation without talking about what happened on September 11, 2001, when Islamic terrorists did engage in a massive attack on the United States. In the course of the understandable reaction to that disaster, I think the country took its eye off the ball when it comes to right-wing extremism. People on the right tried to create the impression that all terrorism was was Islamic. That led to a genuine neglect of the threat, which at least rhetorically continued into the Obama administration. I just know that right-wing extremism was a big threat and remains a big threat in this country.
LJ: My sense of this criticism is you're going beyond what Merrick Garland did or didn't do in 1995.
JT: Yes, it's much more about what Garland has not done as attorney general. I think it's important to recognize the limits of Garland's role in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. He was an upper level official; he was not a spokesperson, except in a very limited sense. He was not a policymaker. He wanted the case streamlined; he did not want a political background in it that was necessary. That's fair--I don't begrudge him for that decision. If Merrick Garland had not become attorney general, I'm not sure I would have raised the issue. But he did become attorney general. He has been very quiet on the larger threat. I think it's important to unpack the reasons for his behavior.
LJ: Can you talk a little bit more about your criticism of Merrick Garland now?
JT: The attorney general is not just the top prosecutor in the federal court system. He is the chief law enforcement officer in the United States. It is his job, not just to supervise prosecutions, but to talk about the threats to public life and order in the United States. I think Garland has taken an unduly narrow view of his public role. I think the actual prosecutions he has supervised have been generally excellent, including the prosecutions of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on very serious and rarely used seditious conspiracy charges. My hat's off for that.
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LJ: What are the throughlines you see between the Oklahoma City bombing and the January 6 crowd? I didn't hear people on January 6, referencing Oklahoma City; I think because it was an awful loss of life. But what's the parallel you see?
JT: Let's talk about three throughlines. First, an obsession with gun rights and a misreading of the Second Amendment. I think a lot of people remember that McVeigh was angered by the FBI siege at Waco, which ended in tragedy on April 19, 1993. McVeigh picked the day of the bombing for the second anniversary of Waco. But it's less well known that he was equally outraged by Clinton signing the assault weapons ban on September 13, 1994. This weird and absurd fixation that the federal government was going to take everyone's guns away is clearly a connection. Second, the belief that violence is is justified in rebelling against the federal government; an obvious throughline from bombing a federal building to attacking the Capitol. Third, a peculiar obsession with the American Revolution -- the belief that because American colonists rebelled against the corrupt British king, Americans in the 20th and 21st century have the right and obligation to rebel against the evil federal government of today. McVeigh had memorized the Declaration of Independence, including the less famous parts about the evils of the British government. It's very similar to January 6, if you look at how they were chanting "1776," and they carried the Gadsen flag.
LJ: McVeigh also claims he is a "white separatist." He's kind of a racist, right?
JT: Absolutely, there is racism. He says to his lawyer that he's a "white separatist," not a white supremacist. To me, that was a completely bullshit distinction. He was a thoroughgoing racist; he joined the K.K.K. I'm sorry, that's what a racist says and does. He was someone who harbored a tremendous resentment against women, both politically and personally. I think today, he would probably be called an incel (involuntarily celebate), which is a constellation of attributes that focus on anger against women. He was very angry about immigration. He was concerned about the Great Replacement -- white people being replaced by people of color and immigrants -- which is something that Tucker Carlson has talked about.
LJ: Is the implication of your thesis that there's always going to be right-wing violence if there's a Democrat -- or the threat of a Democrat -- in the White House, as was on January 6, or, is there something larger about it?
JT: Well, Luke, that's pretty big! That's not a small conclusion. But yes, the epilogue to my book is a lengthy summary of some of the right-wing violence that we've seen in this country since 1995. The big difference is that unlike McVeigh, the modern right wing has the Internet and social media as an organizing tool, which makes the threat much greater. As McVeigh told his lawyers, "I know there's an army out there, but I couldn't find it." He tried: he went to gun shows, but he had no mechanism for meeting up with his colleagues. The plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer was organized in Facebook private chats. If you look at the mass shooters, many involved the internet. So, the threat is greatest when a Democrat is either in the White House or threatening to take over the White House. That should be a major concern of law enforcement.
LJ: What is the connection between some of the mass shooters you mentioned and McVeigh; are they similar to January 6?
JT: Very similar. The ideology hasn't changed much since 1995, but the technology has changed, not just in terms of communication, but in terms of the means of violence. It was an immensely complicated task for McVeigh to assemble the ingredients and build this bomb. It's a lot easier today to just go buy an AR-15 and shoot up a school, a grocery store, or a bunch of people in line near the Texas border.
JT: I was fired from The New Yorker. I left CNN in a joint decision; I was not fired from CNN. I had been at CNN for 20 years. I was doing four live shots a day. It was a lot. There was new management there who didn't like me as much as the old management did. It seemed like a congenial time to take a package and leave. This book was a big project. I'll be writing more books. I have a bunch of magazine articles in the works; I have a big piece in Golf Digest that just came out on the Internet. I have several Hollywood projects in the works, including a limited series based on Homegrown. I'm going back to my roots as a writer, although I don't rule out that I'll appear on television now and then. CNN was a great chapter in my life. I was really happy to work there, and I have tremendous affection for the people there, but I'm happy to move on.