Depending on which Founding Father or long-ago Supreme Court justice you cite, the president of the United States has pardon power to provide mercy in case of an overly harsh criminal code; to provide justice to the wrongfully convicted; and to help the country heal after particularly brutal periods of unrest. Nowhere will you find it is supposed to be used to undermine the law and codify the mistreatment of a group of people based on their ethnicity.
Because it is nearly unquestioned, maybe no other presidential power reveals and relies upon the character of the person in White House as much. That’s why Donald Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio is so disturbing and damaging.
Trump is far from the first president to issue a questionable pardon. Andrew Johnson pardoned every Confederate soldier. Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother, who had been convicted on drug-related charges, and billionaire Mark Rich, who had been accused of tax evasion and fraud and had fled the country. George H.W. Bush pardoned a Pakistani drug dealer, as well as Caspar Weinberger, a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair. Jimmy Carter commuted Patty Hearst’s prison sentence for a bank robbery conviction and Clinton fully pardoned her. (Clinton also pardoned NASCAR legend Rick Hendrick.) Barack Obama pardoned the still-unrepentant Oscar Lopez Rivera, who helped lead bombings in the 1970s that killed six in a fight for Puerto Rican independence.
Trump’s pardon of Arpaio stands out among them all because it is a direct rebuke to a federal judge who was preparing to sentence the ousted sheriff for ignoring federal orders to stop racially profiling Latinos in Arizona. He routinely had people arrested, without evidence, because he and his deputies suspected they might be undocumented, and housed them in detention centers that activists – and even Arpaio – compared to concentration camps. His pardon means he won’t serve a single day in prison, unlike Chelsea Manning, who served seven years behind bars for leaking documents, and comes during an already racially sensitive period in our country’s history. Trump did not wait the usual five years to pardon Arpaio, nor did he tell his Justice Department to conduct the kind of background investigation that is routine before most pardons are issued.
The Phoenix New Times detailed Arpaio’s disturbing history in a series of stories and tweets, including his unlawful arrests of reporters, his hiring of a private investigator to track a federal judge, his failure to investigate hundreds of child sexual abuse cases, and his stewardship of facilities that had an unusually high number of deaths.
Most tellingly, the pardon comes after Trump reportedly asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions if the Arpaio case could be scuttled. It’s the second high-profile criminal case in which Trump might have tried to obstruct. The pardon, along with the Trump administration’s decision to scale back law enforcement oversight and Congress’s refusal to rein the president in, sends a clear message: that lawlessness, in service of well-connected men and to the detriment of already-vulnerable people, is quickly becoming the rule, not the exception.