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Big Fish, Little Fish

A Polemic on President Trump, Cliven Bundy, and America’s Public Lands

During the summer of 2018, the Montana Human Rights Network hosted Artun Ak, an intern from Bard College. He spent much of his internship doing research about the Bundy Family and its confrontations with the federal government in Nevada and Oregon. One of the Bundys will be speaking at an event in the Flathead in mid-October. Much of Artun’s work involved reading court filings and other writings by Cliven Bundy, the family’s anti-government patriarch. Based on his research and his views of the current administration, he drafted the following opinion piece.


By Artun Ak


A couple of weeks after the so-called 2014 Battle of Bunkerville (peep the similarity with the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill), Sean Hannity interviewed Donald Trump. That was more than a year before the official announcement of Trump’s presidential candidacy. They talked about Putin toying with Obama (now that sounds ironic); the need for a tax cut and energy independence; Syria and Iran; and also about Cliven Bundy.[1] It’s not a surprise that Hannity is a fan of Cliven Bundy, as evidenced in the interview, but Trump, in this case, seemed to be a bit more skeptical on the matter of Bundy’s prolonged confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the feds, saying:


“Because you do have certain law. I mean, you have it all throughout the United States, and they pay their fees and all sorts of grazing fees and things I’m not accustomed to. If I were Cliven – and I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk and the people that are so loyal… I do like him, I respect him. He ought to go and cut a good deal right now. That’s the best for everybody. It’s really vicious. I’m not involved very much in it. I see it a little bit by watching you. But he ought to go out and cut a great deal.”[2]

In other words, Trump likes Cliven’s character, but indicated that he should have obeyed the law like all other ranchers. Trump advised that Bundy should bargain with the federal government over his situation. Strangely enough, this act of obeying the law because “you do have certain law” is not always characteristic of President Trump the businessman: just recall his beauty pageant scandals since the 1990s, racial housing discrimination in the mid-1970s, and the Trump University fiasco.[3]


Fast-forward to October 2016. Cliven Bundy is detained pre-trial, because U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart decided earlier in the year that he probably wouldn’t show up for the trial if he was released, in addition to being an active threat to the community.[4] After all, he managed to bring a not-well-regulated militia to confront the federal government in 2014, and, oh, his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were still taking over the Malheur National Refuge Center in Oregon only a week before the pre-trial detention decision! So, in the months building up to the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Bundy was sitting in a jail cell, reading the Old Testament and “the other standard works.”[5] We know that this is the case, because, in the midst of his studies, he found some time to write a letter of support for Trump. The letter has an epiphany-esque vibe to it not unlike other notable prison writings by political activists. For example:


“One late afternoon I saw a light shining off the wall of my cell 2 inches wide and 6 inches long. It was the first sunlight I had seen in months. I thought, ‘I have seen the light!’ For the last two years since the Bundy Ranch Protest I have realized that our God (Heavenly Father) loves each and every one of us on this earth.”[6]


Bret O. Whipple, Bundy’s lawyer, had the audacity to actually compare Bundy to Dr. Martin Luther King, who spent many nights in jail for his civil disobedience. He equated the two and compared Bundy’s armed confrontation with the feds at Bunkerville to the 1965 March on Selma.[7] Bundy’s cause for white landowners refusing to pay their fair share is nothing like the efforts for racial and economic justice for poor black people oppressed by segregation. In fact, Bundy shows that he is no Dr. King in his own letter:


“On the jail cell wall there are 3 TVs. I see anti Trump ads stating him saying slur language about women. I do not like that…I live in a jail pod with 100 men and each minute I endure the free speech of many times dirtier language about Heavenly Father’s daughters along with what is on TV, compared to Mr. Trump’s comments.”[8]


Bundy continued:


“VOTE – Donald Trump. He believes in the proper form of government. He is a producer. He knows how to build. He will protect each of our lives, liberty, and our property and defend our 1st and 2nd amendment rights. Mr. Donald Trump has the human instinct to protect the beautiful miracle of an unborn baby’s precious life.”[9]


While Trump’s own position on abortion, both personally and politically, is a moving target, it is worth contemplating why Bundy might have liked Trump so much that he stopped his intellectual endeavors and wrote a letter in support of him.[10] One reason Bundy himself gives is that “President-elect Hillary Clinton is and represents this establishment.”[11] That Trump is somehow not an elite part of the establishment in the U.S. is an absurd proposition given his privileged New York City background and his couple of billion dollars. Like the Bundys, Trump managed to trick millions of people, saying he would “drain the swamp.” Bundy’s son, Ammon, seemed to enjoy this slogan too, evidenced in his Facebook post from last March (see photo).

Of course, Trump is nowhere near draining the swamp. As Brett Samuels of The Hill reported, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s appointee to lead the EPA who resigned his post over the summer, was “facing a barrage of ethical controversies,” and Trump’s “travel and security habits have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”[12] It’s hard to keep track of how many times Trump has gone golfing already. Trump even uttered this hilariousness back in April: “Sometimes it may not look like it, but believe me, we are draining the swamp.”[13]


A more fun reason for Bundy’s letter supporting Trump’s candidacy might be that both these men have a refined taste for Obama-related conspiracy theories. Trump infamously pushed the Obama birther conspiracy, which was the false belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and, thus, was an invalid president. The White House had to release Obama’s long-form birth certificate from the State of Hawaii in 2011 to end the debate. Trump, however, apparently not convinced, tweeted this in 2012:


“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”[14]


We may not know what Bundy’s opinion is on Obama’s birth certificate and validity of his presidency. However, we do know that the famous birther Larry Klayman was dying to be Bundy’s lead attorney, but he was barred from that due to some ethics concerns.[15] Additionally, Bundy was convinced at one point that U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, his son Rory Reid, Judge Gloria Navarro, who was in charge of the Bundy trials, and Barack Obama conspired against him and his family for financial gain. He was so convinced of this conspiracy that he filed a lawsuit against them. According to the complaint dated May 24, 2016:


“As revealed by numerous news agencies and sources, the reason for this invasion and armed assault by the BLM and other agents, was to remove PLAINTIFF BUNDY and his family from the land so it could be used in conjunction with the development of solar energy farms being developed by people who had made substantial contributions to the Campaigns of Harry Reid and Barak Obama…. Thus, Defendant HARRY REID, acting in concert and conspiracy with Defendant OBAMA and the other Defendants, illegally and unethically misused the power of REID’s U.S. Senate position to have Plaintiff BUNDY prosecuted by the Obama administration in order to secure the ranchland of Cliven BUNDY. Defendants illegally and unethically misused the power of their offices for personal gain and campaign contribution pay back…”[16]


It is highly unlikely that President Obama colluded with solar energy companies for financial gain, especially with no evidence or cause for the assertion. Secondly, even the ultra right-wing Breitbart News, the alt-right’s choice of supposed news, had to point out the factual inaccuracy of Cliven’s claim:


“Despite the obvious partisan gain to be had if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s son Rory (a failed 2010 Nevada gubernatorial candidate) had somehow been involved in a ‘land grab’ affecting the Bundy family ranch operation—the facts just do not pan out as such. Indeed, Rory Reid did in fact have a hand in plans to reclassify federal lands for renewable energy developments. Just northeast of Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base, plans were drawn by Reid allies to potentially develop 5,717 acres of land for such use. While it would be fair to claim that such activity was in Bundy’s relative neighborhood, the federal lands once leased by the family were more than 20 miles away, east of Overton, Nevada. Contrasting maps offered by InfoWars and those entered into federal court record prove such a theory to be a stretch.”[17]


It’s entertaining to think that maybe Bundy went the solar conspiracy route, because he foresaw Trump appointing Ricky Perry as the United States Secretary of Energy.[xviii] Why would Bundy be a fan of Perry? Well, both Perry and Bundy have a fantasized version of the U.S. Constitution in their heads. In 2010, Perry published Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington, in which he practically argues that everything the federal government does is unconstitutional: Social Security is a fraud, the income tax is blasphemy, the Fair Labor Standards Act is a conspiracy that the Founders would not have tolerated, etc. He comes to these conclusions, however, with some hard-to-neglect trickery. Quoting Garry Epps of The Atlantic:


“The insertion [by Perry] comes in the Tenth Amendment. That provision, he [Perry] says, provides that ‘all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and to the people.’ That is, of course, not what the silly Amendment says. The word ‘specifically,’ isn’t there – nor is ‘explicitly,’ or ‘expressly’ or any other of the words of limitation ‘Tenthers’ try to sneak into it. James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, explained that it had been left out because ‘it was impossible to confine a government to the exercise of express powers, there must necessarily be admitted powers by implication.’ But if you just look at the Constitution as if it said ‘specifically,’ you realize that any regulation of healthcare, labor, the environment, or pensions is completely unconstitutional.[19]


But who reads the Constitution carefully anyway!


Bundy’s (mis)constitutional worldview stands at the center of the $1 million he has not paid in grazing fees that eventually resulted in the armed standoff against the BLM in 2014. It also relates to the specificity that Perry tried to force upon the Tenth Amendment. In a January 2016 statement, Bundy says, “In the 10th Amendment only a very few enumerated powers are given by the people to the federal government. All other powers and rights are reserved to the states respectively or to the people.”[20] Of course, this interpretation completely flies in the face of James Madison’s concept of powers by implication. This, however, does not stop Bundy from extending his understanding of the Constitution to his specific problem: the problem of whether the federal government can own land. Bundy continues in the same statement:


“Show me. Show me where it says in the constitution that the federal government can own mass areas of land? Only in Article 4, Section 3 of our constitution do We the People give congress unlimited power over land and congress had power to dispose of these lands. That’s exactly what they did when they admitted states to the union.”[21]


Bundy kind of shoots himself in the foot by referring to Article 4, Section 3, as that is precisely the section of the U.S. Constitution that gives the federal government the right to own land. According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank which bills itself as “the most influential group in conservative America,” mind you, “The primary constitutional authority for the management and control of this vast real-estate empire is the Property Clause,” that being Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2. The right-wing policy organization actually published in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution three interpretations of this clause. It declared that even:


“The narrowest conception, which can be called the proprietary theory, maintains that the Property Clause…allows Congress to act as an ordinary owner of land. It can set policy regarding whether such lands will be sold or retained and, if they are retained, who may enter these lands and for what purposes.”[22]


Bundy always has a backup answer based in convoluted historical revisionism. He claims that Congress disposed of the federal lands when it admitted states to the Union. While the Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2007 report that “the initial federal policy generally was to transfer ownership of many federal lands to private and state ownership,” the same report also stated that “from the earliest times, Congress also provided for reserving lands for federal purposes, and over time has reserved or withdrawn areas for such entities as national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges.”[23] In light of this pattern, Bundy’s claim that the federal government solely meant to give land to the states when they were admitted to the Union seems questionable. The case of Nevada, where the Bundy Ranch is located, is especially clear thanks to the state constitution. As an analysis by a Nevada land-use attorney stated:


“Nevada was once part of the sovereign nation of Mexico. In 1848, an American army led by General Winfield Scott defeated the Mexican Army and captured Mexico City, effectively ending the Mexican War.


A formal treaty of peace ended the war. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded 51 percent of Mexico’s territory to the United States of America, including most of what is now the Southwest (including Nevada)…


So, Nevada never owned the land prior to becoming a state. When Nevada became a state in 1865, the state’s constitution contained an express clause recognizing federal ownership of the land. This provision of the Nevada Constitution has been reviewed by courts, and has been universally deemed valid and binding [italics added].”[24]


It is worth questioning if dissecting the Bundy ideology is giving Cliven too much credit, and maybe all he simply wants is access to the land. After all, he is a rancher, and any barrier between him and the land is a burden on his operational budget. By no means would that justify his attitude, especially given that, out of nearly 16,000 ranchers with federal leases around the country, “97% are regularly paying their bills on time.”[25] A more fun fact is that Bundy, in 2014, owed “more money to the federal government for outstanding grazing fees than all other ranchers combined.”26] While some ranchers may feel that fees cut into profits and regulations are a bunch of annoyances that need to go away, federal grazing fees aren’t paid without additional benefit to the rancher. In this case, the BLM uses the fees to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”[27]


In his letter of support for Donald Trump, Bundy describes him with these words: “He is a producer. He knows how to build.”[28] As a businessman and a President, Donald Trump’s ability to produce and build without shady deals, bullying, and a lack of transparency is questionable. Perhaps Bundy has also used politics and messaging to avoid paying $1 million in grazing fees, and the entire talk about the federal government being illegitimate is simply a smokescreen for his personal business, the cattle business. But, with Bundy, it’s much less of a potential farce and seemingly more genuine that he is truly wrapped up in an extreme right-wing vision for life, liberty, and property.


The Trump Administration’s initial steps in relation to public lands were in line with Bundy’s vision, namely that of opening public lands for commercial use. Last December, Trump reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah: The Bear Ears and the Grand Staircase. It is not surprising that this was “viewed as a victory for Republican lawmakers, fossil fuel companies and others.”[29] The Republican tax bill, also passed in December 2017, “circumvents environmental laws and expedites oil drilling in the Arctic refuge.”[30]


More relevant to Bundy’s area, President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, proposed to cut the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, which includes the area where Bundy was illegally grazing his cattle. The situation gets even more interesting in light of the fact that, as Patrick Donnelly reports for the Nevada Independent:


“When Zinke visited Nevada in July to see our national monuments, he met exclusively with monument opponents. And he chose to hold a press conference in Bunkerville at the home of Brian Haviland, a vocal opponent of conservation in Gold Butte, a member of the Bunkerville Town Board, which expressed support for Bundy during the standoff.”[31]


Bundy is probably patting himself on the back for his endorsement of President Trump. However, in light of President Trump’s corporate leanings, there is a reason why the fossil fuel companies––the big players––were celebrating the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the shrinkage of the other two monuments. It’s not for the cause of the victimized rancher of yesterday, but instead about the almighty dollar. All the conservation concerns aside, it’s unlikely that Bundy, instead of Exxon, for example, will get access to the land freed up around Gold Butte. In this age of American crony capitalism, President Trump may not even reward a friend with this land in dispute. Trump might be the President, but he is still a businessman, and a big one, too. We know how it goes: Big fish eat little fish.


On the other hand, it is probably too naïve to paint Bundy as just a rancher trying to make his business more profitable. He and his family sincerely believe that the federal government is illegitimate and that the feds stole the land from the people. Firstly, for a small businessman with a lot to lose, he got in too much trouble with the government over fees that 97 percent of his fellow ranchers build into their operating costs. Donations from his supporters will not last forever. Secondly, the family’s speaking tour after the mistrial ruling in Nevada cannot be explained with business motives alone. It is a testimony to their ideological motivation. Thirdly, when the elder Bundy spoke in Montana earlier this year, he said he has a 15-second defense of his actions: “Cliven Bundy doesn’t think the federal government has any authority in his county.”[32]


The best evidence for their sincerity, however, may come from Ryan Bundy’s bid for Nevada governor as an independent. When asked about the possibility of drawing votes away from the Republicans, Ryan said, “I can’t be concerned about that, this is about principles.”[33] If the Bundys were your friendly neighborhood business conservatives, the Republican Party would have been sufficient. Republicans are pretty good at propping up their business credentials. The Bundys’ fight, however, is a lot bigger than that. It is about opposing any government action that isn’t in line with their thinking, or as Sean Hannity put it, about “a government gone wild.”[34]


Artun Ak is a rising junior at Bard College, studying economics and literature. Originally from Turkey, he has been in the United States since 2015. He plans to eventually get his PhD and teach, something he cannot do back home with peace of mind. When he has time, he likes going to local diners to talk with random people.


[1] Hannity, “Donald Trump: Bundy Should Make a Deal, Putin ‘Toying’ With Obama,” Fox News, April 16, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Atlantic, “The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet,” January 23, 2017.

[4] The Oregonian, “Judge Orders Cliven Bundy Held, Citing ‘Ongoing Defiance of Federal Court Orders,’” February 16, 2016.

[5] Bundy Ranch, “A Message from Cliven Get Out and VOTE!!!” November 5, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] New York Times, “Federal Trial Begins for the Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy,” November 6, 2017.

[8] Bundy Ranch, “A Message From Cliven Get Out and VOTE!!!” November 5, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Guardian, “Trump Dodges Question Over Whether Any Past Partners had Abortions,” April 2, 2016.

[11] Bundy Ranch, “A Message From Cliven Get Out and VOTE!!!” November 5, 2016.

[12] The Hill, “Trump: ‘It May Not Look Like It, but We are Draining the Swamp’,” April 12, 2018.

[13] @CNNPolitics, Tweet, April 12, 2018.

[14] @realDonaldTrump, Tweet, August 6, 2012.

[15] The Nevada Independent, “Barred from the Defense Table, Birther Lawyer Klayman Remains in Cliven Bundy’s Corner as Trial Begins,” November 5, 2017.

[16] Case 2:16-cv-01047-JAD-GWF, Document 3, Filed on May 24th, 2016.

[17] Breitbart News, “The Saga of Bundy Ranch–Federal Power, Rule of Law and Averting Potential Bloodshed,” April 12, 2014.

[18] The New Republic, “Rick Perry Didn’t Know What the Energy Department Was Until About a Month Ago,” Sept. 29, 2017.

[19] The Atlantic, “Rick Perry Believes in a Liberal Conspiracy Against the Constitution,” September 15, 2011.

[20] Cliven Bundy, “News Release,” Bundy Ranch, January 29, 2016.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Heritage Foundation, “The Heritage Guide to The Constitution: Property Clause,” 2017.

[23] Congressional Research Service, “Federal Land Ownership: Constitutional Authority and the History of Acquisition, Disposal, and Retention,” December 3, 2007.

[24] Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Public Lands Argument Not Rooted in Fact,” March 26, 2016.

[25] MSNBC, “Bundy Owes the Government More Than All Other Ranchers Combined,” June 6, 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] BLM, “BLM and Forest Service Announce 2017 Grazing Fee,” January 31, 2017.

[28] Bundy Ranch, “A Message From Cliven Get Out and Vote!!!” November 5, 2016.

[29] New York Times, “Trump Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments,” December 4, 2017.

[30] The Los Angeles Times, “Under Cover of Tax Bill, Congress Gives Away the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – to Drillers,” December 22, 2017. 

[31] The Nevada Independent, “Echoes of Bundy in Recommendation to Cut Gold Butte Monument,” December 13, 2017.

[32] Montana Human Rights Network, Archives, “Notes from Cliven Bundy Presentation,” Jan. 20, 2018.

[33] Reuters, “States’ Rights Rancher Ryan Bundy to Run for Nevada Governor,” March 8, 2018.

[34] Hatewatch, “Sean Hannity Tries to Explain His Support for Bundy, Rants About Liberal Press,” April 25, 2014.