Trump Just Pardoned Two Alleged Child Abusers Who Literally Set the Government on Fire

Does he even need a Supreme Court?

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Trump Just Pardoned Two Alleged Child Abusers Who Literally Set the Government on Fire

Yesterday Donald Trump granted a pardon to two men—father and son Dwight and Steve Hammond—who had been convicted for committing arson against federal property. Their sentencing, handed down during the Obama administration, inspired Ammon Bundy to take over the headquarters of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where he led a group of followers in a 41-day armed standoff against the federal government. That standoff resulted in the death of one man.

So: Why did the President of the United States pardon two ranchers sentenced to five years in prison, who had admitted to setting the fire?

It’s a good question, and the answer, like so many other answers about Trump’s actions, is that it’s because he’s an aspiring dictator who wants to pit the United States—citizens and government alike—against itself. Let’s look at how Trump used the power of pardon here and elsewhere, who he uses it for, his statements about the law, and his own looming legal troubles. This will take us on a merry jaunt from Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Roger Stone, the Russia investigation, the sovereign citizen movement, Sheriff of Applebee’s David Clarke, Mormon extremists, the constitutional sheriff movement, and the recent humanitarian crisis at the border that Trump has manufactured. When you take it all in, it’s undeniable that Trump not only wants to hijack the justice system, but that he’s been doing it and believes it’s his right to continue doing it. It’s less clear, though, what can be done about it.

The Firestarters

First, why did Trump pardon these two obscure people, and why should we care?

Let’s start with the official White House statement why Trump pardoned Dwight and Steve Hammond. In it, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the father and son pair were “devoted family men.”


Dusty Hammond, the nephew of Steve, had told police he and Steve once had an argument about how well Dusty was doing his chores, and Steve hit him in the chest with a closed fist, knocking him on the ground, and then rubbed Dusty’s face into the gravel. In a separate incident, Steve took sandpaper to Dusty’s chest until he bled. A police report about the abuse cites Steve as saying, “Raising kids is like raising cows or dogs.”

Dusty was eventually called as a witness in the federal arson case. His uncle and grandfather had enlisted him to help them start the 2001 fire, and Dusty testified they told him they’d wanted to “get rid of the juniper trees and something else.” The “something else” Dusty mentioned they were hoping to get rid of was, according to federal prosecutors, evidence of poaching deer on federal land.

The trial dragged on, and eleven years later the two men were convicted. The judge sentenced the elder Hammond to three months, his son to a year and a day. But because arson on federal property commands a five-year minimum sentence, federal prosecutors appealed and, in January 2016, a court ordered both Hammonds to serve the full five years. That sentencing was the perceived injustice Trump sought to correct with his pardon.

Without more context, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But also, without more context it also seems weird that a guy like Trump, who neither knows nor cares about land rights, would be interested enough in this case to issue a very specific pardon, when thousands and thousands of Americans—of all colors—are serving egregious mandatory minimum sentences. When we see the context below, it clarifies the story, but it also makes it even weirder: Trump wasn’t the only one who found this worthy of extreme action.

The Standoff

If you don’t know the story of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff, it’s a bit out of our way. But the important part is that the Hammond sentencing so inflamed a man named Ammon Bundy that he and 41 likeminded followers took a bunch of guns and holed up in the MNWR headquarters in some sort of protest against federal government overreach.

Ammon Bundy is aligned with groups of right-wing extremists and militias who believe strange things about the Constitution, most generally that it’s a sacred document, but also that its meaning has been corrupted so much that we’ve brought America to the brink of ruin. (Full disclosure: I share the belief that we’re at the brink of ruin, and that the constitution has been corrupted, but my finger points at Trump.) Among other things, Bundy believes the land that the federal government can legally own is basically limited to Washington, D.C., and that Mormon scripture compelled him to “defend my rights and my ranch against the federal government’s tyrannical” co-opting of his land.

According to Matthew Bowman, history professor and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” the beliefs that people like Bundy adhere to are something like a holy war against government. “Big government is Satan’s plan,” Bowman told the Washington Post, describing this fringe belief. People of Bundy’s mentality, he says, believe what they’re doing on Earth is “a continuation of this war in heaven when Satan was going to restrict all of our freedoms.”

But though Bundy draws these principles from a perversion of Mormon scripture, this worldview isn’t limited to a fringe group of Mormons. There are many of these groups—sovereign citizens; the Oath Keepers; constitutional sheriffs; the Three-Percenters—and they all despise the government for what they see as gross constitutional violations and overreach. The really weird idea that links these different right-wing fringe movements, though, is their belief in what they call the “constitutional sheriff,” that the county sheriff is the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in any given county. The county sheriff, these groups believe, has more authority within his or her jurisdiction than local police, more than state and even federal law enforcement agents.

The sentencing of the Hammonds so upset Bundy that he drove from Nevada to Oregon to meet them. He showed up at the office of Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward with men from several other of these fringe militia groups, including one called the Bearded Bastards. According to Ward’s account, Bundy was polite and read from a small copy of the Constitution he had in his pocket. Bundy told Ward it was his duty as county sheriff to make sure the feds didn’t take the Hammonds into custody. Ward said that Bundy told him that if Ward didn’t do that, Bundy would “bring thousands of people to this community, and he wouldn’t be able to control what all they might do.”

In the end, Bundy brought 41 people, and they hung out on a wildlife refuge with their guns for a few weeks. One of them got killed.

The constitutional sheriff movement and Donald Trump

Politico notes the official constitutional sheriffs’ association counts about 4,500 paying members and over 200 sheriffs in its ranks. Two of those sheriffs are linked closely to Trump: Joe Arpaio and David Clarke.

Last year Trump infamously pardoned Arpaio, who a few weeks prior a federal judge had found guilty of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order to stop racial profiling. A federal judge had earlier found Arpaio’s policies of racially profiling Latinos in traffic stops and prolonging the detention of immigrants were in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments. Arpaio disagreed with the judge’s interpretation of the Constitution, and defied the court that he would never give in to control by the federal government. “If they don’t like what I’m doing,” he said, “get the laws changed in Washington.”

In the ruling that convicted Arpaio as a criminal, which Trump overturned, the District Judge wrote, “Not only did [Arpaio] abdicate responsibility, he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise.”

“So was Sheriff Joe was convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked supporters at a rally a few weeks after Arpaio’s conviction. “I’ll make a prediction. I think he’s going to be just fine, okay.”

Within weeks, Trump pardoned Arpaio. Trump never consulted the Department of Justice about the pardon, which, though not required, isn’t the normal Office of Pardon Attorney process.

Let’s pull all this together:

– Joe Arpaio enacted racist policies intended to control Latino immigrant populations
– A federal judge ruled they violated the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments
– Arpaio believed he, as a sheriff, had the authority to ignore a federal judge’s interpretation of the Constitution
– He publicly refused to comply
– A judge found him guilty again for not complying
– Trump not only saw no problem with any of this, he sided with Arpaio against the federal government
– Trump not only celebrated Arpaio’s unconstitutional racism, he framed it as normal: just doing his job!

In other words, Trump used his own interpretation of the Constitution the same way Arpaio did, and overturned a federal judge’s ruling. Even worse, that specific ruling was about due process and immigration policy. These things don’t happen in a vacuum: Trump sees himself as a constitutional sheriff, not of a county, but of the country.

But what’s the unconstitutional federal government overreach Trump was acting against? Well, it’s that of his own government. His own Justice Department won the case against Arpaio.


That all ought to have scared you a year ago. If it didn’t (Hurricane Harvey was about to slam into Texas), I hope that with hindsight it does now.

The pardon power is, as Trump revels in, one of the only presidential powers that are indisputable and absolute. Presidents can pretty much pardon whomever they want, for any reason. In fact, they don’t have to offer a reason. Most of Obama’s pardons just laid out the facts that the pardon changed, offering no reason. Trump, though, has laid out fairly detailed reasons for every pardon he’s given. He does this because he wants the world to believe he has ultimate dictatorial powers: He’s not just the president; he’s the highest judge in the land.

For instance, the White House statement about the Hammond pardon explained why Trump made his decision: “The previous administration, however, filed an overzealous appeal that resulted in the Hammonds being sentenced to five years in prison. This was unjust.”

The shot at Obama is par for the course. But the last line? “Unjust”? Since when is the president a judge?

The pardon power wasn’t written to give the president the highest position of judicial review. For one, it’s limited to federal crimes. But also, as Lawfare pointed out, the president is still, as always, constrained by the Constitution. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a hundred years ago in a case called Biddle v. Perovich that the pardon is “part of the constitutional scheme,” to be used in the interest of the “public welfare.”

And in fact, it’s because the pardon power is so powerful and ripe for constitutional abuse that other presidents have generally waited until the end of their terms to use it in full force. Trump doesn’t see this abuse as embarrassing. He sees it as strength.

Here we might point to Obama’s sweeping grants of pardons and commutations, granted largely to people given disproportionate sentences for small crimes (as Trump did with the Hammonds). But two things: The vast majority of what we understand as Obama’s “pardons” weren’t pardons, but commutations. A pardon fully absolves someone of their guilt (though they must admit guilt to receive the pardon) and expunges their record; a commutation shortens a sentence, but has no bearing on the conviction. For instance, Obama didn’t pardon Chelsea Manning, he simply shortened her sentence.

More importantly, though, Obama didn’t assume the pardon power was an instrument of justice. His official statements about pardons and clemency never make claims about justice or injustice, right or wrong, fair or unfair. Here are all the warrants themselves, and here is an archive search for official White House statements about pardons and commutations.

In fact, the Obama administration went out of its way to make clear that it was separate from our system of justice. An official statement about Obama’s clemency said, “Only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.” That would take an act of congress.

Trump, however, sees the pardon power as a judicial power, and he routinely makes statements about what is just and what is not. These aren’t statements: They’re rulings.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that there is absolutely no reason for this other than that Trump wants to be seen as an agent of the law, as part of our judicial system. Not only as a part of it, but at the top of it. Check out some of the other statements Trump has issued with his pardons.

Trump’s official announcement regarding the pardon of Dinesh D’Souza says that D’Souza was “in the President’s opinion, a victim of selective prosecution for violations of campaign finance laws.”

The White House statement for the pardon of Scooter Libby quotes Trump saying, “I don’t know Mr. Libby, but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly.”

The official White House statement when Trump granted a posthumous pardon to boxer Joe Jackson said, “President Trump is taking this unusual step to ‘right a wrong’ that occurred in our history and honor the legacy of a champion.”

And when asked why he pardoned Arpaio, Trump said the sheriff had been “treated unbelievably unfairly” by the Obama administration, citing the fact that federal prosecutors brought a series of charges a few weeks before an election. Never mind that the case had been dragging on for years, and that a judge had referred it to prosecutors a couple months before the election.

And never mind that Arpaio was found guilty as the result of a prosecution that Trump’s DOJ saw through to the end.

The end

Like the Hammonds, the Bundy crew, and the Arpaios of the world, and shockingly like the Confederacy before them, Trump sees himself as fighting an insurgency against the federal government. Here’s a concrete example.

We see Trump’s arrogation of judicial power everywhere, most recently and most brutally in his family separation policy at the Mexican border. Not only is that policy unconstitutional, but Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to abolish due process altogether for immigrants and asylum-seekers.

“We have a catch-and-release program, too,” Trump said in a speech about immigration on May 15 this year. “It’s called we catch them and release them into the country they came from.”

What did he mean by “we have”? The government has? Well, the U.S. government already has what Trump likes to make fun of as “catch-and-release”: arresting people who cross the border illegally, then releasing them into the country to await their hearing. This other “catch and release,” though—sending immigrants back—is a different and competing idea, used by a different and competing “we,” a “we” that excludes and combats Americans and government. He instinctively pits one part of the current federal government against another part, as if in his head we have two separate systems of laws, one of them anti-Trump, the other pro-Trump.

He also does this with judges, saying there are “Democrat judges” who oppose him. He issued several angry dissents insulting the judge who blocked his initial travel ban, saying the decision was wrong. That version of the travel ban was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.

In short, Trump wants to co-opt the justice system to eradicate the parts of government he finds inconvenient, regardless of whether they’re lawful or important. There are countless other examples of his dictatorial, anti-American tendencies in his distaste for due process. He’s threatened to send the feds into Chicago. He said drug dealers should get the death penalty. In a speech last year to police officers on Long Island, he encouraged them to hurt suspects. In the 90s he said the Central Park Five should get the death penalty and maintained they were guilty even after they were acquitted. He said flat-out he wants to ignore due process when confiscating guns from some people; then, when Pence tried to reshape that in favor of due process, Trump interrupted and doubled down. He tweeted that the suspect who ran over and killed eight pedestrians in New York City last year should get the death penalty. During the campaign he advocated for killing the families of suspected terrorists. Speaking again about his frustration with immigration policy, he said, “Whoever heard of a system where you put people through trials?” He called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. He said Muslims accused of terrorism should be tortured.

The man doesn’t care about the constitution until it comes to his allies, when he suddenly wants to go by the letter of the law.

This has all the markings of an insurgent, anti-government mentality. But weirder, this is an insurgency run from the top. Imagine, for instance, that the Confederates had the presidency when they seceded. Imagine there was no one to hold the union together. That’s what we’re looking at.

But back to the Hammonds

This still doesn’t really explain why Trump pardoned these two randos at this time. But there might be, of all things, a Russia connection. Bear with me.

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally and now a suspect of Mueller’s investigation, said recently he expects he’ll get indicted soon.

Stone, according to two of his associates, reportedly knew what WikiLeaks had on Clinton. He also claimed to have a back-channel to Julian Assange, and said he knew in advance what Assange was abut to drop. Stone also testified to Congress he hadn’t had contact with Russians during the campaign, but when it turned out that he had indeed been offered dirt on Clinton by a man with a Russian accent, Stone said he’d forgotten all about it.

And most importantly, just a few days after Stone emerged to say he was probably about to get indicted, we learned he reached out to solicit dirt on Clinton from Assange.

Now, rewind a year to when Roger Stone called for Trump to pardon not just Arpaio, but the Bundys.

Now: Why would a Washington insider with no interest in ranching, farming, or federal lands—who lives in Florida and is a men’s fashion editor at the Daily Caller—care about the plight of the Bundys? What could unite them?

“We have allowed our public servants to become Rule Protected Predators,” Stone writes, “willing to kill and destroy families to maintain their iron grip of power and profit…. We have before us a case where the government power was abused, not controlled by the people, but by the few for their own gain. Lives have been destroyed and only President Trump has the authority to make things right.”

A couple weeks before making that request, Stone told a crowd at a Las Vegas rally that the “jackbooted” government had “lost all sense of law or morality.” He was talking about himself there, about the Russia investigation. Trump’s pardon would send a message that he was ready to pardon anyone who helped him.

Thing is, Trump can’t do that anymore: The Bundys, in a mistrial, were acquitted of federal charges back in January. But Trump still had a way to send the message Stone was looking for: The Hammonds, the men who started the fire that sparked the Bundy standoff.

Many rightly point out that in Brett Kavanaugh Trump might have just picked his own judge. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Trump is his own judge.

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