Donald Trump’s recent pardon of Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff, carries an important message for America.
You may recall that Arpaio was recently convicted of criminal contempt of court for violating a federal judge’s order to stop the racial profiling Arpaio’s office routinely performed. Sheriff’s deputies would stop anyone who “looked Mexican” and demand evidence of citizenship, and they carried out these “stops” even after a judge ordered them to cease.
During his years as Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio styled himself as “America’s toughest sheriff.” While many applauded his “tough on crime” stance, he was also the subject of frequent controversies, including:
– Unconstitutional jail conditions, including the erection of a tent city for convicted prisoners, a compound which he referred to as a “concentration camp”;
– Improper clearance of cases;
– Failure to investigate sex crimes;
– Abuse of power;
– Investigations of judges and other county government officials he deemed political opponents, none of which led to convictions but which amounted to over $45 million in costs to Maricopa County voters;
– Election law violation;
– Forcing a female prisoner to give birth while handcuffed to her bed;
– Misuse of funds;
– Investigation of a federal judge and the US Department of Justice;
– Investigation of President Barack Obama’s place of birth
But it was Arpaio’s approach to “illegal immigration” that ultimately resulted in a charge of criminal contempt of court for continuing his department’s racial profiling of otherwise innocent citizens. He was found guilty on July 31, 2017, and Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio on August 25, 2017. At a political rally in Phoenix just before he granted the pardon, Trump stated that Arpaio was just “doing his job.”
As usual, Trump missed the point. The issue wasn’t whether Arpaio was or wasn’t doing his job. The issue was whether Arpaio broke the law while doing his job.
This decision by Trump shocks the conscience. In the first place, presidential pardons are normally granted only after the accused has completed at least part of his sentence. Arpaio wasn’t even scheduled to be sentenced until October 2017, so his pardon deprives the court of its proper role in establishing justice in a case of criminal conviction.
Second, presidential pardons are almost always granted only after the accused accepts responsibility for his actions, something that normally happens after sentence is pronounced but which, in any case, is not something Sheriff Arpaio has yet declared.
And third, presidential pardons are normally granted only after a rigorous review by the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel’s office establishes the requirements of justice, mercy, and due process.
Any way you look at it, Trump’s pardon of Arpaio was extravagantly early.
But the remaining questions go well beyond the issue of executive propriety.
There is the question of how Arpaio’s predicate acts which resulted in his conviction for criminal contempt play into Trump’s continuous – and erroneous – message about the magnitude of the “illegal immigrant” problem and how to solve it. Arpaio obviously shares Trump’s beliefs that everyone with dark skin is suspicious and probably guilty of something. By pardoning Arpaio, Trump is reinforcing the impression that he, himself, is a racist, a white supremacist, and a fascist.
There is also the question of how much respect Trump holds for the judicial branch of government. He is on record already for undermining the motives and the scope of judges involved in his immigration policies as well as his personal business dealings, and by circumventing the federal judge in Arpaio’s case Trump is signaling raw contempt for the courts.
And there is the question of how this affects other matters currently under scrutiny. By pardoning an unrepentant racist and xenophobe, Trump is reinforcing his support for American Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists in a way that no words can weaken. Beyond that, however, is the unavoidable signal he is sending to those under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that if they bite the bullet and refuse to turn on Trump then he will take care of them with presidential pardons before any real harm befalls them.
In other words, Trump is engaged in a colossal abuse of executive power.
What will we do about it? What can we do about it? These questions have no answers yet. The framers of the Constitution never anticipated a president so immune to facts, so deaf to public opinion, so arrogant about his power and his privileges, so petty in his principles.
But one thing is absolutely certain: If the people of America don’t stop this president then he will never stop himself.