House Democrats, frustrated by Republicans who are too cozy with anti-government radicals, convened a congressional forum Wednesday to explore “violent extremism on America’s public lands.”
The informal hearing was driven by the refusal of the majority Republicans to fully investigate the 41-day siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. The session also looked at this type of domestic terrorism more broadly. While the rise of right-wing extremist groups was a focus of the session, so were Republicans who played footsie with the armed outlaws who commanded the refuge, closing it to the public and forcing federal employees to stay away.
That chummy relationship with extremists didn’t start with Malheur. In fact, Donald Trump expressed admiration for Cliven Bundy at the time of the 2014 confrontation between his armed supporters and law enforcement officers over Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees for his cattle on government land.
“I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk…I respect him,” Trump told Fox News in April that year. Bundy’s sons led the Malheur standoff, which eventually resulted in their arrest and the killing of one of the occupiers at a roadblock by state police.
“Republican Congressional leaders have done nothing to combat this growing threat,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) “Indeed, they ignored a Democratic request … to hold a Natural Resources Committee hearing on this issue.”
Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources panel, organized the forum along with Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.
An April 14 letter from Grijalva and other Democrats on the committee to Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the panel “has an obligation to ensure that our public lands are protected for use by all Americans and future generations. The Malheur occupation is the latest instance of a growing, violent threat to the lands we have pledged to conserve and manage.”
Bishop’s office did not respond to Washington Post questions about the forum and the hearing request.
It’s not surprising that Bishop ignored the Democrats’ call for a Malheur hearing, given how he validated the armed gang that took over the refuge. In January, Environment and Energy Daily reported that Bishop spoke about his understanding of the “frustration and feelings” people have with “very heavy-handed” federal land agencies.
Instead of holding a hearing into the takeover of the refuge, Bishop said he would rather examine “what we feel is the abuse of individuals by the federal land management agencies,” according to the publication.
It’s not only Democrats who are troubled by GOP coziness with those who flout the law on public lands. In his statement to the forum, David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, complained about the “handful of Republican lawmakers, at both the state and federal level, who have chosen to sympathize or side with extremists like the Bundys.”
In a move sure to please those who refuse to recognize the authority of the U.S. government over certain federal lands, Bishop co-sponsored legislation introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) that would eliminate the law enforcement responsibilities of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and shift those duties to local police.
A joint statement from Chaffetz, Bishop, along with Reps. Chris Stewart and Mia Love, all Utah Republicans, supporting the bill also gets to the attitude of the anti-government folks: “Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in local communities.”
Many on the anti-government side “believe that county sheriffs are the highest authority in the land, an idea rooted in a racist, anti-Semitic ideology that gained traction during the farm crisis in the 1970s,” Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the forum.
“This antigovernment movement has exploded since President Obama took office. In 2008, we documented approximately 150 radical antigovernment groups. Last year, we counted almost 1,000,” he added. “The movement is dangerous. It includes almost 300 armed militia groups committed to resisting what they see as a tyrannical federal government.”
Thompson pointedly compared the anti-government crowd with foreign, and foreign-inspired, terrorists. Domestic terrorists have the same goal, he said, “to harm and incite fear within our borders.”
Congress, he said, “must take this growing threat seriously and take action.”