Bundy, one of the figureheads of the anti-government sentiment that crested with the rise of President Trump, made waves last week when he criticized the president for demonizing the migrant caravan at the southern border. The statements were striking for a figure so closely identified with the country’s libertarian and anti-government right-wing.
And on Friday, BuzzFeed News reported that Bundy was “quitting the militia movement” and powering down his social media accounts because of the backlash he received for his rebuke of Trump. The story drew a flurry of headlines, including, “Ammon Bundy Quits Militia Movement in Solidarity With Migrant Caravan.”
Reached by phone Friday, Bundy disputed the framing of the BuzzFeed story but acknowledged that he was frustrated with some of the elements of the right-wing groups for which he has informally served as leader.
“I never joined a movement,” he said. “We were a ranching family. We were ranching, and the government came to take our livelihood away, and we said ‘no.’ It was no more than that.”
He said the only real announcement he had made was that he was unplugging from Facebook, after being surprised by the angry response to his remarks on the caravan. His decision to speak out came after his views were solicited on the issue and he sought to do some research to figure out how he felt about it, he said.
“I was asked multiple times from different various individuals what I thought about these caravans, and I didn’t know, to be honest with you. I didn’t know the facts,” he said. “So I began to research and try to determine the facts."
His verdict on the caravan, which he delivered in a 17-minute video at the time, broke sharply with Trump-aligned orthodoxy on the issue. In the run-up to the midterm elections, Trump repeatedly disparaged the caravan as an “invasion," a national security threat requiring the emergency deployment of thousands of U.S. troops.
“He has basically called them all criminals,” Bundy said of Trump in the video. “What about the fathers, the mothers, the children, who have come here and are willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually by criminals?"
Bundy, whose family’s selective interpretation of Mormonism undergirds its members' anti-government outlook, said his views on the migrants were motivated in part by his religious faith. He criticized partisan-inflected media coverage of the caravan from the right and left, and said assertions that the migrants were being paid by liberal philanthropist George Soros or had terrorists in their ranks were “a bunch of garbage.”
The reaction was swift.
Some former supporters who had traveled to his father’s ranch in 2014 during the armed standoff with federal agents, expressed regret, according to BuzzFeed. Others went further, accusing Bundy of being paid by “globalists.” His page was filled with comments criticizing his stance.
“The facts were rejected,” Bundy told The Washington Post. “I could only see that 99 percent of it was that same Trump rhetoric of calling all these people terrorists. And they’d pick out an isolated issue, and go, ‘Oh look, 40 of them are charging the border, so all 5,000 of them are bad.' … These refugees are not all the same. They didn’t come from the same places. They didn’t even come from the same country.”
Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at the University at Albany College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity who studies far-right extremism, wondered whether Trump’s treatment of migrants cut too close to a history that feels all too near for Mormons such as Bundy. Adherents of the faith were persecuted in the United States in the 1800s before seeking out a new home in a part of North America that was then outside the country’s borders: present-day Utah.
“They identify with the stranger,” Jackson said.
In his interview with The Post, Bundy said he felt smeared by “liberals” in a way similar to what the migrants experienced.
“They’ve lumped all the hatred and militia groups — they basically said that anyone that’s come and helped the Bundys are anti-government, violent militias,” he said. “We’re all individuals. We all make different choices. We all have agency.”
Jackson said that Bundy’s remarks have the potential to muddy the Bundy Ranch standoff in the eyes of the anti-government and militia groups, which are sometimes referred to as the Patriot Movement. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the “Patriot Movement is a group of a set of related extremist movements and groups in the United States whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories.”
During the Bundys’ two high-profile conflicts with the government, members from an assortment of groups — militias, sovereign citizens, anti-Muslim activists — united with the family to resist what they all agreed was overreach by the federal government.
Bundy has expressed some reluctance about his role as a symbol for these groups in recent months. He told the Idaho Statesman in October that he was hoping to spend more time with his wife and their six children.
“I’ll always get someone that calls me,” Bundy said. “Life has never, ever been the same — in a good and a hard way. I think it’ll take years and years to kind of dissolve.”
Support from militia groups, which flocked to support armed standoffs, in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of Bundy’s father, Cliven, and in 2016 at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, has helped bring the issues the Bundys represent to a wider audience.
Bundy said he does not expect that to change.
“I’m certain if they came at us again, we would have even more people, and we would be even stronger, because they would be there for the right reasons: to stand up for property rights, for family and basically for what this country was founded upon,” he said.
He told The Post that his social media shutdown is not an indicator that he will stop fighting for what he believes.
“In free governments, the people own the land and the resources. That is the battle,” he says. “I have every intention of running the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife right out of the West so the people can be free. Don’t think we’ll lighten up on that.”
Still, he concedes that his decision to challenge Republican orthodoxy carried weight. Bundy has been doing speaking engagements before right-wing audiences in recent years, on subjects such as gun rights and the environment. In April, he told an audience in Modesto, Calif., that environmentalists were trying to “entirely destroy the happiness of human life.” He said the Bible dictates “what the animals are for, what the grass is for, what the trees are for, what the fruit is for,” and shared an unsupported theory about water being replenished on Earth by asteroid ice, according to the Modesto Bee. Bundy said his speaking engagements might suffer because of his remarks about migrants.
"I probably won’t be invited much,” he said.
Still, he said, he was pleased with being freed from maintaining his Facebook page, on which he had more than 20,000 followers, and leaving social media at large.
“Not having to do that anymore will be a relief,” he said.
Clarification: This article originally attributed a quote from Bundy to the Associated Press. The quote was from an Idaho Statesman article that was later picked up by the Associated Press. The article has been updated.