WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio shows a lack of regard for an independent judiciary, say critics who note Trump’s past criticism of federal judges, including the chief justice of the United States. Supporters counter that the veteran law enforcement officer deserved America’s gratitude, “not the injustice of a political witch hunt.”
“I am pleased to inform you that I have just granted a full Pardon to 85 year old American patriot Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He kept Arizona safe!,” Trump tweeted late Friday after the White House announced that he had used his pardon power for the first time, sparing a political ally the prospect of jail time for defying court orders to halt police patrols that focused on Latinos.
The announcement came as Trump hunkered down at the Camp David presidential retreat while millions along the Texas coast braced themselves for Hurricane Harvey’s impact. Trump’s decision also followed the uproar that ensued after he said “both sides” were responsible for deadly violence during race-fueled clashes this month in Charlottesville, Va.
There is no legal dispute over Trump’s ability to pardon in a contempt of court case, as was Arpaio’s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1925 that a presidential pardon for a criminal contempt of court sentence was within the powers of the executive, and Trump had telegraphed his move for days. But the pardon was unusual given that Arpaio was awaiting sentencing. It also had not gone through the normal pardon process, which includes reviews by the Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that Trump had asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions last spring whether it would be possible for the government to drop the criminal case against Arpaio. After being advised that would be inappropriate, Trump decided to let the case go to trial and, if Arpaio were convicted, could grant clemency later, the Post reported.
The Post reported that when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the Trump-Sessions conversation about Arpaio’s case, she responded: “It’s only natural the president would have a discussion with administration lawyers about legal matters. This case would be no different.”
Reaction to Trump’s pardon was sharp and swift, including among some fellow Republicans with whom the president has been feuding openly.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., signaled his disagreement with the pardon through his spokesman. “Law-enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States,” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said in a statement. “We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said: “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.”