Inside the dimly lighted law office, there weren’t enough seats. A receptionist went to a back room and found a few more chairs. On a small, sunken couch by the window, three people scrunched together. Of the nearly 30 people there, many stood.
After about 30 minutes, Cliven Bundy emerged through the doorway. He was wearing a cowboy hat, long-sleeved flannel shirt and dark blue jeans. Amid applause and cheers, phones and tablet computers were raised to capture the moment.
He’d been in jail for about two years. “A political prisoner,” he’d groused. No disagreement from his supporters. He smiled and gestured to the window with a gnarled, weathered hand. It was raining outside.
“Any time it rains, it’s a beautiful day,” Bundy said. “It’s not only a beautiful day, it’s a great day for freedom and liberty in this land, and I’ve really been able to enjoy it for almost 24 hours now.”
Bundy had been set free Monday by U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro after she determined the trial he and his sons faced had been compromised because of federal prosecutors’ willful withholding of evidence. The felony criminal case had included charges of conspiracy and threatening a federal officer.
But now out of jail, he could talk to his supporters directly. They were engaged, calling out answers to questions he asked, as if he were a professor teaching a class.
He brought up the Bunkerville standoff (although he takes umbrage at that term and calls it a protest) and talked about flags flown there — namely the American flag, the Nevada state flag and the Clark County flag. He asked what order they should be on the pole — arguing the Clark County flag should be highest because it has the most influence on Clark County residences.
“They’re the closest government to we the people. They’re the ones we really should be pledged to in one sense. We shouldn’t be pledging to a government that has very little power; we should pledge to the government that’s closest to us,” Bundy said. “Isn’t that the government that we elect?”
Bundy was just warming up. He would go on for about 40 minutes Tuesday afternoon. He’d go on for about another 40 minutes Wednesday afternoon.
“Did you know there is nothing in the Constitution that allows the United States government to own land?” he asked before the small group Tuesday. “The only time we give any leeway to that rule would be Article 1 ... where they can come with approval from the legislature of the state and approval of Congress and they can pay the state for land for a purpose — most of those purposes are military purposes. The only other purposes are for other needful buildings and those things would be something like a post office or a courthouse.”
Ian Bartrum, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, constitutional law professor, said Bundy’s legal arguments have been debunked, and wrote in a legal analysis last week that “there is almost no chance the federal courts will reverse more than a century of constitutional doctrine and try to force Congress to relinquish its landholdings in Nevada or anywhere else.”
“He’s giving his backers the wrong answer, except on the technical point about the Constitution not specifically mentioning acquiring property,” Bartrum explained in an email. “If he were right, most of the United States would not exist: that [land] acquired by the Louisiana Purchase, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Gadsden Purchase, etc.... Not to mention that the Supreme Court has repeatedly and emphatically said he’s wrong — which is all that really matters.”
But Bartrum wasn’t in the law office to counter Bundy’s points. And his supporters weren’t arguing with the rancher. Bundy pressed ahead, trying to explain how federal grazing fees weren’t valid.
BLM officials did not return requests for comment.
The supporters had comments, however, especially in response to Bundy’s questions — both rhetorical and otherwise.
“Now who owns the property?” Bundy asked
“We the people,” someone said.
“We the people of who?” Bundy asked.
There were some murmurs.
“This is sort of important,” Bundy said. “We the people of New York think they own this public land.”
A ripple of snickers went through the room. A couple of antsy children played by a desk. .
“And we the people up in Elko County thinks we own this public land,” Bundy continued, alluding to a northern Nevada county. “But how the heck can that happen — how can the nation own it? Even the international government wants a piece of this land. But who really owns this land?”
“We the people of Nevada,” voices yelled in unison.
But Bundy wasn’t finished.
“OK, now you way we the people of Nevada should own this land — well I can sort of agree with that,” he said. “But look, we have a Clark County border around here. I want to ask you, what power does our Clark County sheriff have when he walks across over the Lincoln County line?”
“None,” a voice replied.
“What power does our county commission have when they walk over that Lincoln County line?” Bundy asked.
“Zero,” a few voices said.
Bundy, who had taken to referring to himself in the third person, asked whom he was mad at after being imprisoned. It was a line he’d bring up on Wednesday as well in front of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters — this time with about two dozen supporters and a row of reporters.
“Who would Bundy be mad at?” he asked.
Bundy scoured the group before him. “Sheriff, Harry Reid. Who else would he be mad at?”
“Rory Reid!” one yelled, referring to former Sen. Harry Reid’s son.
The old rancher paused for a brief moment.
“Let me tell you who Bundy would be mad at right off the bat. I would be mad at my Nevada state brand inspector. Does that surprise anybody?” he asked. “I pay my Nevada state brand inspector just like I pay the sheriff here, but I pay him even more directly. Every time he comes and inspects an animal from my ranch, I pay the Nevada state ranchers inspector. Why do I pay the brand inspector. What is his job? What is he supposed to do? He’s supposed to protect my cattle. He aids and abets with the federal government to come and steal my cattle.”
When asked whether the brand inspectors help the federal government steal cattle, Ward Halterman, a Nevada deputy brand inspector responded, “We don’t help anyone steal anything.”
Bundy took questions from the crowd and reporters. He was coy about filing a civil lawsuit against the federal government. He railed against the public’s inability to freely access the shores of Lake Mead. At several points, supporters yelled out “Amen!”
He’d been free for about 48 hours after being in jail for about two years. Bundy noted things hadn’t changed that much.
“Our sheriff is still in the same place he is. Our county commissioners are in the same place. Our highway patrol is in the same place. Our governor is in the same place,” he said. “I mean, I’m still running a ranch. I’m still trying to raise cattle.”
The cattle. They too remain largely in the same place. On BLM land.