WASHINGTON, August 28, 2017 — President Trump’s pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is troubling to many Republicans for a variety of reasons. Equally troubling is that Trump wanted to drop the criminal case against Arpaio, but was told by Attorney General Sessions that this would be inappropriate.
In a two-paragraph statement, the White House said that Arpaio gave “years of admirable service to our nation” and called him “a worthy candidate for a presidential pardon.” In a tweet the same day, Trump called Arpaio “an American patriot.”
Over the years, Arpaio touted himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” making inmates wear pink underwear. According to an NPR report in 2009, he “deprived the inmates of basic necessities and reduced the meals to two per day while cutting the cost for each meal to 30 cents … under such conditions, inmates are always hungry and have suffered drastic physical repercussions; one teenager reported losing 50 pounds since he was incarcerated.”
The unusual pardon comes less than a month after Arpaio was convicted and before his planned sentencing in October. Normally, pardon applications are submitted to the Justice Department, where they are scrutinized before recommendations are made to the White House.
Some applicants wait years to find out whether they will receive pardons or clemency. Arpaio’s pardon was not subject to a Justice Department review. Accepting a pardon traditionally involves admitting guilt. Arpaio continues to deny any wrongdoing and vows to continue to promote his ideas, which were found to constitute racial profiling.
Arpaio was convicted in July of criminal contempt of court after a judge found he had violated a previous court order not to detain people on the mere suspicion that they were illegal immigrants. In 2011, he was enjoined by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow from detaining people he suspected of being illegal immigrants when they were not charged with any other crime. Prosecutors charged that he continued to do so, in violation of the law.
Arpaio was, his critics argued, terrorizing brown-skinned people across southern Arizona, sweeping them up in “saturation patrols,” and holding them in what he referred to as “concentration camps” for months at a time. Despite the fact that these practices were found to be unconstitutional and Arpaio was ordered to end them, he refused, placing himself above the law and the Constitution.
The voters defeated him shortly before he was convicted.
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, argued before the pardon was issued that such a move “would express presidential contempt for the Constitution.” He declared that, “Arpaio didn’t just violate a law passed by Congress. His actions defied the Constitution itself, the bedrock of the entire system of government.” In Feldman’s view, by saying that Arpaio’s offense was forgivable, the president threatens “the very structure on which his right to pardon is based.”
“Arpaio didn’t just violate a law passed by Congress. His actions defied the Constitution itself, the bedrock of the entire system of government.”
Republicans have been critical of the pardon, as have Democrats, civil libertarians, and Hispanic leaders. A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said,
“The Speaker does not agree with this 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.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., denounced the pardon:
“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 were sworn to uphold.”
According to McCain, the pardon “undermines his (President Trump’s) claim for the respect of rule by law, as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his action.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said,
“I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process and let it take its course.”
Artemio Muniz, the chairman of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans, pointed out that the pardon had come from a president who already called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and had questioned the ability of a Mexican-American judge to be objective, He said that he was “beyond disgusted” by the pardon, and that move essentially placed Arpaio above the law.
Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official who handled the Arpaio case, said the a pardon “would be a travesty.” He noted,
“There’s nothing improper or illegal about it, but it does send a message … that the president is going to permit violation of the rights not only of immigrants, but people who are residents and citizens of the United States. He’s sending a message that if you’re not white, if you’re Hispanic, that your rights don’t matter.”
The Republican Party has recognized for some time that in our changing demographic environment, it cannot be successful if it does not attract more votes from Hispanics and African-Americans.
Its efforts to do so have been set back by Trump’s ambivalent response to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville (except when reading from a script prepared by others) and has now been exacerbated further by the Arpaio pardon.
At its August meeting in Nashville, the Republican National Committee (RNC) tried to separate itself from this by passing a resolution condemning racism and white supremacy. Sen Tim Scott, R-S.C., the highest ranking black Republican in Congress, said that Trump’s “moral authority” had been compromised by his Charlottesville response.
Michael Steele, the first black to serve as chairman of the RNC, who had apologized for the GOP’s racial politics, said after Charlottesville that his party was making a grave error by defending Trump.
“In 2009, I declared the Southern strategy of the GOP was dead. It was over,” said Steele. “I am sad to say that in the course of the 2016 campaign, that strategy was revived.” At the same time, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked if President Trump spoke for American values, he responded by saying that the president spoke only “for himself.”
An important article was written by John C. Danforth, who served as Republican senator from Missouri from 1976 to 1995. Danforth is an ordained Episcopal minister and formerly employed Clarence Thomas as an aide, introducing Thomas to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Republican Party, writes Danforth, is the party of Lincoln and Union and, in his view, Donald Trump is no Republican.
“We are the party of Abraham Lincoln and our founding principle,” he writes, “is our commitment to holding the nation together … The Republican Party has a long history of standing for a united country. Theodore Roosevelt raised up the ordinary people of his day and championed their cause against abusive trusts. Dwight Eisenhower used the army to integrate a Little Rock high school. George H.W. Bush signed the most important civil rights legislation in more than a quarter-century, a bill authored by Republican senators … Now comes Trump, who is exactly what Republicans are not, who is exactly what we have opposed in our 160-year history. We are the party of the Union, and he is the most divisive president in our history.”
Sen. Danforth laments that,
“It isn’t a matter of occasional asides or indiscreet slips of the tongue uttered at unguarded moments. Trump is always eager to tell people that they don’t belong here, whether it’s Mexicans, Muslims, transgender people or another group. His message is, ‘You are not one of us,’ the opposite of ‘e Pluribus unum.’ And when he has the opportunity to unite Americans, to inspire us, to call out the most hateful among us, the KKK and the neo-Nazis, he refuses. To my fellow Republicans, we cannot permit Donald Trump to define the Republican Party … In honor of our past and in belief in our future, for the sake of our party and union, we Republicans must disassociate ourselves from Trump by expressing our opposition to his divisive tactics and by clearly and strongly insisting that he does not represent what it means to be a Republican.”
The pardon of Joe Arpaio, a man with no remorse who claims that the pardon “vindicates” racial profiling, and who the president embraces as a “patriot,” is likely to move more Republicans away from a White House which appears to be increasingly self-destructive and out of control, one which hardly seems any longer to be a part of the party of Lincoln.
The Republican Party has an honorable history. The present moment is one the party must move beyond, if only it can find the leaders it requires.
In the past, difficult times have seen the emergence of such leaders, as with Lincoln. Hopefully, this will happen again.