Hammond pardons raise fears of emboldened anti-government extremists
President Trump’s decision to pardon two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting malicious blazes on public lands has raised concerns among federal employees and experts on domestic terrorism that the move will give cover to extremist anti-government groups across Western states.
Trump on Tuesday issued surprise pardons to Dwight and Steven Hammond, ranchers who were convicted of setting fire to public land in southeast Oregon. Dwight Hammond, 76, served about three years of a five-year term, and his son Steven Hammond, 49, served about four years. The two men also paid $400,000 to settle a civil suit related to the blazes.
After they were sentenced, anti-government activist Ammon Bundy and supporters broke into a federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The group held the headquarters for more than a month.
Experts who track extremist groups say the pardons are the latest in a series of steps Trump has taken to bring previously shunned groups into the mainstream. They point to the president’s comments about “very fine people” involved in a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and his pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R), who had been found guilty of criminal contempt for “flagrant disregard” of a judge’s order in a federal racial-profiling case.
“This sends a message that you can thwart governmental authority and the process of law, and that has a further degrading impact on our communal institutions,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. “The anti-government extremists are ecstatic about these pardons.”
In posts on Facebook, Ammon and Lisa Bundy praised Trump’s pardons.
“God has been so good to us, He has given us the advantage. May He continue to bless us as we strive to love and serve Him and our neighbors. Dwight and Steven Hammond are coming home!!!” Ammon Bundy wrote on Facebook.
“Thank you Mr. President Trump. This here is another miracle and justice,” Ammon’s wife Lisa wrote.
Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the pardons are the latest stumble by a federal government that has been unable to counter illegal actions taken by anti-government extremists.
He pointed to cases against Ammon and Ryan Bundy, related to the Malheur occupation, that resulted in acquittals. In 2017, a federal judge dismissed charges against Cliven Bundy — father to Ammon and Ryan — over a standoff at a ranch in Clark County, Nev., because of prosecutorial misconduct.
“This is just another instance where the federal government has either failed to bring people to justice for what were obvious crimes or shown this movement that what they’ve done is within the confines of the law,” Lenz said. “President Trump granting the Hammonds clemency is the latest in a long string of events that the anti-government movement sees as validation for their cause.”
“The Bundys at Malheur, they staged an armed occupation of a federal building and demanded a set of conditions before they would leave,” Lenz added. “If you define terrorism as violence or the threat of violence to achieve a political end, I mean come on.”
Ryan Bundy, who’s now running for governor of Nevada as an independent, did not respond to an email requesting comment. The White House did not respond to requests for comment either.
Several GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill cheered the decision to release the Hammonds. In a statement, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) — who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge for body-slamming a reporter — called the decision “a win for property rights and our way of life.”
Gianforte’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the underlying arson convictions.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose district includes the Hammonds ranch and the Malheur reserve, called the pardons “a win for justice.” Walden, who’s chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, objected to the length of the sentences the Hammonds were ordered to serve.
The federal judge in the case initially gave the two men a lesser sentence, saying a mandatory minimum sentence in federal law would “shock the conscience.” Prosecutors appealed and a different judge gave the men the mandatory five-year sentence.
Some observers said granting clemency to the ranchers will send a chill through the ranks of federal employees who are most likely to come into contact with anti-government extremists in Western states.
Agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Interior Department have thousands of employees in Western states, many of whom say they feel endangered when in the field; a 2017 survey by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found 49 percent of BLM employees said they and their colleagues have faced threats to their safety over resource management issues.
“Rank-and-file employees of the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service have to work in communities that have characters like the Hammonds and the Bundys every day,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project in Montana, adding that the pardon “creates a permissive attitude for people who are a real threat to rank-and-file frontline employees.”
Levin said that decades of declining trust in societal institutions has made anti-government sentiment more common across the country. He noted that while feelings alone are no indication of extremism, burning wild land and taking over a federal government building cross a line.
“Not everyone who has a problem with government regulation is an extremist whack job or a federal felon arsonist. However, these guys are,” Levin said. “There’s a whole string of symbols that get sent out to the extremist community that their message is being heard at the highest echelons of government.”
“The line has been blurred between the mainstream and the extreme,” he said.