Cliven Bundy has set his sights on a new target

For the first time in nearly two years, Cliven Bundy is a free man.

In January, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ruled that the 71-year-old scion of the Bundy family — best known for leading an armed 2014 standoff with federal officials in Bunkerville, Nevada after he refused to pay his grazing fees — should be released from custody and sent on his way. The government’s bungling of the case is just the latest failure in efforts to bring the Bundy family to justice; a 2016 ruling set Cliven’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, free following their hostile takeover of the Malheur wildlife refuge in Oregon.

Citing “flagrant” behavior on the part of federal prosecutors, Navarro, who had already declared a mistrial, specifically cited the government’s move to withhold evidence on surveillance and snipers near the Bundy ranch in her decision. Said Navarro, “The court finds that the universal sense of justice has been violated.” And just like that, with over 100 Bundy supporters watching in the courtroom, all charges against Bundy were dropped. As with the Oregon case against Cliven’s sons, the ruling — which should have all but certainly gone against Bundy, given that so much of his flagrantly illegal behavior was obvious for all to see — illustrated just how poorly the government had presented its arguments.

In the few weeks since the verdict, Bundy has picked up where he left off: advocating for Western ranchers and land-owners to disregard federal law, especially the agencies tasked with environmental management. In late January, Bundy traveled to speak in Paradise, Montana, where he managed to attract a few hundred onlookers — a larger number than the town’s total population. According to the New York Times, Bundy received a “hero’s welcome.” All of this while both Cliven and Ammon have indicated their interest in potentially running for elected office.

As such, instead of spending years in prison for leading his armed followers against federal officers, Bundy has begun roaming free — and continued pushing his message of nullification, of ignoring laws he and his followers don’t want to follow, and of acting as a lodestar for the anti-government extremists who gathered to him over the past few years.

Few people have followed the ongoing saga surrounding the Bundy family — their members, their motivations, their means of protest — as closely as JJ MacNab, who covers anti-government extremism for Forbes. MacNab spoke with ThinkProgress about the Bundy rulings, and what comes next for the family at the fore of armed resistance in the American West.

For those who haven’t been following closely, or who missed the news due to everything else that’s going on, can you give a quick overview of the case and ruling we saw pertaining to Cliven Bundy?

Cliven Bundy, along with two sons and militia leader Ryan Payne, finally went to trial last October for their roles in the 2014 standoff in Bunkerville. As the trial progressed, the court became aware that the prosecution team had failed to produce several pieces of potentially exculpatory evidence to the defendants and their attorneys. After considerable legal wrangling, the federal judge dismissed the case with prejudice in January, which means that, unless the Department of Justice appeals the ruling, Cliven Bundy will never stand trial for his “range war.”

This obviously wasn’t the first ruling that’s gone for a member of the Bundy family recently — just look at what we saw with Ammon and Ryan Bundy in Oregon. Why does the government keep bungling these cases?

These cases were deceptively simple. Did Cliven Bundy organize a group of militants to retrieve his cattle at gunpoint in defiance of a federal court order? Yes. Did Cliven’s sons take over a federal bird refuge in Oregon? Yes. The defendants in these cases gave multiple interviews, posted photos of their exploits, and appeared in numerous videos showing them committing these crimes. They did almost everything out in the open, so it should be easy to prove the conspiracies, right?

“It’s not surprising that jurors would find Bundy and his followers sympathetic.”

The prosecutors tried very hard to keep the cases focused on these facts — what the defendants did. The defendants tried equally hard to introduce into evidence flawed legal theories — why they were justified doing it. Every time the prosecutors and judges tried to prevent these bad legal theories from being presented in court, it made it look like they were trying to hide relevant information from jurors. According to a handful of jurors who have been interviewed so far, the prosecutors came across as arrogant bullies.

Add in the myth of the romantic, hard-working, honest cowboy, the distrust that many in the West — both left and right — have for D.C., the growing distrust of law enforcement following the 2014 Ferguson protests, and the vitriol surrounding the 2016 general election, and it’s not surprising that jurors would find Bundy and his followers sympathetic.

From your vantage, what does last month’s ruling for Cliven portend?

There are two issues here. Some politicians in Western states want to parlay Bundy’s victories into an excuse for states to take ownership of federal public land, or at least, to open up more public land to resource extraction. There’s also the problem of the anti-government extremists who brought their guns to Bundy’s cause. They’re now emboldened by these cases, by the explicit endorsement of certain politicians, and by President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric. My concern is that they will be shopping for future violent encounters.

Is there any aspect to Cliven’s case that stands out to you as the most surprising, or the most unexpected? Or was the final ruling the most shocking aspect of it all?

Before the case was dismissed, I was trying to figure out which was worse: a not-guilty verdict from the jury or a presidential pardon. Roger Stone has promised the Bundy family and supporters that he would lobby on their behalf.

Having the case dismissed for government misconduct is the worst of all options. The people who brought their guns to Bunkerville and the Malheur Refuge didn’t know or care about public land laws. They came because they thought that the federal government had abused Cliven’s rights. This outcome confirmed those beliefs.

We’ve seen a wide range of descriptions of the Bundy family: anti-government extremists, so-called “patriots.” The AP even recently called them “states’ rights” activists. How would you describe the Bundy family and their motivations?

Cliven Bundy is a Sagebrush rebel, a hold-over from the public land “wise use” movement of the 1990s. He cares about states’ rights as they pertain to public land control.

His armed supporters are from a different fringe movement called anti-government extremism. This latter movement contains a mix of sovereign citizens, tax protesters, Constitutional Sheriffs, and private paramilitary groups such as the militias, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters. They generally knew nothing about public land issues before they traveled to Bunkerville, Nevada. Most had never heard of the Bureau of Land Management, the office in the Department of the Interior tasked with managing the land where Bundy’s cattle grazed. They rushed to Bundy’s side because he told them that federal snipers were planning on killing him and his family.

What are the misconceptions that still exist about the Bundy family, especially Cliven?

I’ve seen a lot of people call Cliven Bundy a sovereign citizen, but he isn’t really. His son Ryan Bundy became one in the 20 months between the Bunkerville and Malheur, as did Malheur co-defendants Shawna Cox and Jake Ryan. Cliven has adopted some beliefs from the movement over the years, the mythical role of the Constitutional Sheriff, for example, but he’s stayed away from the larger sovereign schemes and beliefs.

“The Bundy family’s faith has played a role in their ongoing fight with the federal government, but most anti-government extremists aren’t Mormon.”

There have also been several conspiracy theories surrounding Cliven’s fight with the government — supporters have touted Chinese solar power, Agenda 21, and Uranium One plots. Some detractors view the entire anti-government extremist movement as a Mormon dominance scheme. Certainly, the Bundy family’s faith has played a role in their ongoing fight with the federal government, but most anti-government extremists aren’t Mormon.

What comes next, both for the Bundy family and their followers, as well as the movement(s) they represent?

Cliven Bundy still has a plan to transfer the ownership of public land to state control, and he’s filed a civil lawsuit against both Nevada and Nevada’s Clark County to try to force them to take possession of the land. Meanwhile, he still has hundreds of cattle grazing for free on what he calls “Bundy Ranch,” a stretch of federal land that is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. The Trump administration may not have the political will to remove the trespass cattle, so in effect, Bundy may profit for years to come.

The anti-government extremist movement had already moved on from public land issues to other causes such as putting public officials on trial for imaginary crimes in common law courts and engaging antifa in street fights at pro-Trump and Confederate rallies. Now that the Nevada case has been dismissed and Bundy is declaring victory, it’s likely that the movement will circle back to public land issues since they believe that a Western jury will acquit them.

It certainly seems like Cliven’s wasting no time, now that he’s officially free. What did you make of Cliven’s recent pow-wow in Paradise, Montana, last month? 

I think a lot of people expected the recent Montana meeting to be a call to arms. Cliven arrived wearing a “not guilty” pin even though his case was thrown out on a technicality, and the Paradise location was interesting because it was near the home of Bundy supporter Jake Ryan, who was scheduled for sentencing in the Malheur case later that week.

Instead of calling on anti-government extremists to unite in violence against the federal government, the meeting seems to have signaled that Cliven has stuck to his Sagebrush rebellion roots, seeking out other public land users — ranchers, miners, etc. — to tear up their permits and join him in his stand. If they do so, the implication is that Cliven’s armed supporters will protect them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.