Anti-government extremists disguising themselves as populists have already latched on to President Donald Trump’s July 10 pardon of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father-and-son ranching duo who set fire to federal lands, to argue that attacking public property is now legal activism. The public should not be fooled by this argument or misunderstand where it leads, and Congress needs to exercise its oversight authority to clarify that the Trump administration hasn’t written a blank check to a dangerous ideology.
Indeed, this kind of oversight is long overdue. Under Republican control, neither the House nor Senate has held a single hearing on the 41-day armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government radicals in 2016. Ignoring the Hammond pardon and the dangerous precedent it sets risks legitimizing the ideas that spawned that takeover. Ringleaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy cited the Hammonds’ case as the basis for their actions, and Ryan has already pointed to Trump’s pardon as proof he and his brother were right all along.
In this instance, it’s a short step from loose talk to something more dangerous. We cannot pretend otherwise; this country has already seen where turning a blind eye to extremism of this kind can lead.
Pardoned with help from the right
It’s notable that in granting his pardon, Trump didn’t cite exactly what part of the Hammonds’ behavior deserved forgiveness, and the specificsof their case offer little to admire. Father Dwight and son Steven set a 2001 fire to destroy evidence of an illegal hunt — a fire that destroyed 139 acres of federal land. Steven set another in 2006, ostensibly to protect their ranch from an existing blaze, needlessly endangering nearby firefighters.
In 2012 both men were found guilty of arson. After they received initially brief jail terms from a lenient judge ruling on his last day before retirement, prosecutors asked a federal court to enforce the Hammonds’ legally mandated five-year minimum sentences, a request that was granted in October 2015.
The enforcement of that sentence has taken on mythical status in anti-government circles. Trump’s recent pardon is inconceivable without the Hammonds’ importance to a certain network on the political right, which has spent years spreading its extreme version of “hands off” deregulatory politics across the West.
This ideology, which stretches from well-heeled financiers to off-the-grid militia members, claims to be protecting rural communities. The truth is far darker, and the extremist narrative that innocent Americans have to use force to get the federal government to listen to their legitimate concerns about overreach is as false and dangerous today as it was when it led to the 2014 armed standoff at the Bundy family ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., and again two years later in Oregon.
Lest we forget, the Bunkerville confrontation began when Bureau of Land Management officials peacefully tried to impound Bundy family cattle as payment for more than $1 million in uncovered grazing fees. In the following days, which featured Bundy supporters training sniper rifles on government employees, the Bundys claimed they sought only to protect their own rights. They falsely claimed the Constitution gives the federal government no ownership of public lands and insisted they had no “contract” with any federal agency.
When federal officials finally tried to collect on a portion of the Bundys’ unpaid debt, the family was joined not by other ranchers — who largely reject their arguments and find them destructive — but by armed militia types seekinga dangerous confrontation. This is the reality of this style of rhetoric, which inaccurately paints itself as the voice of everyday Americans.
A signal to anti-government extremists
That’s why, on top of examining the future implications of Trump’s worrying precedent, Congress has a duty to understand how and why the Hammonds were chosen for pardons, which are supposed to be granted through an impartial process of application and review. Forrest Lucas, a multimillionaire with close social ties to Vice President Mike Pence, flew the Hammonds home on his private plane after Trump announced his move, and recent reporting suggests Lucas was instrumental in pushing for the pardon in the first place. Lucas, who made his fortune from oil engine additives, is the founder of a group called Protect the Harvest that pushes radical environmental deregulation using the same anti-government “get off my back” rhetoric favored by the Hammonds’ less genteel and more outwardly extreme supporters.
In fact, most Americans do not use violence — let alone stage armed takeovers of federal property — to solve their problems. In overwhelming numbers, we supportagencies like the National Park Service that protect our public lands for communal benefit and enjoyment. We do not want the federal government violently replaced in a winner-take-all showdown for control of the land.
Trump knew, or should have known, all of this when he pardoned the Hammonds and failed to discuss the wider implications. This administration and the Republican majority in Congress cannot now claim ignorance when these pardons are used to advance an anti-government agenda, or entirely wash their hands of what follows.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., is ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Follow him on Twitter: @RepRaulGrijalva
Read the original op-ed published in USA Today.