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Trump Pardoned the Ranchers Who Inspired an Anti-Government Movement

An arson conviction that led to the occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge was just wiped away by the president's pen.

Harry Cheadle

Harry Cheadle

Signs from the 2016 occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Donald Trump issued federal pardons to a pair of ranchers who became heroes among some conservatives and libertarians after setting fires on federal land, the latest idiosyncratic use of power by a president who seems easily swayed by famous people when it comes to issuing pardons.

Dwight Hammond and his son Steve may not be celebrities on the order of George W. Bush administration official "Scooter" Libby, former Sheriff Joe Arpario, or nut-job author Dinesh D'Sousza, other right-wing figures pardoned by Trump. But the Hammonds inspired a lot of intense emotion among those who care about the long-running conflict between the federal government and ranchers who make use of federal land. Many of these ranchers think the DC-based government shouldn't have so much control over land in the West, and that feud became dramatized when the Hammonds were put on trial for starting fires in 2001 and 2006 on US government property. The Hammonds claimed the fires were set to help their ranching operations and were sentenced to short prison sentences in 2012; when the Obama administration appealed, those sentences were increased to five years apiece in 2015, the mandatory minimum for setting fires on federal land.

But what really made the Hammonds famous is that it was their case that inspired Ammon Bundy and his followers to occupy an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016. The incident ended with the arrest of the occupiers—and the killing of one of them by the authorities—but in the end, all of them were acquitted.

In his official statement accompanying the pardon, Trump condemned the sentences the Hammonds received and noted that pair were "devoted family men." (The Hammonds reportedly made multiple death threats against federal officials in the 80s and 90s over land disputes.) Those notes of sympathy echo the language used in Trump's other pardons—in dismissing charges against Arpaio, convicted of contempt of court after refusing to stop racially profiling Latinos, Trump cited the sheriff's "admirable service to our Nation." But it's the kind of leniency Trump only seems to show criminals who get favorable coverage from the right-wing media. Those five-year mandatory minimum sentences may have been harsh in the case of the Hammonds, but Trump has had no problems with mandatory minimums in other cases.

There's no sign that Trump's binge of pardons will slow down anytime soon—and looming over his use of this power is the idea that he might pardon former officials from his own campaign and administration. Who knows, maybe he'll even try to pardon himself.

“It’s not a rational or traditional process but about celebrity or who they know, or who he sees on ‘Fox & Friends,’" Republican consultant Ed Rollins told the Washington Post last month. "He’s sending the message, ‘I can do whatever I want, and I could certainly pardon someone down the line on the Russia probe.’”

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