How Washington is Downplaying the Oregon Standoff

Politicians are taking pains not to inflame the takeover of a federal wildlife refuge by armed, antigovernment protesters.

Ammon Bundy, center, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, walks off after speaking with reporters during a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters Monday near Burns, Oregon. Bundy, who was involved in a 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights, told reporters that two local ranchers who face long prison sentences for setting fire to land have been treated unfairly. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Lots of GOP politicians dislike the Interior Department—the federal agency that owns vast swaths of land in western states and regulates access for grazing, mining, drilling, and more—and want to hand more control to states and local governments.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and GOP colleague Chris Stewart even launched a coalition of lawmakers last year aimed at finding ways to transfer ownership of public lands.

But conservative politicians’ distaste for the department, often backed up by heated rhetoric about federal overreach, isn’t translating into support for the armed, right-wing militants who have taken over the headquarters of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Bishop, through an aide, criticized the militants’ actions.

“Chairman Bishop does not support the use of violence or threats of violence as means to address grievances. The committee will continue to monitor developments on the refuge. We are hopeful this situation is resolved peacefully,” spokesman Parish Braden said in a statement to National Journal.

Coming days could signal how much Beltway politicians are willing to condemn the occupation.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee that oversees Interior, is preparing to introduce a formal resolution that expresses disapproval of the takeover unfolding in Oregon, an aide said.

The occupation is also garnering little sympathy among Republicans on the White House campaign trail as Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all condemned the action.

Cruz called on the protesters to “stand down,” because the right to constitutional right to protest doesn’t extend to the “right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence against others.”

Christie told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt: “The most important thing is you have to make clear to folks that the law will be enforced, that laws matter, and that the law will be enforced.”

Rubio, for his part, sought to balance common GOP attacks on the reach of the federal government with his disagreement with the actions in Oregon. He told an Iowa radio station that while there’s too much federal control of lands in western states, people have “got to follow the law.”

“There are states for example like Nevada that are dominated by the federal government in terms of land-holding and we should fix it, but no one should be doing it in a way that’s outside the law. We are a nation of laws, we should follow those laws, and they should be respected,” Rubio said.

Rand Paul, who met with Cliven Bundy last year, struck a similar tone Monday.

“I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics,” Paul said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy.”

Cruz once appeared to be sympathetic to Bundy, whose cachet among conservative politicians fell when he made racially inflammatory comments after his 2014 standoff with Interior over grazing rights.

Cruz said in 2014 that while the details of the grazing-fee standoff “may be complicated,” it resonated because for five years, “we have seen our liberty under assault from a federal government that seems hell-bent on expanding its authority over every aspect of our lives.”

He decried the federal government’s use of the “jackboot of authoritarianism to come against the citizens.”

But one liberal-leaning analyst said that while conservative politicians are criticizing the actions of the protesters, they can’t simply untether themselves from such activists, even if they reject their tactics.

“How often have we heard somebody like Ted Cruz talk about how the federal government is tyrannical?,” said Eric Ethington, the communications director for Political Research Associates, a left-leaning Boston-area group that monitors right-wing movements.

“If you are going to play to that crowd’s sympathies by using their rhetoric, then you don’t get to walk away from the situation and their actions,” said Ethington, who said the takeover in Oregon is rooted in the broader antigovernment “patriot” movement.

The White House, meanwhile, emphasized repeatedly Monday that local law enforcement officials are taking the lead.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the FBI is working with local law enforcement to resolve the situation and expressed hope for peaceful resolution. But there are no apparent efforts under way to force the occupiers from the facility.

The occupation began over the weekend after a demonstration over the prison sentencing for a father-son pair of ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands.

But the action—led by Bundy's sons—has become a broader protest against the federal government and land-use policies.

Ryan Bundy told The Associated Press that he hopes that the action in Oregon will prompt takeover of other federally managed lands to ensure they can be used for ranching and other pursuits.

"The end goal here is that we are here to restore the rights to the people here so that they can use the land and resources. All of them," Bundy said, telling the AP that he’s referring to the ability to use lands for grazing, mining, logging, and hunting and fishing.