WASHINGTON — President Trump was in the early throes of the Ukraine scandal that would lead to his impeachment last year when he sought to counter the controversy by surrounding himself with loyal supporters who embody law and order: sheriffs from around the country.
Assembled for a photo outside the White House on a humid September afternoon, they greeted him with boisterous cheers, some hollering “We’ve got your back, Mr. President.”
Trump then delivered a barrage against Democrats, accusing them of wanting open borders, drugs, and crime. Applauding his words and handing him a plaque in appreciation of his commitment to public safety was one of his most avid backers — a Massachusetts sheriff who within weeks would be announced as honorary chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in the state.
“I know when I speak for these sheriffs and America’s sheriffs across the country that you’ve done more in two years than the past administrations could accomplish in 20 years,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson before the crowd broke out in chants of “U-S-A.”
No president in recent memory has elicited the enthusiasm of the nation’s sheriffs quite like Trump, who brought many of them into his 2016 presidential campaign and has made them central players in his hardline policies on immigration. Many of them in turn have stood unwaveringly behind the president, even as he has sparred with other uniformed officials, including federal law enforcement officers and military generals.
It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Trump has been able to cloak himself in the support of officials who represent his tough-on-crime image while the sheriffs — a group that is mostly white and often are politically powerful in their rural, conservative communities — have gained an ally in the White House.
“We had been marginalized by the previous administration,” Hodgson said in an interview. “He has given us our footing back.”’
Over the past three years, Trump has invited sheriffs to more than a dozen televised roundtables and meetings at the White House and visited their counties at least half a dozen more times for news conferences and other appearances with them. The meetings have provided sheriffs a platform to air their concerns on opioids abuse and the need for mental health resources in jails and other law enforcement topics.
Those events also have helped Trump and sheriffs on the far right of the ideological spectrum to drive the narrative on illegal immigration — an issue the president often turns to when facing political blowback. For their part, the sheriffs have been among his fiercest defenders and proselytizers, taking to the media to amplify his vitriolic anti-immigrant rants.
For Trump, the sheriffs’ provide a powerful symbolic appeal to his Republican base, political analysts said. The word “sheriff” evokes images of five-pointed gold star badges and tough-on-crime lawmen. But their support also is important because they are elected officials who directly influence policy in their counties. Through the local jails they administer, sheriffs can control what access federal immigration officers have to the information and citizenship status of hundreds of thousands of people booked into such facilities.
“Sheriffs have a lot of discretion and power, particularly in areas like immigration where the federal government has devolved a lot of authority to the local level,” said Mirya Holman, an associate professor of political science at Tulane University.
Sheriffs departments also extend the reach of federal immigration officials. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement “is a very small agency, and it has very little capacity to conduct its job, but hand in hand with the sheriffs, they can do much more,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
In Bristol County, which includes Taunton and New Bedford, Hodgson has unsuccessfully tried to send inmates from his jail to build the wall Trump is seeking along the Mexican border, and he regularly lambastes immigrants who have crossed into the country illegally.
“The people here illegally are not going to be our eyes and ears,” said Hodgson, who often corresponds with Trump’s immigration adviser, Stephen Miller. “We are not going to create a special class of people for people who didn’t want to respect the law.”
Relations between sheriffs and the White House weren’t always so cozy.
Under the Obama administration, they balked at the expansion of their role in federal immigration enforcement, mounted a local sovereignty movement against federal gun laws following the Newtown school shooting, and complained of being relegated to the sidelines amid a national push to address the disproportionate use of force against black men and women.
The clashes came as Obama sought to tread a delicate balance between the concerns of law enforcement and those of activists seeking to overhaul a criminal justice system that is increasingly intertwined with immigration and that has disproportionately criminalized blacks and Latinos.
Reform efforts in recent years have given rise to a wave of progressive prosecutors and urban police chiefs across the country.
Yet, many sheriffs have been holdouts to change. They tend to represent more rural and conservative areas, where they are the only law enforcement authorities for miles. Out of more than 3,000 members of sheriffs nationwide, more than 93 percent were white and roughly 99 percent were men as of 2018, according to a study by Holman and Emily Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University.
Racism and racial divisions sparked by Obama’s presidency were immediately apparent among sheriffs’ ranks. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, promoted the false conspiracy theory that Obama’s birth certificate was fake and he was really born in Africa. Others trace the sour relations with his administration to a “Beer Summit” that Obama held with a black Harvard professor and the white law enforcement officer who arrested him in his Cambridge home, which angered many sheriffs because Obama criticized the officer’s actions.
But perhaps, the most tense divisions were over Obama’s approach to immigration.
His administration expanded federal programs that allowed sheriff’s departments to share databases with federal immigration authorities, detain immigrants for deportation, and deputize certain officers to interview immigrants. But as immigration lawyers and immigrant rights groups took the local departments to court over civil rights violations, some sheriffs said they felt deserted.
“It was kind of like, ‘Sort it out amongst yourselves,’ even though sheriffs are the ones getting sued,” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Florida.
With broader immigration reform stymied in Congress, sheriffs clamored for more border security resources, and a growing contingent of sheriffs began forming relationships with the anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes some of the most hardline stances against illegal immigration.
Launching his campaign in 2016, Trump, a leader in the birther movement against Obama, quickly captured the support of many sheriffs by touting himself as a “law and order” candidate, calling for a border wall and endorsing hardline immigration policies.
Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt over “a tent city” for immigrants he brazenly described as “a concentration camp,” boasts he was with Trump from the beginning.
“We see eye to eye, and I stick with him every day no matter what happens, and that is the way it is,” he said in an interview, rejecting allegations he had racially profiled Latinos. In 2017, Trump pardoned Arpaio, whose facility was criticized as overcrowded and inhumane.
Soon after taking office, Trump sought to increase collaboration between sheriffs and federal immigration officials and waged legal battles against “sanctuary” laws enacted by states and cities to shield people from deportation. His administration moved to reverse Obama-era policies that attempted to limit the assets local law enforcement departments seize in criminal cases and the surplus gear they receive from the military — equipment that included weapons and armored vehicles but also goggles, life vests, and other items that sheriffs from smaller agencies said were crucial for responding to weather disasters and emergencies.
Legal fights with sanctuary cities and states have threatened the federal grant funds that border sheriffs had asked Obama to expand and, facing heat from activists, some sheriffs in more liberal areas are opposing policies that could prevent witnesses and victims who are undocumented immigrants from coming forward in criminal cases.
But mostly, sheriffs say, they feel like Trump hears them.
“He has opened the door to law enforcement, to sheriffs, letting us speak to him whenever there are issues in our given areas,” said Marc Dannels, sheriff of Cochise County in Arizona, pointing to his own appointment to the Homeland Security Advisory Council in 2018.
For Trump, he’s eager to tout the support from the sheriffs.
“I’m a big fan of the people alongside of me,” he said, after receiving the plaque from Hodgson at the White House in September. “I’m a big fan.”