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Tina Casey headshot

Malheur Redux: Ted Cruz Channels the Bundys, New Indictment Coming


The armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon continues to resonate long after ringleader Ammon Bundy and most of his active supporters were arrested and jailed. In the latest development, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) rolled out a new video ad for his presidential campaign, in which he endorses the same ALEC-inspired land privatization agenda popularized by Ammon and his father, Nevada rancher and longtime scofflaw Cliven Bundy.

The elder Bundy is also now behind bars, facing a laundry list of serious federal charges relating to a 2014 incident in Nevada, and according to news reports more indictments are on the way, along with additional arrests. So, why would a presidential candidate want to touch this very hot potato?

Ted Cruz and Cliven Bundy

Sen. Cruz has ties to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful lobbying group) and other organizations in the Koch lobbying network, and he has been a staunch supporter of the ALEC privatization stance. However, like other mainstream politicians he rides with the herd when it comes to ALEC's de facto spokesperson Cliven Bundy.

During the 2014 incident, Bundy called upon a gang of armed thugs to ward off federal agents who had come to chase his cattle off public lands, enjoying the vociferous support of Cruz and other leading Republicans. That support universally withered as Bundy's racist views became more widely known.

Our friends over at The Atlantic assembled a rundown of some of those leaders who changed their minds, and here are Sen. Cruz's statements about Cliven Bundy as events unfolded in 2014:

What he said then: On Tuesday, Ted Cruz called the Bundy standoff the "the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on.” He added that the reason he believed the story was "resonating" was that the Obama administration has put American liberty "under assault ... We have seen our constitutional liberties eroded under the Obama administration."

What he's saying now: In an email to Mediaite, Cruz's Press Secretary Catherine Frazier said of Bundy's remarks, "Those comments are completely unacceptable.”

Cruz distanced himself from Bundy, but not from the ALEC credo. He soon doubled-down on his support for transitioning federal lands out of federal control. In July 2014, he introduced an onerous land privatization amendment to a bipartisan recreation bill, prohibiting the federal government from owning more than 50 percent of the land in any single state. Cruz's amendment would have required land above the 50 percent mark to be sold at auction or transferred to the state.

Ted Cruz and Ammon Bundy

By the time Ammon and his brother Ryan blundered into the Malheur Refuge, Republican leadership had already absorbed lessons learned from the negative publicity revolving around Cliven Bundy. High-profile Republicans hesitated to criticize the Malheur takeover at first, but they soon piled on with explicit criticism once it became clear that Ammon's gang consisted of out-of-staters whose actions were not welcome by local ranchers and other community stakeholders.

Cruz also hopped on the anti-Ammon bandwagon with this statement, as reported by NBC News:

"Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds ... But we don't have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence on others ..."

Fallout from the Malheur takeover

Republican leaders were wise to bail on Ammon as quickly as they did. As the occupation dragged on, Ammon and his gang of thugs revealed themselves to be, well, genuine thugs facing serious criminal charges. Nobody in mainstream politics would touch that with a ten-foot pole, with the notable exception of Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore.

Ammon's relentless ham-handedness also precipitated the arrest of Cliven, who flew to Oregon after Ammon released a jailhouse video pleading for supporters to visit him and his cohorts.

Cliven Bundy had never been called to account for his actions in 2014, and his choice of air travel provided federal agents with their first opportunity to arrest him, unarmed and without a gang of supporters, far from the safety of his Nevada ranch.

We bring this up because the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Nevada indicted Cliven Bundy last week on charges that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life, including:

... one count of conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, four counts of using and carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, two counts of assault on a federal officer, two counts of threatening a federal law enforcement officer, three counts of obstruction of the due administration of justice, two counts of interference with interstate commerce by extortion, and one count of interstate travel in aid of extortion.

Ted Cruz's Cliven Bundy ad

This finally brings us around to Sen. Cruz's new campaign ad. In the aftermath of the Cliven Bundy indictment, it would seem counter-intuitive to attract support to one's presidential campaign by drawing attention to a known scofflaw who is now facing serious criminal charges, especially one who has been denied bail as a flight risk.

Nevertheless, Sen. Cruz's campaign went with it.

Released to coincide with the Republican primary caucuses in Nevada, Sen. Cruz's ad evokes both Ammon and Cliven Bundy by highlighting two images. One is of a silver-haired man dressed like a rancher with the same build and sartorial style as Ammon, and in the same 60-ish age range as Cliven. The other image depicts a cowboy on horseback with a herd of cattle.

You can find Senator Cruz's new campaign ad online, in a report by Think Progress. Do watch the whole thing for the complete effect (it's only 30 seconds), but for those of you on the go here's our transcript of the ad in full, narrated by Sen. Cruz:

"Eighty-five percent of Nevada is owned and regulated by the federal government. And Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge. That’s ridiculous.

You, the people of Nevada, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge of your own land.

If you trust me with your vote, I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners: its citizens.

Count on it."

Backlash for the Bundys -- and Ted Cruz

To be fair, Sen. Cruz is not the only Republican presidential candidate trying to appeal to Nevada voters through the land ownership issue, apparently in response to frontrunner Donald Trump's support for the idea that the public has an interest in federal land ownership. However, Cruz stands out because he is the only contender to reinforce his argument with visual imagery that strongly evokes both Ammon and Cliven Bundy.

That's quite a high-risk gamble, considering that the Bundys -- and the whole land privatization push -- are probably not held in high esteem by mainstream Nevada voters (perhaps evidenced by Trump's defeat of Cruz in Nevada by more than 20 percentage points). It's also safe to assume that the folks behind ALEC are not too happy with the fact that the Bundys have exposed the organization's "states rights" lobbying agenda for what it is -- a land grab to benefit private interests.

Those interests include the Koch brothers, who are major funders of ALEC. The family company, Koch Industries, happens to be interested in logging, mining and ranching -- the same interests that Ammon Bundy has loudly proclaimed to support.

To hammer home the connection between the Malheur takeover and Ted Cruz, last week Ammon Bundy's legal team linked to the Cruz ad through Facebook with this observation:

"... For better or worse, you have to give props to the refuge protesters and cowboy campers forcing the presidential candidates to put these previously ignored issues to the forefront. You don't have to agree with their speech, their constitutional analysis, or their tactics, but you have to admit they are getting results politically without city riots and destroying neighborhood businesses."

For fans of Blazing Saddles the "cowboy campers" reference is a wee bit hilarious, but more to the point, the thinly veiled racism ("city riots" -- really?) certainly doesn't help Cruz among mainstream voters.

The fact is that the fallout from Malheur is continuing to fall. Earlier this week, The Oregonian reported that prosecutors are preparing a new indictment involving more charges and more defendants, based on papers filed last Friday by a federal public defender. Apparently the hammers will fall some time next week.

This all puts Sen. Cruz in a rather awkward position, given his track record of support from ALEC and the Koch brothers, including support from the oil and gas fracking industry.

On the other hand, Cruz has amassed quite a reputation for making enemies out of his allies on the Republican roster, so perhaps the senator's damn-the-torpedoes pursuit of the Bundy endorsement is just more of the same.

Recent developments bear that out. According to a report at Daily Kos, the Koch brothers have dispatched a top adviser to assist Marco Rubio, who seems on track to sail past Sen. Cruz in the race to catch up to Trump.

Photo: "A view of the Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge" via Oregon DOT, flickr.com.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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