SPOKANE, Wash. — Matt Shea was 34 years old when he ran for the State Legislature in eastern Washington, but he had already established credentials that made him a promising Republican candidate.
A lawyer trained at Gonzaga University who had served a tour in Iraq with Washington’s Army National Guard, Mr. Shea pitched voters in 2008 on a platform of limiting taxes and punishing criminals, opposing same-sex marriage and supporting gun rights. He went on to win with nearly 60 percent of the vote, then moved up the ranks in the Legislature, reaching the powerful position of chair of his party’s caucus in 2017.
But back in his home district, Mr. Shea also began attracting the attention of law enforcement for his growing embrace of fringe ideologies and conspiracy theories. He networked with local militia groups, talked about plans to create a 51st state called Liberty and distributed to his closest followers a “Biblical Basis for War” document that calls for the “surrender” of those who favor abortion rights, same-sex marriage, “idolatry” and communism. “If they do not yield — kill all males,” it said.
Last week, a report commissioned by the State Legislature asserted that Mr. Shea had engaged in domestic terrorism in his support of the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by militant ranchers and their supporters in 2016 — part of a protest over federal ownership of public lands in the West.
The scrubby pines and sparsely settled hills of the inland Northwest have long been seen as a potential homeland by fringe white supremacists and armed loners who are militantly suspicious of government power. But for the sheriff here in Spokane County, Ozzie Knezovich, Mr. Shea’s activities are part of a troubling trend: Far-right organizers have begun plying their message of civil conflict in mainstream political circles, building new networks that include elected politicians and voters who would never consider themselves part of an extremist group.
“I think a lot of people underestimate the size and the growth of what’s going on,” said Sheriff Knezovich, a longtime Republican who supports President Trump.
The report prepared for the Legislature found that Mr. Shea had played a role in planning the Malheur standoff, which sought to challenge the federal government’s control and management of public lands. Leaders in the standoff were charged but acquitted of crimes related to the event, which resulted in state troopers fatally shooting one participant.
But Mr. Shea and about two dozen of his trusted allies have quietly pursued ambitious plans that went far beyond the standoff at Malheur, preparing for what they saw as a fracturing United States.
They compiled manuals on everything from how to escape handcuffs to the operation of military weaponry and, according to the report to the legislators, laid the groundwork to form an alternative government that would be poised to take over after the expected fall of the United States government.
“He’s not about preserving America. They are about starting their own country,” said Sheriff Knezovich, who was concerned enough about Mr. Shea’s activities that he has gathered what he had found over the years and sent it to the F.B.I.
He said he had seen the appeal of conservative antigovernment philosophies like Mr. Shea’s grow around his part of the world; people who had not been part of fringe movements in the past started to show up for meetings and embrace his messages.
Mr. Shea did not respond to a request for an interview but has insisted he visited the instigators of the occupation only as a fact-finder, not as an organizer. Ammon Bundy, the Nevada rancher who led the Malheur occupation, also disputed that Mr. Shea played a role in organizing the event.
Mr. Shea called the state investigation a “coup” in a message to supporters. “The outcome of this report, like the President’s impeachment, was pre-ordained,” Mr. Shea posted to Facebook on Saturday. “What they cannot not control is our response as Patriots & Christians.”
After a dinner gathering of far-right Christians in a remote corner of Washington State in June 2018, Mr. Shea and the online radio personality John Jacob Schmidt, whose real name is Jack Robertson, talked directly about a looming confrontation.
Mr. Robertson is a prominent voice in the “American Redoubt” movement, which seeks to establish the inland Northwest as a place for religious conservatives to live with like-minded people.
In the meeting, captured in an audio recording, they both described a divided country and warned about the dangers of left-wing agitators. Mr. Shea told the group that “liberty must be kept by force.” Mr. Robertson told attendees that he saw signs of a coming civil war and insisted that those in the room should have an AR-15 and a thousand rounds of ammunition ready.
“Defend for when the bad guy comes, right?” Mr. Robertson said, as the crowd gave affirmative feedback. “Are you ready for that? But the bad guy is already here. How many of you have pulled your trigger on your AR-15 in the fight we are in yet? Not one. But there is a fight. Right now. The war is here. The bad guy is here.”
‘No Saving You’
Shortly after Mr. Shea was elected in 2008, he began to slide toward more extremist ideologies than those he campaigned on, first aligning himself with fringe portions of the Tea Party movement and later going on to embrace conspiracy theories about the federal government.
Sheriff Knezovich said he approached Mr. Shea and tried to counsel him away from adopting increasingly antigovernment sentiments.
“My message was: ‘Matt, if you get involved in this stuff and get that label, there will be no saving you,’” the sheriff said.
But Mr. Shea became an increasingly important figure in those circles, regularly networking with activists and political leaders.
In 2014, Mr. Shea co-founded the Coalition of Western States, a group of conservative state lawmakers, sheriffs and others formed to counter what its advocates said was a “war on rural America” waged by an overreaching federal government.
More recently, Mr. Shea has advanced a political campaign to cleave Washington State in half, hoping to create a 51st state in the conservative counties east of the Cascades.
He found additional partners in groups such as Oath Keepers, which has claimed tens of thousands of members among current and former police officers and veterans around the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the organization as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”
In 2015, Mr. Shea and the leader of Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes — who has been public about his concern over the growing divisions in the country — met as part of a larger group at a Spokane-area restaurant. After Mr. Trump used his Twitter account in recent months to suggest that his impeachment might trigger a civil war, the Oath Keepers posted on Twitter that the president’s reference to a civil war was “the truth.”
“This is where we are,” the group wrote. “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859.”
‘This Is Not What Liberty Is’
Mr. Shea and his network have been readying for such a clash, though he has insisted that they have been discussing preparations to respond, not instigate. He has admitted preparing the “Biblical Basis for War” document but said it was a summary of church sermons on Old Testament war that could help place current events in historical context.
Jay Pounder, a former supporter and helper of Mr. Shea, said that in the summer of 2016, he was among about 30 of Mr. Shea’s closest allies who gathered in the Spokane area to discuss plans for how they would respond to what they believed was a coming civil war.
He said they discussed possible catalysts for such a conflict — immigration, economics, left-wing antifa protests. They planned which of the members would take control of geographical regions of the Northwest, Mr. Pounder said, and chose Mr. Shea to be the eventual leader of their overall government.
Mr. Pounder provided The New York Times with a variety of planning documents shared at the 2016 meeting laying out what actions should be taken in the event of a “collapse event” and describing a detailed structure of a makeshift government they would create.
The documents called for setting up sheriff’s posses, community kitchens, a “militia-based military” and communications carried out by ham radio operators. The planners called for “constitutional changes” to “sanctify to Jesus Christ” in the new government.
Mr. Pounder said the group also gathered military manuals on how to operate various weapons, such as an AT4 antitank weapon.
Mr. Pounder said he spent two years as a close ally of Mr. Shea but pulled away when he became convinced that Mr. Shea was not just a Christian conservative but was hoping to install a Christian government in the wake of civil strife that he almost seemed to welcome.
Among the other things that alarmed Mr. Pounder were conversations over encrypted messages, made public this year by The Guardian, in which some participants who were close allies of Mr. Shea talked about violent attacks on political opponents.
In the end, he took much of what he had learned working with Mr. Shea to the F.B.I.
“I’m deeply sorry for moving this stuff along,” Mr. Pounder said. “I thought I was doing God’s will by being involved and helping Matt. This is not Christianity. This is not what liberty is.”
‘To Support Armed Insurrections’
The efforts by Mr. Pounder and Sheriff Knezovich to expose Mr. Shea ultimately led leaders in the Legislature to request an investigation.
In the report released last week, investigators found that Mr. Shea engaged in intimidation tactics against a political opponent as well as counterintelligence gathering. Much of the report focused on his role at the Malheur standoff, concluding that he had helped plan the event. It found that Mr. Shea “participated in an act of domestic terrorism.”
The report, prepared by a company led by a former F.B.I. agent, said investigators found that Mr. Shea went to both Malheur and an earlier standoff with federal authorities in Nevada “specifically to support armed insurrections at both locations in furtherance of his Patriot Movement agenda.”
Mr. Bundy, one of the leaders in the Malheur standoff, disputed the findings of the report, saying in a text message on Saturday that Mr. Shea played no role in the planning of the takeover even though he supported the reasons for it. Mr. Bundy and others involved in the armed Malheur dispute were acquitted in 2016 of federal conspiracy and weapons charges related to the event challenging the federal government’s control and management of public lands.
In response to the report, J.T. Wilcox, the leader of Republicans in the State House, said Mr. Shea had been suspended from any role in the caucus. He also urged Mr. Shea to resign.