Bad as Greg Gianforte is, I was actually astonished when I read that he had issued a press release praising—even celebrating—the decision by President Trump to pardon Dwight and Steven Hammond, the arsonist ranchers who sparked the Bundy takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Gianforte, who admittedly has more experience with the criminal justice system than I do, offered some red meat, anti-government rhetoric to justify his support of the pair’s pardon:
President Trump’s decision to pardon Dwight and Steven Hammond is a win for property rights and our way of life. Overzealous bureaucrats from the Obama administration stretched the long arm of the federal government and unjustly targeted the Hammonds.
There’s almost nothing true about that statement. The Hammonds were convicted of arson when they started fires on their lands that spread to federal lands. A jury found them guilty after witnesses, including their own family members, testified under oath that the Hammonds were trying to cover up poaching on BLM land:
Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out “Strike Anywhere” matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to “light up the whole country on fire.” One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations.
And it wasn’t “overzealous bureaucrats” who made sure the Hammonds were sentenced to five years in prison. It was the law. As the Corvallis Gazette-Times noted, the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act mandated a five-year sentence and federal prosecutors merely followed the law.
So, as he so often does, Congressman Gianforte is lying to Montanans, this time to defend poachers who burned our public lands to cover up evidence of their crimes. As Sierra magazine notes, the Hammonds were hardly model citizens outside this event, repeatedly threatening federal land managers, abusing the shared grazing land, repeatedly starting fires, and engaging in child abuse.
While I am certainly sympathetic to reforming federal mandatory minimums, it’s clear that President Trump and Congressman Gianforte are using the Hammonds not to strike a blow for criminal justice reform, but to signal to anti-government extremists in the west who want to abolish public lands and public land management that they are on their side. Surely there are better examples of people languishing in the federal prison system, people who haven’t poached game or threatened federal law enforcement officers, people who Gianforte should be advocating for.
In aligning themselves with the Hammonds, Trump and Gianforte are literally and symbolically playing with fire. The anti-government extremists in the West who are increasingly becoming radicalized and dangerous read the statements from members of Congress like Gianforte as evidence that their absurd view of the Constitution and public lands are defensible and, more troublingly, that they will not be held accountable for criminal actions and even armed occupations.
If you don’t believe that emboldening and endorsing people like the Hammonds endangers law enforcement officers and government employees, you’re simply not paying attention to their rhetoric and actions.
When I think about the most offensive things that Greg Gianforte has said as a political candidate, I often think back to what he said about Montana’s Indian reservations. Back in 2016, he claimed that the lack of economic success on Montana’s reservations could be laid at the feet of a failure to enforce “the rule of law.” That racist jab was offensive and wrong then, but now that Gianforte has gotten himself elected and is using his office to celebrate those who broke the law, it’s even more troubling.
The fundamental idea of the “rule of law” is that the law needs to be applied equally to all members of society. Perhaps Mr. Gianforte’s kid gloves treatment in Gallatin County following his violent assault convinced him that we need to reform criminal justice in the United States, but it seems more likely that Gianforte, who has never understood nor endorsed public lands, is simply seizing on an opportunity to score points with the anti-government extremists who are increasingly leading the Montana Republican Party, something that should concern us all.