President Donald Trump telegraphed his pardon to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio at his campaign-style appearance in Phoenix a few days before he put it on paper.
Responding to the crowd’s chants of “Pardon Joe,” the president said, “I think he’s going to be just fine, OK? But I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”
Then, of course, he stepped right into the controversy by issuing the pardon for the former Maricopa County sheriff who was ousted from office a year ago and then convicted — but not yet sentenced — for disobeying the order of a federal judge in a case involving racial profiling in traffic stops to find illegal immigrants.
At the Phoenix rally, Trump asked the crowd – to roars of approval — “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?”
Despite the crowd’s reaction, the answer is no. No, he was not. With the issuance of Arpaio’s pardon, neither was the president.
Sheriff Joe’s job was to uphold the law. He willingly and defiantly did not do so and for a lawman that is an inexcusable course of action.
To be clear — and this nuance has been lost in much of the heated rhetoric over Arpaio’s aggressive anti-immigrant policies and actions — in the civil suit that was brought a federal judge found that Sheriff Arpaio had unconstitutionally used race in making traffic stops in Maricopa County in an effort to find illegal immigrants.
Federal Judge G. Murray Snow forbade that. From all indications, Arpaio complied with that part of the judge’s order.
But Judge Snow also essentially ordered the sheriff to get out of the illegal immigration enforcement business altogether and directed that even with a legal traffic stop, the sheriff was to either charge people with a state crime or release them. He and his officers were directed not to detain them or turn them over to federal immigration officials for immigration violations.
Sheriff Arpaio did not obey that federal court order. He instead turned in more than 170 people to federal immigration officials and directed his deputies that if immigration officials didn’t take them, they should take them to the Border Patrol.
Sheriff Arpaio’s correct path would have been to appeal the federal court order, not to disobey it.
Arpaio was facing up to six months in jail when President Trump handed down his pardon — the first he has issued.
There is no question that President Trump’s pardon was within the law. Under the Constitution the president has immense, almost unlimited, power to issue clemency to people convicted of federal offenses.
But at the same time, the president has an obligation to support the Constitution of the United States, and that means supporting the equal branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial.
President Trump’s pardon of Arpaio did not usurp the law, but it did undercut it. By doing so, Trump sent a message to his supporters that it was OK to pick and choose which laws they obey, so long as they are working toward his vision of what America should be. He will be waiting there, pen in hand, with a pardon if they cross the line.
We have no desire to see former Sheriff Arpaio in a jail cell, unrepentant as he has been over his flouting of the law. He is 85 years old and reportedly his wife is fighting cancer. We believe the court might have found some room for leniency in its sentencing.
The far greater damage from this pardon is that it will diminish the nation’s respect for the rule of law and for its courts. Using a pardon to exempt a lawbreaker who shares your political convictions, even before they are sentenced, undercuts the federal judiciary and all courts.
There’s no excusing that. Not even with a presidential pardon.