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Arpaio Pardon Highlights the Worst Attributes of the Trump Presidency

When Donald Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the White House statement made reference to Arpaio’s “more than 50 years of admirable service to our nation,” and specifically spotlighted Arpaio’s work “protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”

Of course, as a county sheriff, protecting the public from “illegal immigration” wasn’t Arpaio’s job. A federal judge pointed that out in 2011, when he ordered Arpaio to stop detaining people who were not accused of any crime. Following that order, Arpaio said he planned to keep right on doing what he’d been doing, and he did just that—even after he was cited for civil contempt.

Finally, after Arpaio had been violating the court’s order for years, the then-sheriff was finally charged with criminal contempt.

Trump’s Mischaracterization of the Arpaio Conviction

Shortly before announcing the pardon, Trump talked about Arpaio at a rally in Phoenix, saying to supporters, “So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?”

No, he wasn’t. Sheriff Joe was convicted for doing something that wasn’t his job, and that a federal court had ordered him to stop doing. And, he didn’t just do it. He bragged about it. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to let the federal government tell him what to do.

Undermining Federal Courts

Trump’s decision to pardon Arpaio and the White House’s praise of Arpaio’s track record are entirely consistent with the Trump administration’s previous positions on immigrants and immigration. The pardon was bad, but it doesn’t come as a surprise in the wake of two attempts at a travel ban, near-constant campaign rhetoric about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and Trump’s recent backing of restrictive immigration reforms.

What is perhaps even more disturbing about this pardon is that Trump’s support of Arpaio sanctions willful disregard of a court order. The action appears to offer a free pass to law enforcement agencies and others who are aligned with Trump and don’t feel bound to follow the law. And, it adds another layer to the contempt Trump has publicly shown to the courts himself, from his disparaging comments about the Mexican-American judge in the Trump University case to his response to the travel ban injunctions.

Republican Lawmakers Oppose the Arpaio Pardon

While many Republican legislators and other officials were quiet in the wake of the Arpaio pardon, others made clear statements highlighting the ill-conceived nature of the action.

In an official statement, Arizona Senator John McCain said:

No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold. Mr. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status in violation of a judge’s orders. The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions.

Arizona’s other Senator, Jeff Flake, tweeted:

Regarding the Arpaio pardon, I would have preferred that the president honor the judicial process and let it take its course.

A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said:

The Speaker does not agree with the decision. Law-enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States. We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon.

Other Irregularities in the Arpaio Pardon

In addition to sanctioning Arpaio’s unlawful treatment of perceived undocumented immigrants and undermining the federal judiciary, Trump’s pardon departed from presidential norms in many ways.

First, it is highly unusual for a pardon to be granted prior to sentencing. In fact, most presidential pardons are granted years after conviction, not weeks.

Second, the Arpaio pardon comes unusually early in the Trump presidency. Although it is not unprecedented for a president to grant a pardon in his first year in office, pardons tend to come later in an administration, and often in the final year in office.

Third, it is customary (though not required) for a president to confer with the Justice Department before issuing a pardon. In fact, the Justice Department has published guidelines regarding factors to be considered in determining whether to grant a pardon (officially called “executive clemency”). Trump skipped that step, and it’s no wonder: Arpaio likely wouldn’t have been pardoned if those guidelines were followed.

Messaging to Law Enforcement

Trump’s decision to pardon Arpaio seriously undermined the power of a federal court to enforce judicial orders and diminishes the judicial system’s ability to hold law enforcement officers accountable for violations of the law. Trump has sent a clear signal to similar folks who believe they are above the law that he has their backs and they shouldn’t worry about violating federal court orders.

The Alagiri Immigration Law Firm helps people with U.S. immigration matters. For more information, call (650) 562-6900 or fill out the contact form on this site.

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