The reasons one bigot pardoned another

August 31, 2017

Julian Guerrero and Nicole Colson explain the logic behind Donald Trump's pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

IT WASN'T a surprise when Donald Trump decided to pardon Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, on August 25. But it was a slap in the face--to Arpaio's victims and to millions of people across the U.S. sickened by the racism he promoted throughout his career.

And it was a gift to the racists and rabid reactionaries who have been let off the leash since Trump took office.

In granting his first (though probably not his last, given the crooks who populate his administration) presidential pardon, Trump said in a statement that, "Throughout his time as sheriff, Arpaio continued his life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now 85 years old, and after more than 50 years of admirable service to our nation, he is [a] worthy candidate for a presidential pardon."

This "worthy candidate's" "admirable service" included years terrorizing the local Latino community in Maricopa County. A regular practitioner of sadistic techniques used to humiliate and divide Maricopa's residents, for years Arpaio proudly boasted to media outlets about his use of a tent city jail to house inmates in conditions that have been described as similar to those of a concentration camp or the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay; his use of a hired posse; and his willingness to flout the rule of law to enforce a racist, macho brand of "justice."

Joe Arpaio speaks on the campaign trail for Donald Trump
Joe Arpaio speaks on the campaign trail for Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

Describing Arpaio's career of "intimidation, cruelty and abuses of power," Nathan J. Robinson explained in Current Affairs:

The word "racist" isn't enough. The word "abusive" isn't enough. Joe Arpaio's actions over the course of his time in office were monstrous and sickening. As Arpaio's officers were harassing, detaining, and beating citizens and non-citizens alike, with jail employees routinely calling inmates "wetbacks" or leaving them to die on the floor, Arpaio let hundreds of serious sexual abuse cases go uninvestigated, in one case resulting in a child being continually raped. He was not just a "tough" sheriff, but a cruel and incompetent one, faking clearance reports for serious crimes while abusing the power of his office to arrest and intimidate journalists, judges and county officials. Some of Arpaio's acts bordered on the psychopathic: in a deranged re-election plot, Arpaio oversaw a scheme to pay someone to attempt to assassinate him, even supplying the man with bomb-making materials, so that he could entrap the fake "assassin" and send him to prison, ruining the hapless man's life. Arpaio treated the Constitution with contempt, inflicting what the mayor of Phoenix called a "reign of terror" upon the city's Latino community. Anybody with a hint of a conscience should be revolted by both Arpaio's record and Trump's pardon.

PRIOR TO Trump's pardon, Arpaio seemed to finally be heading for a long-overdue and well-deserved fall given his list of civil rights violations, his fatal negligence toward those he imprisoned, and his brazen abuse of political power over his 24 years in office.

In late July, he was found guilty of criminal contempt by a federal judge for a direct violation of a 2011 federal order demanding he cease his unconstitutional and racist policies detaining Latinx drivers simply because they lacked legal status. Despite the order to cease his racial profiling, Arpaio's deputies continued with the practice for at least 18 months. As a result of the conviction, Arpaio faced a possible sentence of six months in jail and a fine.

Voters also had turned Arpaio out of office, ending his stint as the longest-running sheriff of Maricopa County after six terms in office.

Appearing with Arpaio at a Phoenix rally on August 22, Trump used the occasion to lash out at critics of his initial response condemning "all sides" following the racist terrorism that killed activist Heather Heyer and injured 19 others in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier in the month.

Having been widely denounced even by members of the Republican right for his equivocation of anti-racists in Charlottesville with neo-Nazis, Trump made a point to signal that a pardon for Arpaio--known primarily for his anti-immigrant crackdowns and "tough on crime" policies--was forthcoming. "Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?" Trump asked the crowd to whoops and cheers.

"I won't [pardon him] tonight because I don't want to cause any controversy," Trump said, adding, "I'll make a prediction: I think he's going to be just fine."

Coming after the events in Charlottesville and the widespread denunciation of his response to it, Trump's Phoenix rally was a spectacle designed to throw red meat to a racist base. (Adding a final callous touch, Trump would later explain to reporters that he made the formal announcement about the pardon for Arpaio on August 25 as Hurricane Harvey was making landfall in Texas and hundreds of thousands of people were scrambling for safety because he "assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.")

THE OFFICIAL announcement of Trump's pardon for Arpaio also was denounced (though in less forceful terms) by some members of his own party, including Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain, as well as by Democrats. Many of the criticisms amounted to issues over procedure, however, not about Arpaio's racist crimes. Instead, several critics of Trump's pardon citied his breaking with tradition by granting a pardon early in his presidency, or the fact that he did it without the customary review by the Justice Department.

Though some commenters and legal analysts have suggested that Trump's pardoning of Arpaio might even be an impeachable offense that violates the system of checks and balances between the executive and judicial branches of government, others say the president has wide constitutional authority to grant pardons--even if the act in this case is especially reprehensible and self-serving.

Using a presidential pardon to bypass the court's ability to enforce the law, Trump's creation of a separate system of justice for those who belong to his bigoted brand of politics is already facing a legal challenge, and there is the outside chance that it could develop into a constitutional crisis down the road.

Trump's pardoning of a champion of the anti-immigrant right like Arpaio signals a refusal to be cowed in the administration's escalating attacks on undocumented immigrants. It also sends a clear message to law enforcement officials across the country that the Trump administration will continue to back police against the fight for accountability for racist police brutality. (In fact, after pardoning Arpaio, the Trump administration announced it would be lifting an Obama-era regulation restricting local police departments from purchasing surplus military hardware.)

Trump also might be thinking about what it will take to survive the ongoing investigation into his pre-election antics with Russia--and could be sending a not-so-subtle message that the man in the White House is willing to pardon those who will stand by his side in that case. As Robert Bauer, a law professor at New York University and former White House counsel, argued in the Washington Post, Trump's pardon of Arpaio may be a "test run for shutting down the Russia investigation."

"Trump seems to believe that the pardon power is so 'complete' that it is his ace in the hole, his ultimate protection," wrote Bauer.

HOW IS it possible that in Arpaio's 24-year-long stint as sheriff he hasn't previously faced imprisonment for his openly discriminatory practices?

Arpaio exists as an extreme manifestation of what has been a bipartisan assault on undocumented immigrants and the promotion of harsh "tough-on-crime" penalties. His record of unchecked abuses can only be understood as stemming from a society where both mass deportation and mass incarceration are official policy.

Throughout the course of his presidency, for example, Barack Obama deported more people than all other presidents of the 20th century combined--2.5 million were expelled from the U.S. from 2009-2015 alone. The "Deporter in Chief" justified deportations as an issue of criminality. That set the tone for people like Arpaio to carry out even more right-wing anti-immigrant policies at a local level.

After all, if "crime" was a good enough excuse to deport millions, then what was the harm in Arpaio housing thousands of alleged "criminal immigrants" in his Tent City prison camp?

Arpaio's actions turned him into a right-wing hero who was seen as doing the "government's job" with a patriotic zeal that today's growing far right finds admirable. His celebrity and his media-fueled, attention-seeking stunts garnered him national attention that served to funnel millions of dollars in support from around the country for his various re-election campaigns.

Reveling in the scandals he whipped up, Arpaio traveled across the country to endorse anti-immigrant politicians and speak at Tea Party rallies and other right-wing events. As a result, he raised some $7 million for his fifth re-election campaign in 2012 with funds mostly from donors outside of Arizona.

In 2016, despite raising $12.6 million for his sixth re-election campaign and outspending his rival, Paul Penzone, by an 11-to-1 margin, Arpaio lost the election. Voters rejected him because of his close association with Trump, but he also had run afoul of fiscal conservatives, having cost Maricopa County more than $140 million in civil rights settlements and payouts to the victims of his policies.

Another major reason for Arpaio's loss belongs to the efforts of local Arizona activists who launched sustained campaigns to unseat him. The BaztaArpaio campaign, to name one example, brought together hundreds of volunteers--many of them high school students--who were themselves subjected to the terror of Arpaio's checkpoints, raids and immigration sweeps that targeted their parents and family members in the run-up to the election. Arpaio's reign of terror brought together local community groups, labor unions and NGO's to relentlessly canvass thousands of homes to vote against him, and high school students organized walkouts to canvass against both Arpaio and Trump.

Though Trump's victory tempered the celebrations of their unseating of Arpaio, the involvement of high school students in the anti-Arpaio campaign help lay the groundwork for some of the student walkouts that captured national attention in the days following Trump's election.

Many of these activists were livid to hear about Trump's pardon of Arpaio. At a press conference organized by the Puente Human Rights Movement in response to Trump's pardon, undocumented DREAM activist Viridiana Hernandez, who risked deportation in 2012 when she declared her undocumented status and was arrested in front of Arpaio, told reporters:

I'm angry. What Trump did today was pardon racism, white supremacy, and okayed the terror that Arpaio caused in separating our families and making children live in fear. He is sending a very clear message that this is okay and allowing all the other racist law enforcement agencies to feel like they can do this. We have fought for decades and we are not done fighting.

WHEN ALEXANDER Hamilton proposed the idea of the presidential pardon as part of the constitutional framework, he justified it with the idea that it could be a power used by the executive branch to stem further polarization in a divided country. George Washington pardoned participants in the Whiskey Rebellion, Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers and Barack Obama used it to pardon whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Presidential pardons have also had the effect of helping preserve the legitimacy of a tarnished political system and shutting down investigation into illegal activities (as when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon).

Of course, there have always been presidents who have used the power of a pardon for self-serving or personal aims--like when Bill Clinton pardoned his brother Roger over drug charges (even as his administration enforced policies that warehoused low-level drug offenders in prison), or George W. Bush pardoned a number of savings and loan executives (many of them from Texas).

Continuing to trample over every accepted norm political elites have abided by, Trump's pardon of America's most-hated sheriff actually reinforces political polarization. By pardoning Arpaio, Trump has sent his far-right supporters the message that their vile xenophobia has the backing of the highest office in the country.

The white supremacist violence that led to the murder of Heather Heyer may have furthered Trump's political isolation from the mainstream, but his doubling down on denouncing left-wing protesters in the days since the attack in Charlottesville, and now his pardon of Arpaio, suggests that he will continue to lean heavily on his far-right base for its toxic support.

Such rhetoric has real-world consequences, emboldening the most reactionary elements in the U.S. and giving them a hearing that can increase their numbers. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, while 83 percent of Americans believe holding white supremacist views are unacceptable, 9 percent said they are acceptable.

For the left, the stakes are high. The need to build solidarity for victims of police brutality and the immigrant community; to answer the racist bigots with mass marches anywhere they try to mobilize; and to put forward an alternative to the economic devastation that enables the politics of despair has never been more necessary if we want to stop more Arpaios and Trumps from feeling confident to wage their campaigns of hate across the country.

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