On Wednesday evening last week, Spokane Valley state Rep. Matt Shea gets a hero's welcome, full of whoops and cheers, at a candlelit anti-abortion rally in front of Spokane's Planned Parenthood building. With soaring rhetoric, Shea speaks of "standing literally at the gates of hell" and thanks God for being "reviled" and "persecuted for the name of Christ!"
He stands in front of an American flag and a Christian cross, the two symbols Shea has brandished as both a sword and a shield over the past decade. When he's attacked, he accuses his attackers of hating the Constitution and hating Christians, of being "dirty" and "godless," of being associated with communists and anti-fascists (sometimes known as antifa). At times, he's even accused government officials of being "bureaucratic terrorists."
But that language can go both ways. On Thursday last week, the Washington state House of Representatives released a 108-page report, prepared by the Rampart Group, examining whether Shea promoted political violence.
The conclusion? Shea "participated in an act of domestic terrorism against the United States."
But Shea hit back, suggesting this was yet another attack on the Constitution and Christians.
"This is a coup," Shea said on the Church and State podcast Thursday. "This is an attempt to overthrow duly elected leaders who are standing up for the Constitution and who are standing up for the Bible."
THE TERRORISM LABEL
The investigators' explosive "domestic terrorism" bombshell focuses on Shea's involvement in the 2016 armed occupation of Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, part of a protest against the Bureau of Land Management's treatment of two ranchers. That year, Oregon Public Broadcasting revealed that Shea and other far-right legislators had "planned and participated" in aspects of the armed occupation.
But the Rampart investigation reveals just how deep Shea's participation went. It alleges that Shea was involved in multiple planning discussions before the takeover. And it shows that, two days into the takeover, Shea sent out a message — signed with the Thomas Jefferson-inspired quote that "resistance to tyranny is obedience to God" — containing a military-style operations plan about how to support the armed occupation.
Shea's plan, titled "Operation Cold Reality," shows Shea wanting to avoid violence, but also to expose the Bureau of Land Management "as tyrants, by making them act like tyrants," and force the agency to "cease its bureaucratic terrorism."
The plan tasked far-right groups to establish "counter-intelligence," "counter-recon," "negotiation" and "extraction" teams. It aimed to establish "evacuation routes," track the deployment of government teams and sweep meeting rooms for potential bugs.
On one hand, Shea has scoffed at the portrayal of the occupation as "domestic terrorism." On the other hand, when a caller threatened to imitate the wildlife refuge standoff with an "armed occupation" of his Spokane office in 2016, Shea reported the incident to Washington State Patrol as a "death threat."
Ultimately, the refuge occupation resulted in the death of occupier LaVoy Finicum, shot by law enforcement when he reached for his gun. Finicum has since been lifted up as a martyr by Shea and his allies.
"LaVoy paid with his life," Shea said in a 2017 speech delivered the day after Trump's inauguration. So all things considered, he said, he and his allies weathering attacks from the government and the press were "a small price to pay" in the fight for freedom and liberty.
For an entire decade, media outlets, including the Inlander, have been breaking stories about Shea's controversial behavior and yet, the Rampart group writes, "Shea has suffered no negative repercussions to his actions."
Far from it, the report concludes: It's only made him more influential within his movement. Since 2008, he's faced controversies involving abuse allegations from an ex-wife, a road rage incident where Shea flashed a loaded firearm, FEMA camp conspiracy talk with radio host Alex Jones, and his feud with the Spokane County Sheriff, who's called him a dangerous liar. He's been criticized for both his role in the Oregon standoff, and his involvement with the similar standoff at Cliven Bundy's ranch in Nevada in 2014.
But it just didn't matter. Washington House Republicans gave Shea their "caucus chair" leadership position in 2017. Last year, the comparatively moderate Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers happily accepted Shea's endorsement.
But then Jay Pounder, previously one of Shea's most loyal allies, made a decision: He began to leak documents, including a Shea-authored document called "Biblical Basis for War" that included Old Testament-infused passages to "kill all males" if they didn't yield to bibilical law and aphorisms like "assassination to remove tyrants is just, not murder."
Next, Pounder leaked a slew of chat messages where Shea was part of a conversation where his allies — including Pounder — fantasized in gory detail about the violence they'd like to inflict on local liberal activists. Shea offered to run background checks on those activists. The two documents spurred the state House this year to hire the Rampart Group to figure out if Shea promoted violence.
The investigators didn't just look at the Malheur occupation. The Rampart investigators concluded Shea had sent to his allies a 250-page document, titled "Apparatus of Repression," that included the confidential personal information of law enforcement agents. He'd allegedly said "if people knew what went on in the Capital, they'd blow it up."
He'd written in a since-deleted Facebook comment: "After much prayer, I'm afraid violence might be necessary to take our country back."
And according to the report, another commenter replied, "We are ready, Captain. Tell us what to do."
"Representative Shea's activities appear to meet the definition of political violence," the investigators conclude, "and, when viewed holistically, these activities appear to have been successful."
For Washington state House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, the report was enough: Republican leadership booted Shea from the caucus, removing him from every committee.
"He should resign," Wilcox wrote on Twitter. "He cannot use House Republican staff, he cannot meet with the caucus, his office will be moved."
McMorris Rodgers echoed the call for Shea's resignation. But Shea has refused, consciously painting himself as a victim of the same sort of Democratic, media and deep-state conspiracy that Trump supporters claim led to the president's impeachment.
On Facebook, Shea promised that he would "not back down," "give in" or "resign."
Some of Shea's former defenders and endorsers, like former state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, have argued that the report was the last straw — that Shea should leave office. But other quarters are less vocal: As of Monday morning, the Spokane County Republican Party has been silent. For years, the local party has tried to paper over the internal division from those who support Shea and those who are horrified by his behavior.
And for die-hard Shea supporters, like those who cheered him on at Wednesday's rally, the report has only intensified their devotion.
"All it's really done is encouraged people to stand stronger with Matt," says Caleb Collier, a field coordinator for the far-right anti-communist and anti-"globalist" John Birch Society, one of several groups noted in the report.
Collier shrugs off the investigation's conclusions as either unsurprising or false. He points out that Oregon wildlife refuge standoff leader Ammon Bundy denied Shea was involved in the pre-planning process.
He also sees bias. Look at the fact, Collier says, that Rampart investigator Kathy Leodler gave $250 to Seattle mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, in 2017.
He says neither he nor any of the other Shea supporters he knows were interviewed for the investigation. But the investigators point out that one important figure simply refused to talk to them: Shea himself. Shea stonewalled the investigators, like he has media outlets like the Inlander and the Spokesman-Review for years.
Shea's allies have used the report to whip up their base, but so have Shea's opponents. Lori Feagan, a nurse practitioner running as a Democrat against Shea next year, used the Rampart investigation to call for donations on Twitter.
A longtime local Republican critic of Shea — former state Rep. Leonard Christian — announced Friday that he'd join the race against Shea as well.
"I think the voters are really tired of what's going on with Matt Shea," Christian says.
But Christian has his own challenges: To start with, he's lost three elections — for state rep, county auditor and county assessor. Next year, the whole country will be watching.
Before the Rampart investigation was released, Shea had already been the subject of a Rolling Stone article, a podcast series and numerous exposés in the Guardian. Since the "domestic terrorism" allegation, the story went viral, featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, NPR, MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes and much more.
Yet Shea has never come close to losing an election. Collier argues that's not because voters in the conservative 4th Legislative District don't know who Shea is — but because they do.
"You're not going to see the 4th voting in a Democrat. You're not going to see the 4th voting in a moderate Republican," Collier says. "They love Matt, because of who he is and what he says and what he stands for." ♦
CORRECTION: This story previously misidentified former state Sen. Michael Baumgartner as a former state representative. Also, in a caption, the church service and anti-abortion rally outside of Spokane's Planned Parenthood was misidentified.