WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff whose aggressive efforts to hunt down and detain unauthorized immigrants made him a national symbol of the divisive politics of immigration and earned him a criminal contempt conviction.
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.”
Arpaio responded an hour later, thanking Trump and calling his conviction “a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama Justice Department.” He also pointed his supporters to a website that was accepting donations to help him pay off his legal fees.
Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a signature campaign issue and had pressed for local officials to do more to assist federal authorities in rounding up unauthorized immigrants, had been openly flirting with the idea of pardoning Arpaio.
“I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy,” the president said Tuesday night at a campaign-style rally in Phoenix, after asking, “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?”
“I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine,” Trump said.
Arpaio, 85, served for 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County — which includes Phoenix — building a national reputation for harsh conditions in his county jail, and for his campaign against unauthorized immigrants.
Arpaio had touted himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” making inmates wear pink underwear and serving jail food that at least some prisoners called inedible. He was also at the forefront of the so-called birther movement that aimed to investigate former president Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
The criminal conviction grew out of a lawsuit filed a decade ago charging that the sheriff’s office regularly violated the rights of Latinos, stopping people based on racial profiling, detaining them based solely on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally, and turning them over to immigration authorities.
A federal district judge ordered Arpaio in 2011 to stop detaining people based solely on suspicion of their immigration status. But the sheriff insisted his tactics were legal. He was convicted last month of criminal contempt of court for defying the order, a misdemeanor.
The pardon was swiftly condemned on Twitter by Democrats in Congress as “outrageous and completely unacceptable” and a “disgrace.”
Its timing also raised eyebrows, coming as Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, was bearing down on coastal Texas.
Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, hailed the pardon as a sign the president was keeping his campaign pledge to crack down on illegal immigration.
Trump on Friday also directed the Pentagon to ban the recruitment of openly transgender people, but he is leaving it to military leaders to determine whether individuals already in the armed forces should be allowed to continue to serve.
The presidential memorandum signed by Trump will also prevent the military from providing medical treatment for sex reassignment treatments.
In another development, Trump attacked a fellow Republicany, taunting Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman questioned the president’s stability and competence. Corker became the fifth GOP senator this month to draw Trump’s ire.
Also Friday, White House aide Sebastian Gorka, an ally of ousted aide Steve Bannon, resigned as a top counterterrorism adviser to Trump.
In excerpts from his resignation letter, Gorka wrote that ‘‘the individuals who most embodied and represented the policies that will ‘Make America Great Again,’ have been internally countered, systematically removed, or undermined in recent months.’’Material from the Associated Press and The Washington Post was used in this report.