Donald Trump still hasn’t provided a legal justification for the pardon of Joe Arpaio. The reasons the president listed at a news conference — that it was popular with his base, that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had worse pardoning records, that Arpaio loves his country, that the former sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County was unfairly targeted before his 2016 election loss — do not make Trump’s case.
Pardoning Arpaio, one of the nation’s foremost practitioners of profiling and a symbol of divisive immigration politics, was an egregious flouting of the procedures of the pardon process. And Trump first tried to get the Justice Department to end its prosecution of the sheriff. This is just another case of the president of the United States using institutions he controls for his personal agenda. The fact that Trump tried to bury the pardon news on Friday night — notwithstanding his convoluted explanation Monday that ratings would be high because people were watching TV reports of Hurricane Harvey — suggests he knew it was problematic.
Trump, who made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign and presidency, had a friend in Arpaio. In 2011, a federal judge found the sheriff had engaged in illegal profiling in jailing Latinos he suspected were in the country without permission, and ordered him to stop detaining anyone unless a person was suspected of committing a crime. Another federal judge found Arpaio in contempt of court last month for defying that order. Trump said Arpaio was convicted of doing his job. That’s not correct. Arpaio, 85, was convicted of violating people’s civil rights and the Constitution over his 24-year tenure.
In issuing the pardon, Trump bypassed a lengthy Justice Department process for making pardon recommendations, which typically involves a five-year waiting period and an expression of remorse from the person convicted. But Arpaio, a staunch ally in Trump’s odious birther campaign against Obama, was unrepentant, calling his conviction a “political witch hunt,” despite a record that includes his infamous tent jails where prisoners were segregated by race and broiled in triple-digit heat that reached as high as 145 degrees in the tents. Now Arpaio’s attorneys are using this unconscionable pardon as reason to have his federal conviction vacated.
To be clear, Trump had the power to pardon Arpaio. But possessing power doesn’t mean you should exercise it, or that doing so is right, even more so when it comes at a time when your political support is beginning to lag. And when you want to tell anyone ensnared in the Russia investigation that you will be there for him or her, too.
Pardoning Arpaio as he did continued Trump’s pattern of disrespecting judges and undermining the judicial system. And it sent a terrible message. The president, who last month encouraged Long Island police officers to disregard the rules on how to physically handle suspects, has now signaled to law enforcement so inclined that it’s OK to break the law in enforcing it. Worst of all, his decision tells the nation he believes that anyone can be stopped, questioned and jailed at any time merely because that person looks the part.
That’s not only reprehensible, it’s unpardonable.