President Trump's first use of his pardon power, letting off the infamous former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio before he had even been sentenced for his contempt of court conviction, illustrates an important truth about the president: Donald Trump is perfectly fine with America becoming a lawless tyranny.
Let's review Arpaio's career. As the Phoenix New Times outlined at great lengths over the years, the former Maricopa County sheriff was a brutal, corrupt, racist megalomaniac who ran a lawless police force and an outdoor jail he himself described as a "concentration camp." His jails were a sadistic hellscape of death and torture, where Arpaio once rounded up all the Latino inmates into a segregated section; where inmates died of heatstroke both indoors and outdoors, froze half to death in the winters, and where medical neglect killed one woman's newborn baby; where deputies mercilessly beat and tortured inmates, stood aside while inmates pummeled each other, and did little or nothing to prevent an epidemic of suicide.
A compulsive media hound, Arpaio used inmates and public resources to get attention, from making inmates wear pink underwear and slippers to sending a team to "investigate" President Obama's birth certificate. He even entrapped a man in a bizarre fake assassination attempt, just to get media coverage — which later cost the county a settlement of over $1 million.
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Arpaio's career carried a disturbing undercurrent of sexual abuse. He had cameras installed in several jails' female bathrooms, which streamed over the internet for a time. He inexplicably failed to investigate multiple cases of sexual assault from 2005-2007, some of them open-and-shut cases involving children. His cartoonish "sheriff's posse" somehow ended up employing someone later busted for child porn.
In classic tinpot dictator fashion, Arpaio repeatedly used law enforcement resources to go after critics. He went after the New Times for years, culminating in a middle-of-the-night arrest of the papers' two founders, over which the paper later won a settlement against the county of $3.75 million. When a Republican-appointed federal judge ruled that Arpaio had been racially profiling Latinos — perhaps the most obvious statement it is possible to make about the man — he hired a private investigator to harass the judge's wife. The judge ordered Arpaio to stop profiling, a ruling that he blatantly flouted (and later attempted to destroy evidence related to the case), leading to his eventual conviction for contempt of court.
The elderly retirees of Maricopa County ate up Arpaio's "world's toughest sheriff" shtick, and he was re-elected five times. But his abusive, illegal antics and appalling jail conditions also got his department sued over and over and over again, eventually costing county taxpayers some $70 million and counting in settlements. Eventually, the scandal and expense weighed him down, and he lost his 2016 re-election bid.
This record of corruption, racist abuse, authoritarianism, and trampling on the rule of law is precisely why President Trump pardoned Arpaio. They are birds of a feather: abusive, narcissistic authoritarians, obsessed with media coverage, and utterly contemptuous of the law. The message announcing the pardon did not explain why Arpaio deserved leniency from his contempt of court conviction — indeed it did not even mention Arpaio's illegal acts, only his "life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration." (Though Trump did concede that he timed the announcement for maximum media coverage.)
The implied message here is obvious. It is meant to signal to other would-be corrupt, racist tyrants in law enforcement that they have a free hand to abuse their power and flout the law — to wrongly arrest journalists, or set up a racist profiling system, or beat inmates to death, or let them die for lack of care, or really whatever you want. Don't worry! If Trump will pardon Arpaio, who won't he pardon? (Aside from people actually unjustly convicted of something, that is).
The best arguments conservatives managed to whip up to justify this desecration is a limp insistence that Obama did the same thing (he didn't), and that some of Arpaio's best friends are Latino.
And now, Arpaio is rumored to be considering a run for Jeff Flake's Senate seat. Maybe next we can have Attorney General David Duke.
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