Idaho’s lieutenant governor is facing public criticism — and even some calls to step down from her position — after a photo was posted to, and then quickly deleted from, social media Thursday evening.
The photo posted on Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s Facebook account shows McGeachin standing in front of her Statehouse office door with two men. In the photo, the men are displaying identical hand gestures while McGeachin makes a heart-shaped gesture with her hands.
Both men are wearing orange shirts reading “Engel,” referring to Idahoan Todd C. Engel, who is in federal prison over his role in the Cliven Bundy standoff.
“I took a photo with two Second Amendment supporters who were here to support Todd Engel, an Idahoan who was treated unjustly by the court system for standing up for our fundamental rights as Americans. They were part of a larger group who had come to the Capitol to protest Engel’s imprisonment,” McGeachin said in a written statement Friday afternoon.
“The photo was intended to show support for Engel and nothing more. No other messages were intended in this photo. To claim otherwise is ridiculous, and is part of a larger narrative to paint conservative leaders as embracing identity politics.”
In July, a Nevada federal judge sentenced Engel to 14 years in prison for his role in the Bunkerville, Nevada, standoff that took place in April 2014 when federal officials were removing Cliven Bundy’s cattle that were trespassing on federal public lands. During the standoff, Engel brandished a loaded AR-15 assault rifle at officers while he hid behind concrete barriers on an Interstate 15 overpass.
The men’s shirts also included Engel’s federal Bureau of Prisons inmate number and “Lompoc,” the federal penitentiary where Engel is housed.
Anti-Defamation League right-wing extremism historian and expert Mark Pitcavage explained to the Statesman on Friday what the men’s hand gestures mean and why they are referencing Engel.
“Todd Engel has a sort of martyr status within the Patriot movement because he got such a long prison sentence, where some of the other people who were involved with related activities either got no sentence at all or much lighter prison sentences,” Pitcavage said. “There are people who support him and are rallying support to get his sentence overturned or get him a new trial.”
“One group set up for that purpose is the Idaho Political Prisoner Foundation,” which was started by Anthony Dephue and James Ward, Pitcavage said.
“Wearing the jail garb is related to that campaign,” he said.
“The Three Percenter hand gesture is very similar to the ‘OK’ hand gesture with its recent controversial attributions over the past two years, especially if they happen to do it from a certain angle,” Pitcavage said.
As for the men’s hand gestures, he explains, “I do not think there is anything to suppositions that these guys were trying to do any kind of ‘white power’ symbol. I think they were doing a Three Percenter symbol.”
Three Percenters are not white supremacists or white nationalists, but they are a different branch of extremism with an anti-government focus, Pitcavage said.
“But that does not mean this whole thing is not really problematic,” he said, referring to the photo. “Three Percenters are extremists. They are part of the militia movement. This does not mean they are less extreme than white supremacists. They have a different extreme ideology, and for a prominent politician like a lieutenant governor to have relationships with militia-types, that is very concerning.”
McGeachin said concern about how people were interpreting the photo is why she deleted it.
“I wholeheartedly reject bigotry and discrimination in all of its forms,” she said in her statement. “Throughout my public service, business career, and my personal life, I’ve always treated everyone with respect and dignity. Once I discovered that a few people had begun erroneously assigning sinister motives which are contrary to my true character, I immediately deleted the post.”
Dephue confirmed to the Statesman that he and Ward are the two men in the photo.
“We consider ourselves Three Percenters,” he said. “The three extended digits are one finger for each ‘i’ in three percent. That is it. There is nothing else to that.” Sometimes Three Percenters are referred to as III%ers.
Dephue said they were at the Capitol to raise awareness about Engel.
“The only incarcerated Idahoan that [Idaho Political Prisoner Foundation has] recognized as a political prisoner right now is Todd Engel,” he said.
“Honestly, we were just walking around and bumped into her,” he said, referring to McGeachin. “Any interaction I have had with Janice has been solely about Todd Engel.
“Everything I have ever done for Todd Engel has been about his due-process violations. It is not about Bundy Ranch. It is not about guns. There is an Idahoan who has had an egregious level of due-process violation.”
The Statesman learned of the photo Thursday evening and reached out to McGeachin’s and Gov. Brad Little’s offices for comment.
Little’s office said Friday evening that he will not be commenting because he has not been able to meet with McGeachin to discuss the issue.
Statements put out by local and national organizations
Anti-Defamation League Pacific Northwest office: “We are deeply troubled by the recent photo posted by Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin posing with two anti-government extremists.
“While we do not think that these individuals were attempting to display the ‘white power’ symbol, we do believe that they were making a Three Percenter hand sign — a different branch of extremism with an anti-government focus. The Three Percenters are a wing of the militia movement that arose as part of a resurgence of the militia movement in 2009. The term ‘Three Percenter’ refers to the erroneous belief that only three percent of colonists fought against the British during the Revolutionary War – but achieved liberty for everybody.
“For a prominent politician like Lt. Governor McGeachin to have relationship with these individuals is disturbing. We call on our elected officials to hold themselves to a high standard, refraining using their positions of power to elevate a fringe ideology. Our actions matter and fighting hate and extremism is everyone’s responsibility.”
Idaho Democratic Senate leadership: “Idahoans have always embraced a broad array of philosophies. And it is with respect for that ideological independence that we all serve in the statehouse. We come here every day committed to free speech and are grateful for the openness in the people’s house. We are also mindful of our responsibilities as elected officials to hold ourselves to a higher standard; to be thoughtful in our words and behavior.
It is in this spirit of mindfulness that we express our concerns about the picture posted by the Lt. Governor, and our desire to turn this concern into an experience from which we all learn. We have heard numerous grave concerns overnight and today from constituents who are now fearful of coming to the statehouse. Some have said they will not allow their children to visit. The openness of the statehouse is foundational to our service. Whatever the intention of the post, the impact has resonated negatively across the state. “
The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence via Facebook: “Irresponsible leadership from the Idaho’s Lieutenant Governor impacts the culture of our state by supporting violence. Her irresponsible actions impact our collective humanity.”