During his very loosely hinged extemporaneous remarks in Phoenix on Tuesday, President Trump strongly hinted that he would pardon the infamous former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. On Friday evening, with a frightening hurricane descending on Texas, Trump made it official. The decision to issue his first pardon to a public official who made his reputation, such as it is, through race-baiting and a contempt for both legal restraints and basic human decency tells us a lot about Trump — and none of it is good.
It is highly relevant that Trump and Arpaio first became allies while Trump was rising to prominence within the Republican Party by pushing the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The Arizona sheriff actually launched a farcical investigation into Obama's birth certificate, wasting taxpayer money to build his cred with his resentful white supporters. That Arpaio and Trump would become mutual admirers was inevitable.
It should go without saying that Arpaio is a terrible candidate for a pardon. If you have any doubts, read this chilling 2009 profile of Arpaio by William Finnegan in The New Yorker. Arpaio's first claim to local fame was to make the conditions of imprisonment for inmates under his jurisdiction as inhumane as possible — housing thousands of people in tents next to cites like dumps and waste disposal plants in the brutal Arizona heat. He fed inmates for 30 cents a meal, two meals a day, and then made the Food Network one of three channels available to prisoners. He put many people who were being held for trial and had not been convicted of any crime to work on chain gangs. Under his watch, guards were so consistently cruel to inmates that the county had amassed more than $40 million in civil damages from lawsuits. And he also engaged in egregious racial profiling when detaining people suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Arpaio's focus on abusing prisoners and arbitrarily detaining people of Latin American descent also made his "tough on crime" reputation grossly misleading. The resources wasted on his cruel publicity stunts took money away from law enforcement, slowing response times and leading to (among other problems) hundreds of botched or perfunctory sex crimes investigations. He did, however, find the time to file frivolous charges against two journalists who were looking into his suspicious property dealings, leading to another huge legal settlement for Maricopa County's taxpayers to pay off.
So of course it's completely logical that Trump would be a fan of Sherrif Joe. As The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot puts it, Arpaio "represents in miniature what the president would like to be more maximally — a successful American authoritarian." Plus, exploiting and fomenting resentments against racial minorities is central to both men's political appeal.
The crime that Arpaio was convicted for exemplifies his revolting career. In 2011, a federal judge found that Arpaio's detentions of people suspected of being illegal immigrants and nothing else were unconstitutional. Arpaio refused to comply, continuing to violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of numerous "suspects." Finally, earlier this year he was found to have been in contempt of court for refusing to comply with a judicial order.
Pardoning Arpaio under these circumstances is a gross affront to the principle of the rule of law. Arpaio flagrantly violated explicit constitutional rights, and then violated judicial orders to stop. To allow him to go unpunished is to celebrate the arbitrary use of state violence and to show contempt for the legal restraints public officials are supposed to be constrained by. As former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger tweeted, when Trump says that Arpaio was convicted for "just doing his job," this means that according to Trump, Arpaio's job "was violating a federal court order," and his pardon is therefore "an assault on law itself."
Unfortunately, the presidential pardon power is unreviewable. Short of impeaching and removing Trump, there is no remedy for this disgraceful pardon. Instead, it is yet another hard lesson of the dangers inherent in giving the awesome powers of the presidency to a man who is thoroughly unfit for office in any respect.