On Monday, 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19, a maskless Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) appeared at a Senate hearing on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, where he spent the majority of his allotted 10 minutes “pontificating on the nature of constitutional government,” as The Daily Beast aptly described it.
Toward the end of his lecture, Lee produced a pocket-size U.S. Constitution and shook it as he emphasized his words.
“This is a thing that works, and works best when every one of us reads it, understands it,” Lee declared, pointing at the booklet. “And takes and honors an oath to uphold it and protect it and defend it.”
But Lee’s copy was no ordinary Constitution. It was an annotated version that’s published by a fringe Mormon group founded by the late conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen and which has become the favorite of anti-government extremists and right-wing figures, including the men who led an armed seizure of an Oregon wildlife refuge over the conviction of two arsonist ranchers.
The booklet is annotated in such a way as to make it seem like the founders envisioned a solely Christian nation and a severely limited federal government. It includes both the Constitution’s original text and several religious ― at times out-of-context ― quotes from the Founding Fathers.
Western Values Project, a Montana-based public lands advocacy and watchdog group, alerted HuffPost to Lee’s far-right Constitution.
Skousen, whom The New York Times once called “the constitutional guru of the Tea Party movement,” peddled a distorted, Mormon-centric version of American history. He served as an FBI agent in the 1940s, and then briefly as Salt Lake City’s police chief before the mayor fired him, calling him a “master of half truths.” Skousen spent the later part of his life as a far-right, anti-communist activist preaching a theocratic interpretation of America’s founding documents.
He embraced a frenzy of conspiracy theories, contending that global bankers were working to create a totalitarian world government and that Russia stole its Sputnik satellite from the United States. His 1982 book “The Making of America” describes African-American children as “pickaninnies” and slave owners as the “worst victims” of the slavery system, as Salon reported in its 2009 expose on Skousen and his influence on commentator Glenn Beck.
“Skousen was a case study of the extreme-extreme right from the 1950s, as well as a con man,” Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, told HuffPost in an email Wednesday morning.
“His history is trash; his politics a concoction of fantasy and paranoia,” Wilentz added. “He made a comeback around 2010 thanks to the hard right bunko artist Glenn Beck. That a United States senator should be peddling this lunacy with a straight face would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.”
The Idaho-based National Center for Constitutional Studies, a right-wing think tank that Skousen founded in the 1960s, prints and distributes the pocket Constitution that Lee displayed during Monday’s hearing. There are more than 15 million NCCS Constitutions in circulation. Tens of thousands of them have been distributed in public schools throughout Florida, the Tampa Bay Times reported, and sales of the booklet soared in 2016 after Gold Star father Khizr Khan held up a pocket-sized Constitution ― not the NCCS edition ― at the Democratic National Convention and challenged President Donald Trump to read it.
Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Lee, told HuffPost that the senator carries many versions of the Constitution and “was not aware” that he’d brought the NCCS edition.
But Lee is certainly familiar with Skousen and his radical interpretation of the Constitution. In fact, Lee campaigned for the Senate in 2010 on a platform of ideas that The New York Times wrote at the time “appear to be inspired” by Skousen.
“Mike Lee is a good friend of the family, and we support him 100 percent,” Skousen’s son, Paul, told the Times in 2010. “He’s read Dad’s books; he had Dad in his home when he was growing up for visits and dinners, and he met Dad on a number of occasions before Dad passed away.”
The NCCS, formerly known as The Freemen Institute, opposes the separation of church and state and portrays the nation’s governing document as being divinely inspired, a belief shared by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Lee is a member of the Mormon church.
In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified NCCS as one more than 1,200 active anti-government “Patriot” groups. NCCS’s far-right edition of the Constitution has been the go-to for other extremists. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy carried the booklet during his 2014 armed standoff with federal agents over unpaid ranching fees, according to the Los Angeles Times. And his sons, Ammon and Ryan, and their armed militant supporters carried them during their 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016.
“It’s something I’ve always shared with everybody and I carry it with me all the time,” Cliven Bundy told the LA Times in 2016. “That’s where I get most of my information from. What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government.”
B.J. Soper, the founder of the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, another militia group, appeared to reference the same NCCS edition of the Constitution in a 2016 interview with The Washington Post. He told the publication he carries it with him at all times and believes it does not give the federal government the right to own land.
Lee, who was reportedly on Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court nomination, is an advocate of “constitutionally limited government” and a vocal supporter of transferring control of federal lands to states. Lee drew backlash earlier this month when he tweeted that the U.S. is “not a Democracy,” later adding that the objective is not democracy but rather “liberty, peace, and prospefity.”
Jayson O’Neill, project director at Western Values Project, said Lee sent “a clear signal to all the anti-American militia members across the country when he brandished their twisted version of our Constitution.”
Asked about accusations that Lee peddled false history and sent a dangerous message to extremists, Carroll said, “Sen. Lee is a strong supporter of the First Amendment precisely because so many people throughout America’s history have sought to persecute religious minorities because of their beliefs.”
That Lee flashed the NCCS Constitution during Barrett’s confirmation hearing is notable. Barrett once touted a pocket copy of the Constitution that reached No. 2 on Amazon’s bestseller list ― something only the NCCS version had done.
“It is succinct enough that you can carry it around in your pocket,” Coney Barrett said during a speech at Princeton in October 2019. “In fact, many people do. For a brief period during the summer of 2016, the pocket constitution was the No. 2 seller on Amazon. The brevity of our Constitution and the service of Amazon has made it accessible to millions.”