Today, President Trump pardoned the infamous former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona Joe Arpaio, recently convicted of criminal contempt of court for flagrantly disobeying a court order to stop racial-profiling Latinos. The presidential pardon of a man who actively sought the spotlight with his notorious, degrading exercises of law enforcement authority sends a clear message that Trump is interested in rallying his base above all else.
Presidents unquestionably have broad powers to pardon people convicted of federal crimes. Many have abused that power to protect friends. Trump’s cronyism is not new. But in pardoning Arpaio, Trump makes it abundantly clear that he values the former sheriff’s much-publicized demonization of Latinos. To Trump, police officers’ obligation to obey the Constitution and abide by court orders is flexible. Arpaio embraced racial profiling and unflagging vilification of Latinos. In 2013, a federal court found that officers who worked under Arpaio at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had engaged in widespread racial profiling and ordered the department to stop. It did not. As a result, in 2016 the court found Arpaio to have engaged in civil contempt of the court. Still the MCSO continued its unconstitutional practices. Last month Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt. Sentencing had been scheduled for October. Now Arpaio can rest easy thanks to Trump’s pardon.
Arpaio represents the very criminality that, Trump claims, makes him worthy of forgiveness. Arpaio devoted his life, a White House statement said, to “protecting the public from the scourge of crime and illegal immigration.” Had he not been born in the United States, Arpaio might satisfy that second achievement. Even a presidential pardon can’t erase that he surely illustrates the first. Indeed, its only his U.S. citizenship that keeps him from being the “criminal alien” that launched him to celebrity.